The practice of mindfulness — observing our thoughts, emotions and behaviours — is a useful exercise. It allows us to become more aware of our physical, emotional and mental conditioning and patterns, and demonstrates that they are always changing, and in that, reveals the opportunity for change. This revelation gives us hope that there’s a way out of our suffering, but mindfulness alone won’t get us there.
The Problem with Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a necessary first step is to becoming free of our conditioning. Noticing how our mind reacts to different situations is a great revelation. But we can’t get stuck in just noticing and labelling our thoughts and reactions. Walking around all day labelling thoughts is a great way to drive yourself crazy, and is likely to lead to a kind of disassociation from our own mind. In a lot of mindfulness approaches, you’re taught that “you are not your mind, you are not your emotions, you are not your body”. But unless we’re given an alternative, this can lead to someone feeling untethered and completely lost at sea. “If I’m not all that, what am I?” You might be told that you are the witness, but even that isn’t going far enough. The witnessing mind is just another aspect of mind.
Continually being the witness and watching “the mind”, creates a division — it’s the mind watching the mind! This is mind-fullness, more mind. It’s enough to drive anyone crazy, and it often does. It even has a name — meditation-induced psychosis. I’ve spoken to long term meditators who can’t understand why they walk around with anxiety all day and can’t sleep at night. They can’t seem to get out of their heads. I heard a shaman in the Amazon say, “the problem with gringos is simple — they think too much, they read too much. They need to get out of their heads and into their hearts”.
Solving the Problem of the Mind
Trying to solve the problem of the mind with the mind is like trying to wash a window with a dirty rag. So what’s the solution? As my teacher’s teacher TKV Desikachar said, “we need to make the heart the boss”. We need to go beyond the mind altogether, connect with the heart and listen to what the Quakers call the “still, small voice”. Not the loud and pushy voice in our head that we’re used to listening to, but the quiet murmurings of the heart. To hear it, we need to quiet our mind and simply listen.
“I have been a seeker and I still am, but I stopped asking the books and the stars. I started listening to the teaching of my Soul.” — Rumi
How Do We Do It?
We know from trying that we can’t simply turn off our mind. If we try, we get caught up in an internal battle with our thoughts that we’re always going to lose — they just keep coming! Thankfully, we’re not the first ones to struggle with the problem of the mind. Wisdom traditions from all places throughout time have developed techniques that allow us to get out of our heads and into our hearts. The first yogis discovered that steady, controlled breathing helps to quiet the mind. Chanting works. The Sufis sang and danced in circles. The Native Americans use chanting and drumming. There are many ways, and they usually involve something that at first requires focus.
A Three-Part Process
Quieting the mind is a three-part process. First, we need to give the mind something to do. For instance, we can ask it to focus on the breath. This makes the mind happy. It’s got a job to do! The second stage is when the mind starts to relax into the experience and it becomes one with the breath. This is what athletes and musicians know as the “flow state”. The mind is just flowing with the breath. The third stage is when the mind is totally relaxed and it opens and moves into a state of rest. This is the state that Patanjali refers to in his definition of yoga — “yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mindstuff”. In this final stage, we move from “doing” into just being. We are no longer observing and analyzing our experience, we’re simply resting in reality, as it’s happening — living life live. It’s here, in this quiet, restful state that we can hear the still, small voice inside.
“There is a voice that doesn’t use words, listen.” — Rumi
The Pathless Path
If we learn to listen and trust our heart, our thoughts, words and actions start to align with truth, wisdom and compassion. As Joseph Campbell said, we “follow our bliss”. And when we follow our heart, we find our passion, purpose and meaning in this life — we find our own path. This is what J Krishnamurti called the “pathless path”, because it doesn’t exist until you create it, with every step you take, clearing away everything that blocks your way forward. No spiritual book, self-help guru or life coach can tell you what your path is, but a good one knows how to guide you to finding it within yourself.
A good teacher is simply someone who’s discovered a way to their own heart, following their path and interested in helping others find their way. They’re familiar with the territory and can offer you a map or helpful tips, but you need to take the first steps and at some point, head into the woods alone, trust the compass of your heart, and forge your own path.