Do you feel trapped in your head—overwhelmed by the mind’s incessant chatter and unable to break free?
Does your mind have a mind of its own, relentlessly replaying the same old patterns over and over, day in, day out, like broken records— stories of past hurts, future concerns, indecisiveness, unworthiness, victimhood—whatever your own particular dilemma is?
You’d love to be able to pull the plug — to get some peace, calm and rest— but how on earth is that possible with all this noise and constant drama going on between your ears?
I can clearly remember just how painful, frustrating and exhausting it was to feel trapped in my head with no (apparent) way out. I tried so many ways to break free.
And then, on a 6-month meditation retreat, a surprising and unexpected breakthrough happened.
I learned something about the mind that I hadn’t seen before…something that changed everything.
In this article, I’d like to share a few simple insights that helped me tremendously in overcoming the pain and frustration of feeling trapped in my mind.
Step Back And Be Aware
Increased awareness is the starting point and cornerstone of any escape plan.
Most of our pain-producing thinking patterns are unconscious, automatic, and habitual. They run on autopilot.
Recognising this is the first step.
How do we bring more awareness to the mind?
Through pausing, taking a step back and observing the mind objectively.
Through recognising: “there’s the mind doing its thing and here am I, aware of it.”
Breaking free of the mind is a disentangling process, starting with the recognition that the mind is only a part of who you are. No matter what is going on in your head, there’s another part of you that remains untouched and unaffected by it.
As long as our thinking happens unconsciously and on autopilot, as it does in most people, we will remain victims of the mind and feel trapped.
Awareness is the first step to freedom.
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Expect The Mind To Be Restless and Messed Up
One of the main reasons we suffer at the hands of the mind is that we expect it to be different from how it is. We think there’s something wrong with the mind being restless, chaotic and all over the place.
And we suffer twofold as a result—first from the thoughts themselves and secondly, from our judgement of the thoughts.
What if ‘crazy, chaotic and messed up’ was simply the nature of the mind?
What if there was nothing ‘wrong’? It’s just the mind being the mind.
As you step back and watch the mind as an observer, don’t expect it to be still, calm and peaceful. This is NOT the nature of the mind (it is the nature of the observer!)
The less you fight the mind, the more peace you’ll experience.
Observe The Mind With An Inner Smile
When the mind goes off on a rant about this or that, instead of taking it over-seriously and getting taken over by judgement—getting lost in thoughts of ‘this is wrong, it shouldn’t be like this’—smile at it, as you would to a child that was being ridiculous or silly.
I learned this technique from a Buddhist monk and have always found it really powerful.
It is a great attitude to adopt, not only towards your own mind, but also towards others who act unconsciously or towards difficult situations that arise in your life.
When the mind goes off on a rant about the state of the world, about life being unfair or somebody acting like an idiot (all of which happens on autopilot due to old programming) instead of following and developing these lines of thinking into poor me victim stories, try to step back and, with an inner smile, say to yourself:
“There goes the mind again doing it’s crazy thing. It’s none of my business. I choose not to get involved.”
This is how we free ourselves from the mind. The mind doesn’t have to change or be fixed. We just have to stop getting involved, stop making it our business.
My teacher often used to say: “You suffer because you are open for business.”
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Making The Present Moment Your Business
I’d like to clarify the last statement: “Stop getting involved. Stop making thoughts your business.”
In the first session or two, I lead my coaching clients through a basic mindfulness meditation practice where the instruction is to “watch the breath as it flows in and out, breathing in to a count of 5, breathing out to a count of 5.”
As you gently focus on the breathing and the counting, the mind will continue to be active. Thoughts will appear by themselves in your awareness.
Let them come and go without resistance. Keep bringing your attention back to the breathing and the counting. THIS is your business.
The thoughts are not your business.
The main reason we feel trapped in the mind is because we don’t realise that we don’t HAVE TO engage with the mind. Thinking is not mandatory.
The mind is just one place you can choose to put your attention.
Realising this is freedom.
You Are Not Your Thoughts
You don’t suffer because of your thoughts. You suffer because you believe they are you… because you’re identified with them.
I first came across the idea that I am not my thoughts in the 90s, when I read Eckhart Tolle’s wonderful book “The Power of Now” for the first time.
The concept literally blew my mind! Or rather, it blew away my ideas and beliefs about what the mind is and my relationship with it.
True freedom from the mind comes when you realise, on a deep level, that you and your thoughts are two separate things.
I won’t go too much into this here as it’s a huge topic but the key point is that, if you see the mind as the totality of your experience, as most people do, it’s going to have a massive impact on how you feel, moment to moment.
When sad thoughts are present, you’ll announce “!’m sad”. When happy thoughts show up, you’ll say “I’m happy.” This is what identification with the mind looks like on a practical level.
Your mood and sense of wellbeing are intricately tied in with what’s going on in your mind.
When you realise your thoughts are only a small part of who you are, you can say “My mind is crazy and neurotic, but I’m doing great!”
You recognise that the thoughts don’t say anything about who YOU are.
Restless and neurotic is the nature of the mind but it will only affect your peace. if you think there’s something wrong with it.
Holding our thoughts in a bigger container makes them less important, less all-pervading, less capable of affecting our peace.