Buddhist psychology, as well as behavioral and cognitive science, acknowledge that we all suffer and that one cause is our busy, grasping mind. It’s like a Lamborghini engine, finely tuned with many powerful connections that accelerate its search for threats, problems, and dangerous outcomes.
This may have been useful 2,500 years ago but today it can rev up a lot of emotions, fears, memories, beliefs and distorted perspectives that keep us from living a meaningful, beautiful life. The mind should be your servant, not your master. Skills can be practiced to better handle the busy mind. Here are my favorite steps to cultivate an observing self:
1. Radical acceptance. Admit that spending a lot of time inside your mind is not working for you. It can prolong and intensify losses, amp up catastrophic worries and isolate us from loved ones.
2. Slow down. Aim to do one thing at a time. Bring your awareness (like a flashlight in the dark) with curiosity to this thought stream. Imagine you’re a cat watching a mouse hole. For every thought you notice, one mouse runs out of the hole. How many mice do you count in 60 seconds? (Some estimate 70,000 thoughts/day or 48/minute.)
3. Step Back. Imagine you can step away from your race –track mind and just observe from the bleachers. Watch those thoughts and hurts and shameful stories or old arguments just go round and round the track. No driving. You are not the vehicles; you are the arena.
4. Use new language. Instead of saying “I will always hate my boss,” try “My mind keeps kicking up the idea that I hate my boss.” Or “I notice my mind just keeps re-visiting that teacher who criticized me.” Or “there goes that belief again that I am overwhelmed.” Allow it. Even welcome it. Say “Hello there!” and it will be easier to observe, like a scientist and begin to lose its power.
No judging. No interpretation.
5. Practice scanning Scan objects in your room or office. Scan people’s faces at Safeway, or sensations in your hands or the vegetable you chop. Describe only what your senses report. Use your eyes, ears, nose or fingertips and describe it without evaluation or judgment. Notice any analysis: “It’s a blue chair, upholstered and wood,” not “It’s a ratty old, ugly chair that needs refinishing.” Later, turn this skill towards your thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors. Then turn this skill towards interpersonal exchanges. “Just the facts, ma’am,” as detective Jack Webb used to say on the TV show Dragnet.
6. Check in all day long. What am I aware of right now? Is this thought useful? Is this what matters most today? Soften any tense muscles to help you pause and tune into your mind with ease. If there are too many thoughts coming, try to color or doodle on a piece of paper. Stay focused on drawing and make a tally mark every time a thought shows up. This can slow down the flow so it’s easier to experience the scan.
At first, this will feel clumsy and strange but with each practice, you will soon discover the healing power of the observing self.