I will admit that it was a surprise to me to realize that my mind was something I needed to learn to manage.
After all, I’ve always celebrated my mind. I give it credit for a lot of the good things in my life. For instance, I am thankful to my intellect for getting me into a good college and landing an interesting job as a 20-something. To this day, I tip my hat to my passion for learning for the fact that I’ve devoured literal stacks of books about yoga and mindfulness. Planning a stellar home wedding? Getting to the next level of Pac Man? Getting a baby to sleep through the night? Training a puppy? Truly, before I was 35 I would have told you there was simply no challenge I couldn’t think my way through.
Let’s just say that I wholeheartedly embraced (still do) the slogan that a “mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
But a year into my yoga practice, having devoured my first stack of books on the practice, I was starting to realize that my thinking mind could lead me astray just as easily as it could help me to figure things out.
You see, when I started practicing, moving into and out of the postures was so hard for me that I literally could not think of anything else or I would fall over. But after a year of practice many of the postures no longer required my full concentration. In fact, I noticed that I was getting proficient enough that I was able multitask. Actually, it was a thought about multi-tasking that made me realize just how much thinking I was doing while practicing.
“I should keep a pad and pen by my yoga mat so I don’t forget all these ideas by the time I finish my practice.”
Thankfully, I was smart enough (ha!) to realize that list making and thinking were not what my practice was designed for. So (don’t laugh) I bought yet another stack of books – these focused on yoga’s mindfulness and meditation. And I discovered that a mind is also a terrible thing to let run amok.
One of yoga’s seminal texts, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, teaches that “yoga is the cessation of the fluctuation of the mind.” (YS 1:2)
The mind is attracted to external “objects” – these can be sights, sounds, sensations and even thoughts. The mind, left to its own devices, will wander willy-nilly from attraction to attraction – gobbling up information, thoughts and ideas like Pac Man used to gobble up all those dots on your arcade screen. A yoga practice is a way to rein in the mind or, to continue the Pac Man analogy, to help us develop a “joy stick” to bring it under our conscious control so that we’re choosing what we “gobble up” rather than running ourselves ragged chasing after every “dot” that happens to show up on the screens of our lives.
In the very first chapter of the sutras, Patanjali blew my mind by suggesting that we needed to start to using our minds the way we use our arms and legs. Just as we wouldn’t allow our arm to swing wildly (just think of the damage we could do in a crowded room!), we ought not to allow the “limb” of our mind swing heedlessly around. Just as our arms and legs tend to rest calmly in their places until we need them, so should our minds rest calmly until we need to solve a problem or come up with an idea or engage in a conversation.
If you spend a minute thinking about choosing what you’re going to think about, you’ll probably end up laughing at the resulting mental circus. (Mine makes a Pac Man screen look calm and orderly.) This is why yoga wisely gives us things to do as we practice being mindful of our roaming mind – synchronizing our breath to our movements, managing where and at what we are looking, balancing precariously on one foot or upside down, maintaining a steady pace of breath when our strength and endurance and (sometimes) emotions are seriously challenged. It is this practice that helps us develop our mental joystick.
Yoga gives us a taste of what living feels like when we bring our focus back (over and over and over again) to what we’re actually experiencing. When we practice yoga with this level of mindfulness, we’re actually learning to stay engaged with our experiences moment to moment. It’s not that our minds stop thinking thoughts. It’s that we’re learning to resist the tempting lure of these thoughts that are like “Pac Dots” pulling our uncontrolled minds from metaphorical screen to screen.
Instead, we use our newly developed joystick (mindfulness) to keep the Pac Man of our mind still where each present moment offers plenty of rich experience to gobble up. What does a single moment offer? The chance to connect with a friend. The opportunity to fully experience your body as it rises to a challenge. The unique sensation of hugging your mom. A bite of an amazing, perfect peach. The feeling of the sun on your face or the breeze in your hair. The sight of your cat stretched out in the window.
In other words, “the moment” contains all of the little experiences that make up your life. Sadly, these experiences are incredibly easy to miss when your mind is running amok like Pac Man (waka waka waka) chasing the dots of your thoughts.
Yes, a mind is absolutely a terrible thing to waste. But so are each of your experiences. So keep practicing with your mindfulness joystick and watch the way you are living life change as you learn to manage your wonderful, brilliant mind rather than letting it manage you.