Last weekend, I was talking to a friend about yoga and meditation and she told me she didn’t feel like she was good at either because she could never “clear her mind.” It is a fact that we all believe that we are the proud owner of the world’s busiest mind. Every one of us is convinced that no one’s head or life is as busy as our own. However, “clearing one’s mind” is a common, but impossible directive.
In a yoga practice, one’s attention should be primarily with the breath, and then, with where one’s body is in space. When you look down at your feet and see that you desperately need a pedicure, note it. But, you can’t do anything about it in the middle of a yoga class so go back to your breath. It is not about “clearing one’s mind” at all, it is about returning your attention to where your body is, neither in the future or the past but right there on your mat.
The same is true with meditation. There is no better way to bring your “to-do” list front and center than to try and not to think about it. In meditation, we try to just watch our thoughts. Knowing that we are safely seated somewhere, we can just observe our chaotic mind, as if we were at the top of a tall building looking down on a busy street. If you find yourself so swept up in a thought or fantasy that you are no longer in the present moment, you are either in an imaginary future or a completed past.
When we meditate we are actively watching our thoughts and when they move away from the present moment we notice it by labeling it “thinking” and then return our attention to the present moment. It may be that the labeling “thinking” has made students believe that they should not be thinking, that they are chasing a state of thoughtless bliss. This is not the case at all. Thinking in and of itself is not a bad thing. Meditation is an opportunity to sit quietly and pay attention to the direction your mind is going. Can you gently steer your mind and attention back to the present? When you notice your mind has wandered, label it “thinking” and return your attention to your breath, or the sound of your feet as you walk, or your body in the water as you swim. We are practicing paying attention, which doesn’t involve having no thoughts. It means investing all our attention in what we are doing.
Just as we can place our feet on our mats, or sit on a cushion, we can also learn to place our attention where our body is, and try and develop some clarity about where our mind is going. If your habit is to put your body somewhere and let your mind race anxiously into the future or lope around in the past, then ask yourself if that is really serving you. Isn’t it better to try and keep our attention in the one place where we can actually effect change, which is the present moment?
Whether you are practicing yoga, going for a walk, or eating a meal, see if you can’t try to keep your attention on what you are doing, or at least notice when it has shifted and bring it back. It’s valuable to have clarity about where our thoughts go, but clarity is not developed by pushing our thoughts into some sort of corner where we pretend to ignore them in search of a “clear mind.” Clarity comes from watching our thoughts with a generous and loving attitude towards ourselves and making every effort to let go of anything that doesn’t serve us.
It’s easier said than done, but like anything, it’s a habit we can develop, not a superpower that’s out of our reach.