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Spacious mind

I was about 10 or 11, lying on my back in the grass. It was a Saturday afternoon in the early Fall and I was at my friend Ronnie's house. He had been called inside by his mother and I lingered outside, collapsed after another vigorous game of football, our mutual obsession. A sweet tiredness suffused the body, and the smell of grass and soil filled my senses. A rich blue sky spread out in all directions. A few clouds wandered through the scene, like characters from another play, all dressed up with powdery whiteness. A small private plane droned, sounding more like a lawn mower, slowly working its way across the open space. Its pace was a persistent crawl, patiently mowing a narrow path across the expansive field. Occasionally a dim roar came up, the crowd at the high school football game across town. It was so strange to hear, a muffled rasp, so different at this distance. I lay on my back, just looking and listening and smelling the earth underneath me.

I soaked up the delight and magic of it all. There was nothing I needed to do, nowhere to get to, nothing to change. I had no plans, and no opinions. I didn't think of it then, but this was an early experience of mindfulness, and spacious mind. I was open and curious, nothing to defend or defend against, and totally present.

Buddhist teachings suggest that the essence of the mind is open and spacious, like the vast sky. But this delightful emptiness gets crowded and cluttered for most of us, with mental activity. The mind becomes increasingly populated with mental stuff as we move into adulthood- information, opinions, memories, plans, and judgments, all regurgitating in an almost-non-stop churn of thinking.

Our mental churning is often painfully preoccupied with one question in particular, that it obsesses over much of the time: Am I good, lovable and acceptable? While this is normative, the basic human condition, it's also frazzling and debilitating. We can rarely get a moment of peace in the mental space. We worry about ourselves, judge ourselves, feel guilty, and doubt we can get what we need and doubt we can ever feel content. Then, we may internally berate ourselves for overthinking, which we know is unhelpful. But it's really not our fault, but an evolutionary quirk or consequence of how our species developed. As thinking solved problems for our early ancestors- such as tool making, the use of fire and shelter, etc.- it became naturally reinforced.

More thinking = more problems solved = more comfort = naturally reinforced tendency to prioritize conceptual thinking.

Our species rose from average status to atop the food chain, and domination of the planet, with the occasional exception of an infectious virus or two. Thinking got us here.

But there's one catch: The mind didn't evolve an off-switch. We suffer from overthinking, much like the way developed societies now experience rampant obesity from an overabundance of easily obtainable low-quality food. Our minds are full of junk food. We worry about the future, concoct jealous fantasies about our love falling for someone else, compare ourselves unhelpfully with others, judge or even hate people who look different from us, and hold entire conversations in our heads.

We often try to “solve” or fix these patterns with strategies, such as control, that are well-suited to the external world, but work poorly with internal experiences like emotions and thoughts. We learn to control our vehicles on the highway and steer our bicycles, but alas we can't control the mind and emotions. Trying to solve the problems the mind focuses on is exhausting, like pushing a boulder up a hill or holding our finger in the dike. Try as we might to control or battle our thoughts, it's generally a losing game.

Finally, the world and our need to carve out our place in it is so complex and busy, that we reinforce the habit of constant mental activity just trying to keep up with what the world throws at us. And of course these days when there are moments of inactivity, like standing in line at the supermarket, or when the day's activities are done in the evening, we reach for the pocket clutterer, the digital device. We're so used to the mental busyness that silence and space often feel weird, disturbing, even threatening. We end up keeping mental silence at arm's length, though we also crave it.

The thinking mind is the 500-pound gorilla, the proverbial blessing and curse. The great promise of meditation is that we can slowly, methodically rediscover the spacious mind, because it's never really been lost- it's just paved over.

In my experience as a therapist and meditation teacher, it seems that most people who seek therapy are ultimately after help with relentless mental churn. The mind produces self-judgment, self-worry, and self-predictions of one negative outcome or another. Most of the distress I see in my clients is driven by the mercilessly efficient, tireless thinker in the head. Helpless to switch off the thinking, they're left to swat at thoughts like a roomful of flies. But they continuously repopulate.

These stressful thoughts produce bodily stress and difficult emotions, like anxiety and depressed moods. The distress is then coming from both mind and body. It's easy to feel overwhelmed by it.

Therapy can help with this of course. We can understand our moods and thoughts, and the personal history that helped create them. Yet the primary benefit of most therapy, insight, isn't enough to stop the mind from spinning, and emotions from reacting. There's no way to entirely escape mental and emotional distress. Freud sardonically hinted at this when he wrote that the goal of therapy is to "return the patient to a state of ordinary unhappiness."

Meditation proposes that there is a reliable well-being that therapy can't generally provide. It's not a state exactly, but a way of being. Meditation and mindfulness practices show us the doorway in.

Rather than resolving the mental and emotional churn, we learn in meditation to step back from it, finding a new point of view, which we refer to as mindfulness. We slowly make it more of a habit to notice our thoughts and feelings, and relate to them, rather than "from" them. We learn to view them as internal events, rather than truths about who we are. From this perspective, we experience simply noticing thoughts and feelings, and allowing them to be present. We practice accepting them, rather than struggling with them.

This slowly reveals a spacious, open quality in our mind, the part of the mind, like the sky, through which all our thoughts and emotions pass. We gradually re-orient ourselves in a subtle but important way. We still notice the emotional storms, and they are still powerful, but we begin to notice, and identify with, the open sky where the storms play out.

As this slowly becomes more familiar, there is new sense of ease, and well-being. Our fear of our own moods begins to slip away, and our thoughts have less power over us. The sky, we find, is not afraid of the weather.


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