Sunday, August 22, 2010

Runaway Train

How do you stop a runaway train? How do you break that racing chain of thoughts and worries and plans and schemes? How do you stop the spinning kaleidoscope of all-possible-scenarios that flood the mind’s eye with a dizzying array of fragmented colors and lines that lead nowhere? If the mind is such a powerful part of life, why do we over-think everything to death?

From the perspective of evolutionary biology, it makes sense that the early human beings who worried a lot and excelled at imagining elaborate worst-case-scenarios would have a better chance of survival. The hyper-vigilant hominid perpetually anxious about whether or not there was a saber-toothed tiger in the bushes was far more likely to survive and pass on his genes than his more lackadaisical brother, you know, the one they call “Tiger Food”. Traits like the capacity to worry were naturally selected by the process of evolution. The result? Modern humans have an inordinate capacity to vividly imagine every conceivable negative outcome and spend a lot of time worrying about the worst possible future, a place where everything goes wrong, everything is lost and everyone hates you. Early humans who worried about scarcity of resources would work harder to store up food. They would envision future problems and work hard to prevent them by creating elaborate plans. As a result, they would be far more likely to survive than their live-for-today neighbors who never worried about a thing and died from easily preventable missteps. We are the children of worriers.

So here’s the problem. We modern humans have plenty of food and adequate shelter and extremely long odds on the possibility of saber-toothed tiger attack, yet we still carry around with us this vestigial and irrelevant conditioning. Our capacity for worry and fear far outstrips our actual risk factors. The mind, once our greatest asset, is now our greatest liability.

Have you ever woken up at three in the morning, mind racing, thoughts crowding, worries bearing down on you like angry bees? It’s dark. Everyone’s asleep. You’re lying there perfectly safe in your bed. You’re not thirsty and you don’t have to pee. There’s nowhere to go and nothing to do. And yet there you are, adrenalin-sopped, heart racing, blood pounding, desperately envisioning endless possible negative outcomes, inventing problems and emotionally inhabiting them for absolutely no reason whatsoever. It’s all just conditioning playing itself out, echoes of once-useful impulses. There are no saber-toothed tigers.

Maybe it’s time to turn these giant brains of ours back on themselves. Maybe we should do a little thinking about thinking.

The first thing you have to do is laugh. It’s all sort of silly how the thought-stream sucks us into a vortex of anxiety despite the absence of any legitimate cause. And when you laugh, the death-grip of the mind is loosened. I always worry a little when I visit churches or synagogues or mosques or classrooms or satsangs where no one’s laughing, where a desperately serious and self-important air hangs over the entire room and every soul in it. Without laughter, people too easily fall prey to the ever-pervasive thought-stream. When we laugh, the whole charade is exposed and we, for a moment anyway, return to our original selves, free and easy, as we were before these giant brains took over. That’s why laughing feels so good. It is a glimpse of freedom.

The second thing to do is decide to set into motion some different patterns. Now that the shackles of the busy mind are no longer hidden, it’s time to search for the right key to unlock them for good. Techniques like meditation, centering prayer, physical exercise, music, dance, immersion in the beauty of nature, practicing loving kindness toward others – these are all proven and effective methods for breaking the tyranny of the thought-stream. There are also a whole host of other remedies that are far less effective: television, shopping, drugs, alcohol or any other form of sensual escapism. The problem with these “solutions” is that they tend to create as many or more problems than they solve. Some people realize this after the first bong hit. For others, it takes thirty years of addiction for the bloom to fade from the rose.

My friend the spiritual teacher Will Newsom uses the analogy of a compass. When we are trapped in the thought-stream, drowning in currents of worry and fear, it’s as if our compass needle is jitterbugging all over the place. How do we get the needle to settle back to truth north? How do we restore our original inner-peace, our naturally joyful equilibrium? We cannot force the needle to go where we want it. In other words, you can’t solve the problem of over-thinking with more thinking. “A problem cannot be solved,” said Einstein, “with the same consciousness that created it.” Like trying to see your own eyes or bite your own teeth, we cannot cure the mind with the mind.

Wayne Dyer writes that a sign he saw on the wall of a church basement where he attended his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting burned into his psyche like a brand: “Our best thinking got us here.” Relying on the mind to cure the problems of the mind is a fool’s errand.

Does it help to replace bad thinking with good thinking? Certainly. Does it help to set positive intentions and craft a plan of action? Naturally. Right thinking is a necessary preliminary step in the process of restoring sanity. But it is only a preliminary step. Right thinking alone is insufficient.

Instead, Newsom and many others suggest a far simpler approach.

Quiet down, rest in the silence and wait.

You don’t have to fix anything or solve any problems. That’s just more mental manipulation. Instead, sink beneath the mind. For most people, meditation and centering prayer are the best paths to this goal and are profoundly effective if given a chance. When we meditate or practice centering prayer, we practice presence in this now moment and drop down beneath the level of thought. Deepak Chopra calls it entering the gaps between thoughts. Don’t try to stop your thoughts. Resisting them only makes them stronger. Instead, simply notice them, laugh, and settle down like a rock sinking to the bottom of a pool and watch your thoughts slide by above you on the surface as if you were watching clouds drift by in the sky. You are not the clouds; you are not your thoughts. In the content-free, thoughtless silence your compass needle will naturally return to true north all by itself, through no effort of your own. In the same way that we do not consciously digest our own food, grow our own hair or heal our own cuts, inner peace is not an achievement of the mind. It happens only when you break free from the tyranny of the mind.

Great spiritual teachers from Jesus to Yoda all make the same promise: peace is possible – as individuals, as families, as communities and as a planet – if we somehow learn to get off of this crazy, runaway train.