Navigating the Minefield of the Mindstuff
You only have to look at news on your cell phone or pick up a newspaper to realize there is a great deal of fear and anxiety out there. Sadly, there is a great deal of misinformation, too. Regardless of the truthfulness, the onslaught of information plays on our instincts for survival and heightens our stress levels. (If you haven’t yet watched the Netflix’s original documentary, The Social Dilemma, I highly recommend it to understand how social media and the internet play on our fears.) It’s hard to know what is real and what is media hype and so our anxiety level continues to rise.
Fear and The Limbic Brain
Our limbic brain, the most primitive part of the brain, is designed to recognize danger and keep us safe. When our minds perceive danger all around in terms of threats from global warming, economic uncertainty, political unrest and physical dangers posed by deadly viruses, we become stressed, anxious and fearful. Our blood pressure, heart rate and breathing become more rapid, and our bodies secrete more cortisol in preparation to flee or fight. Whether real or perceived, it’s easy to become embroiled in our thoughts and beliefs regarding the state of the world.
No doubt there is much to be concerned about, but if we examine our lives more closely, we realize that most of us are fairly safe. Consider this: basic necessities such as clean air, water, shelter and food, are readily available. Most of us have sufficient economic resources to cover the purchase of these necessities. We don’t live in a country torn by war or famine and have access to health care, transportation, the internet and more. Yet, we feel unsafe as we attempt to navigate the minefield of information that warns of imminent disaster on all levels of society.
Understanding Our Mindstuff
Religious traditions and philosophers have long offered tools for navigating these minefields of fear, doubt and anxiety. In particular, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali begins by addressing the nature of this “mind-stuff”:
Yoga Sutra 1.2: Yogash citta vritti nirodha.
Translation: Yoga is the cessation of the modifications, or fluctuations, of the mind.
Citta (pronounced CHIT-ah) is the mind. It is the repository of our thoughts and feelings, or the “content” of your mind. Many types of content fill your consciousness—your perceptions of an object or person, thoughts, memories, feelings, even dreams. This content parades through your mind with hardly a moment’s rest in waves (vritti). Not surprisingly, we tend to identify closely with this content which becomes grist for our ego’s mill, driving the fluctuations of our daily emotional rollercoaster. Yoga practices serve to calm or control these waves of thoughts (nirodhah).
The ancient yogis often described the mind as being similar to a monkey bitten by a scorpion. Imagine the wild movement of the monkey jumping from branch to branch attempting to rid itself of pain. Not hard to imagine, is it? It’s a great simile for the nature of our minds.
Calming Our Monkey Minds
So how do we quiet our erratic, fearful thoughts and navigate the minefield of our mind-stuff? In a word, meditation. Meditation allows us to become the observer, or witness, of our mind-stuff and ask the question, “Is this real?” It is a tool for sorting through the 6,000+ thoughts we have each day.
But aren’t you supposed to empty your mind when you meditate? Contrary to the belief of many non-meditators, our minds don’t cease to think when we meditate. Instead, meditators attempt to examine the thoughts as separate from the thinker. Often in meditation we ask, “Who is thinking these thoughts?” When we recognize that the thinker is separate and that thoughts can’t harm us, suddenly we find a place of tranquility and steadiness. The benefits are enormous and much research has been devoted to understanding the effects of meditation on the brain.
Meditation: Start Small
Want to try meditation but not sure how to start? There are lots of resources available (for a beginner’s guide to meditation, read my blog, “Ready, Set, Meditate!“). A meditation practice doesn’t need to be complicated. Even sitting still for one minute and focusing on your breath can help you start to calm that internal monkey mind. We can’t change the craziness of the world around us, but we have the power to master the minefield of our anxious minds.
Sending love and light,