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December 10, 2015

Taming the Mind: A Deceptively Simple Trick to Bring Us into Presence.

Jeremy Cai/Unsplash

What would it be like if one of our hands moved without control, grabbing things and throwing them around, resisting our attempts to stop it?

Our mind does exactly that. It latches onto any thought, whether we want it to or not, and only with an incredible effort are we able to direct it elsewhere. When instead we want to focus on a particular object, it runs away in any direction, tossing everything about.

The mind, the most powerful organ at our disposal, is also the most undisciplined.

Clearly, gaining some sort of control over our minds is fundamental. Being someone with a hyperactive, or in Yoga slang, rajasik (fiery, agitated) mind, controlling it has always been one of my biggest challenges. Over the years, I have experimented with different methods to tame my mind, and today I want to share with you one that has been particularly successful.

On an ordinary day, as I go around doing my stuff, my mind often anticipates what’s coming next and plays it as if it was a movie on a screen. I have a name for this activity: I call it “rehearsing.”

For example, let’s say I have to meet someone for an important talk in a couple of hours. My mind will reproduce the situation again and again like a broken reel. In my head, I may be talking to that person dozens of times, making tiny variations, imagining different outcomes.

I could be rehearsing events that are days or months ahead—sometimes even my own death. Or, the lag could be much more subtle and difficult to spot, as when my mind anticipates events for only a handful of seconds. Talking to someone, and imagining what he or she is going to say next. Doing a yoga posture, and thinking about the next one.

Sound familiar?

It goes without saying that this both takes me away from the present moment and consumes mental energy. If I’m constantly rehearsing something else, chances are I won’t do a great job of whatever I’m doing now.

Does this also happen to you? Then, the first question we need to ask is, Why do we constantly anticipate things in our heads?

I believe that the word “rehearse” can give us a clue here. Why do theatre companies rehearse their scripts? Because they want to do the piece perfectly when the time of the performance comes. With our minds, it’s similar. Our mind wants to do things well, so it rehearses situations that haven’t happened yet, hoping that this will make things easier when the real moment comes.

And indeed, if we need to execute an elaborate sequence of operations, like an actor performing a piece, going through it mentally can be a great tool to refine our skill. In this sense, mental rehearsal is an important aspect of any complex training. But for everyday situations and tasks, going through an event in our head again and again gives no assurance that things will go that way when the moment comes.

There is another, even more disturbing aspect to rehearsing: When the moment comes to actually experience the situation we have imagined, we will already be rehearsing something else. During that important talk with a colleague, our mind is practicing what to say to our friends and family once we’re back home. But when we’re back home, our mind is preparing for the meeting with our colleagues tomorrow morning at work!

In this cycle, presence is forever lost. Always a few steps ahead of us, the mind is ever disturbed, never tranquil and thus, never efficient.

In short, the problem with constant rehearsing and anticipation is that the time of execution never comes. It is always rehearsal time, forever—and ever, and ever. Anticipation becomes a habit, and we become like a company that never goes on stage.

But as in many other aspects of life, understanding a pattern is the first step toward breaking free of it.

So here’s the trick that works for me and that I suggest you try for yourself.

Whenever you spot your mind rehearsing, internally utter one simple word: Stop.

This is usually enough to actually stop the rehearsal, even if just for a few minutes. The mind has a “hiccup,” and it has no choice but to come back to the present moment. Often this won’t last long, but whenever the mind starts rehearsing again, stop it.

Be gentle, but firm. Over time, non-anticipation will also become a habit.

Stopping the pattern of constant anticipation immediately brings back clarity and focus to our minds. Whatever we need to do, be it cooking, meditating, talking to a friend or admiring the sunset, we can do it with presence and awareness. Once we stop rehearsing, we become like the actor who, ready for opening night, doesn’t need to think about the script anymore.

Which is good news, because there’s no time for rehearsals—our play has already started.

It’s time to go on stage.

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Relephant Read:

Make Daily Mindfulness Easier: 1 Question to ask.

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Author: Raffaello Manacorda

Editor: Toby Israel

Photo: Jeremy Cai/Unsplash // Chiara Cremaschi/Flickr

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