By Charles A. Francis
Do you ever find it difficult to slow down your mind? For some of us, a racing mind is a serious problem. When we’re agitated, we have no control over our mind, and it becomes extremely difficult to meditate.
An agitated mind leads to stress and a whole host of health problems, such as high blood pressure and heart disease. It even disrupts our relationships and sleep.
Fortunately, there’s a simple solution to this problem. No matter how fast your mind is racing, you can learn how to cultivate a calm and serene mind, and the good news is that it’s a lot easier than you might think. The only catch is that you have to be willing to take a few simple suggestions.
Sources of Mental Agitation
Some people have the misconception that they need to calm their minds before they start meditating. They often think that they’re “the type of person” who just can’t sit still. Having a calm mind is not a matter of who you are, but rather what you do.
To understand why our minds get so agitated, it would help to understand a little about how they work. The primary mechanism by which we perceive the world is through our five senses (sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell). These are our receptors. They are connected to our brains and send us raw information about what is taking place around us at any given moment.
Each time our senses are stimulated, our brain reacts by trying to interpret the signals it receives and tries to determine the proper response. In other words, each stimulus triggers a thought, either conscious or unconscious.
There are four main sources of mental agitation: 1) Too many commitments, 2) background noise, 3) painful memories, and 4) worrying. There are short-term solutions for dealing with too many commitments and background noise. Painful memories and worrying will take more time to overcome, but they will resolve themselves through a regular meditation practice.
Too Many Commitments
Most of us are unaware that our daily activities are the primary sources of our mental agitation. Once we become aware of these sources, we can do something about them. So when people ask me how to stop their minds from racing, I tell them to start by taking their foot off the accelerator.
Some of us have too many commitments in our lives. Every waking moment of our day is packed with activities, and we never have time to rest. We all want to be productive because it gives us a sense of accomplishment and purpose. The problem with having too many commitments is that all the activities agitate our minds so much that it becomes increasingly harder to slow it down. This makes it harder to think clearly, therefore, lowering our effectiveness and productivity.
To address this problem, I suggest making a list of all your activities and commitments, including meditation. Remember that your spiritual development is important to your family’s happiness, because it will enable you to truly be there for them. Then prioritize your commitments according to how much they contribute to your and your family’s happiness, and give up the least important ones to make time for your personal needs, such as rest and meditation.
With many of our commitments, we have no choice in the short-run. We can’t quit our jobs or abandon our families, but we can consider more carefully what we truly need to survive and be happy. For example, do all our material possessions really make our family happier, or do they take us away from our loved ones? With mindfulness, we can determine the real sources of happiness and strive to incorporate them into our lives.
Background noise is another major source of mental agitation, and much of it is unnecessary. Often when we’re driving home after a busy day at work, we’ll turn on the radio in our car to help us unwind—all the while, still thinking about work or things we need to do at home, such as checking on the kids or making dinner.
When we get home, we might turn on the television while we settle in, not really paying attention to what’s on. We usually do this unconsciously to drown out the constant chatter in our mind. What we may not realize is that this background noise is agitating our mind even more, and when it becomes too much, we might pour ourselves a drink to help us relax.
Some people play the radio or television while they work, thinking this will help them concentrate. The reason this seems to help is because the extra noise prevents uncomfortable thoughts from rising to the surface, but the background noise only creates more agitation.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with watching TV or listening to the radio. The problem arises when we simply use them as background noise. Of course, we should also use some discretion concerning what we watch or listen to. Remember, whichever seeds in your mind you water, those will be the ones that grow.
I would suggest turning off the radio or television (or any other entertainment device) when you’re doing something else. This will help you concentrate on what you’re doing. Try it for a week. I think you’ll be surprised at how much of a difference it makes.
The Calming Power of Mindful Breathing
Mindful breathing is a simple tool for keeping your mind from racing out of control. Practicing mindful breathing is very easy and doesn’t take long, and it will interrupt the acceleration of your mind. This will enable you to think with greater clarity, since you’ll have less mental agitation.
All you have to do is stop occasionally and take three to five mindful breaths. You don’t have to strain to concentrate on your breathing, but rather just pay attention to it.
Mindful breathing also has other benefits. It reminds us of what we’re trying to accomplish through our meditation practice, and it brings us back to the present moment, which is where reality is always taking place. You may want to post a reminder note somewhere you’ll see it throughout the day because it’s easy to forget.
Practicing mindful walking is also very easy. Most of us do a great deal of walking through our daily activities: at home, work, school, or when tending to our family’s needs. These are all wonderful opportunities to practice mindfulness, instead of allowing ourselves to get lost in our thoughts, many of which are either worrying or simply rehashing the same thoughts repeatedly.
When doing mindful walking, we generally walk more slowly than usual. Make your walking a smooth and continuous movement, while being mindful of each step. This can have a tremendous calming effect because it forces your mind to slow down.
As with mindful breathing, simply pay attention to your walking. With each mindful step, observe the sensation on your feet, the contraction of the muscles in your legs, or even the sensations of your clothes against your skin. Not only will this calm your mind, but it will also help you return to the present moment.
One of the best opportunities to practice mindful walking is to and from our vehicles. This is usually a time when we let our minds drift, or we get on our cell phones. Instead, why not use that time to practice mindful walking? You can even do a walking meditation session for a few minutes in a park or another quiet place.
An agitated mind can make it extremely difficult to sit and meditate for any length of time. Fortunately, there are some simple solutions. Once we become aware of the sources of our agitation, we can take measures to eliminate them. The main sources of mental agitation are: too many commitments, background noise, painful memories, and worrying.
To reduce some of the activities that are over-stimulating your mind, you can make a list of them and prioritize them according to how much they truly contribute to your and your family’s happiness and well-being. Then eliminate those activities that have low priority. Remember that your presence is important to your loved ones’ happiness, and you cannot be fully present if your mind is agitated.
When you incorporate mindful breathing and mindful walking into your daily routine, it will be a major step toward taking control of your mind by improving your ability to concentrate and staying in the present moment. They will help you tremendously in calming your mind, making it much easier to sit and meditate, which will calm your mind further. Your life will become much more enjoyable because you will stop the mental agitation that is robbing you of your peace and serenity, and the harmony in your relationships.
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