Quieting the monkey mind is key to achieving inner stability.
Imagine the most peaceful state you have ever been in. Perhaps it was sitting on a beach while on vacation, far away from pressing concerns of work and daily routines. Vacations are wonderful because everyone grants their permission for you to be absent. What would it be like if you could grant yourself that permission once or twice a day, whether at work, at the dinner table, in bed with your favorite person? If you could do that, really do it, it would be like sitting on that beach.
A quiet mind usually comes spontaneously when you’re least expecting it. Perhaps your body reaches a moment of homeostasis and your brain shifts into neutral. For a brief time, you experience the no-thought state. Did you notice that it was just your thoughts that stopped and not your awareness? Losing awareness is called unconsciousness. Your thoughts stopping is called mindfulness.
When Buddha’s students asked him, “What are you?” He answered them, “I am awake!” To be fully awake, you cannot be thinking. Thoughts take you out of wakefulness. The second you start to think, mindfulness stops. Mindfulness and being awake! are the same thing. Achieving this level of awareness puts you immediately into the flow state.
Imagine that—having the ability to enter the flow state at will!
This is not as difficult as you might think. Many years ago, I was taking TaeKwonDo lessons at a prestigious school led by a 7th-degree blackbelt who had twice been the national champion of South Korea. This guy was the real deal. Whenever I had to spar with him, believe me, I was IN THE MOMENT. No thoughts were coming in. My attention was focused 100% on him. “Eye—always look eye!” as Mr. Myagi would say in Karate Kid. Nothing stabilizes your attention like an intense confrontation.
Many years before that, I was an alpine ski racer. Same thing. Pushing out of the starting gate, all thoughts left my mind. Only focused awareness. No thinking. All of the thinking had already been done during course inspection—here’s where I’m going to initiate my turn, here’s where I’m getting into my tuck position, here’s where I’m going to take a high line. But during the race, no thinking, only awareness of the snow under my skis and going as fast as possible.
The difference between awareness and thinking is that awareness is being present to what’s happening and thinking is thinking about what’s happening. Two different things. One is mindfulness, the other is not. One puts you into the flow state and the other pulls you out of it.
Does this mean we never have to think? Of course not. We have to plan our lives. But once our plans are made, executing them requires being in the moment. The better our plans, the better able we can enter the flow state. If something comes up that’s inconsistent with our plans, then and only then do we start thinking. We adjust. We pivot. We plan again.
This also doesn’t mean that we can never let our minds run free. Have a delightful conversation. Tell jokes. Speculate about the markets with a co-worker. Daydream. All of these are the stuff of an interesting, enjoyable life. But when Mr. 7th-degree blackbelt shows up, you better be on your game! Get in the moment. FAST. And to do that, you will have to start practicing. Like, now.
Here’s how you do it.
Pick a time when you are most relaxed. Relaxation is very important in this. Maybe on a Sunday morning when you don’t have to get out of bed. Your day hasn’t started yet, so you haven’t started planning. You haven’t started thinking. Get a sense of the room and then close your eyes. Pick a spot on the wall or the foot of your bed and fix your gaze upon it through your eyelids. Feel the spatial dimension between you and it.
Next, deliberately make yourself stop thinking. As Patanjali said, “Yoga is the intentional stopping of the spontaneous activity of the mind-stuff.” The keyword here is “intentional.” YOU have to do it. Your thoughts aren’t going to stop themselves. Is this difficult? It can be. But if your timing is right and you practice it often enough, it gets easier. A lot easier. Pick those times when you are most relaxed and slip into it.
The most important thing to remember is that mindfulness is about awareness, and to be aware, you have to be aware of something. There are other states of mind where you turn awareness back upon itself, where you empty it of all content. But that’s a different exercise. In this practice, we’re interested in the application of awareness, how to use it to stabilize your mind so that you can fully engage with your life.
The more you do this, the easier it will get, and you will soon be able to call upon it on demand. You will be able to enter the flow state at will.
– Michael Maciel, The Urban Mystic