8 Ways to Stop Thinking
These 8 mindfulness techniques can help one create more inner peace.
Posted Jul 19, 2020
As most of my readers know, I believe mindfulness and meditation are essential tools for mental health and happiness. As a therapist, I recommend it nearly daily, either through suggesting the Acceptance and Commitment Training mindfulness-based technique of defusion, the acronym RAIN (Recognize, Accept, Investigate, and Non-Identify with thoughts and feelings) or simply through discussing the many empirically tested advantages of meditation. As a university instructor, I attempt to get students to relate to the material I am teaching and encourage them to observe their thoughts, to investigate them, to question them, and to be less attached to them.
The responses I get from students and clients alike is that they can’t. They can’t meditate. They can’t stop their thoughts. My usual reply is a quote from a Zen Master I read. He says, "the great twentieth-century Zen teacher Kodo Sawaki used to say, ‘The only time your mind is a complete blank is when you’re dead!’” (Warner, p.235). The point is that you aren’t going to stop your thoughts for any significant period of time. That isn’t the goal of meditation or mindfulness, and it is not the nature of the brain.
What you can do, however, is slow them down, create some space between them, observe them, hold them in awareness, and reduce their power. Many people who try meditation or mindfulness set unrealistic goals. They expect their mind not to wander, which is its nature (Rick Hanson does an excellent job of explaining the mind’s nature neurochemically in Buddha’s Brain). I try to quell this by telling students and clients that in 30 years of practicing mindfulness and meditation (on and off, with long periods of off), I am probably lucky to get 10 to 20 minutes of actual complete awareness in a day. And that includes a 10-minute meditation (where the mind wanders a great deal and if I’m lucky I total—the total of small bits of mindfulness, certainly not in one big bunch—a minute or two).
Rather than being discouraged by this, my hope is you are encouraged. Some see those that promote mindfulness as masters who are mindful most if not all of the day. I doubt this exists (I have never possessed someone else’s mind, so I certainly can’t say for sure). But those who are best at promoting mindfulness share that the mind’s nature is to wander and help those that are interested set more realistic goals.
Some may feel discouraged, thinking, “what is the point if all I get is a minute or two?” That’s an excellent question, and the only answer I have is that these small periods of mindfulness have exponentially powerful results. One begins to become aware of how the mind works and is more able to distance from it on command. The new mindset, when practiced over and over (even for seconds) begins creating new neural pathways and ways of thinking. The more it is used, the more powerful it becomes. One becomes less attached to her thoughts, more able to bring about a calmer state, and as such, more in control of her thoughts. It becomes a positive cycle that reaps more and more benefits.
Here are ways you can start the process of slowing down your thoughts:
Meditate. Most experts agree, just sitting for meditation is beneficial. If your mind wandered the entire time, that is fine. Just the act of setting the time aside, sitting, and breathing (at least some controlled breaths) reaps positive benefits with people reporting better concentration and less stress. Some studies have noted changes in the brain after only two weeks of meditating (Powell, A., 2018). Most techniques suggest a focus on the breath.
Mindfulness. Becoming conscious of your current state, including any emotion you are experiencing, thoughts you are having, or physical sensations you are experiencing and taking a non-judgmental approach to observing and just being with them is mindfulness.
Though this often begins in meditation and meditation is a tool to be more mindful, mindfulness can be done anywhere at any time. Most teachers recommend using the breath as your anchor to become conscious of what you are experiencing.
Above, I mentioned the acronym RAIN, which is used for mindfulness. Recognizing what you are thinking creates a little bit of space. Accepting what you are experiencing creates a non-judgmental attitude toward it. Investigating what you are experiencing brings focus to your body. This technique is discussed as a stand-alone way to create space below. Non-identify means don’t accept your feelings as you, view them as just thoughts that are happening.
Watch for your next thought. Another technique Eckhart Tolle recommends is “watching” for your next thought. He says to imagine you are a cat and you’re waiting for a mouse to come out of its hole. The watching, observer mind is the cat, and the next thought is the mouse. He purports as long as you are focused on this, no thoughts will appear (Tolle, p. 93). But, of course, we lose focus in a short amount of time. This technique can be used over and over, similarly to returning to the breath as that anchor.
Come into your body. Many spend most of their time in their heads, thinking about what they have to do, where they would rather be, what they would rather be doing. A way to slow all of that down is to focus on being “in” your body. On an intellectual level, everyone knows they are in their body. But aside from when you experience pain, do you focus much on what it feels like to just inhabit your body? A simple exercise is just to stop and bring your consciousness into your body. Check in with your body, scan it, wait for an itch, any of these methods take you out of your thoughts.
Flow. Flow is a state of total absorption in an activity one enjoys. There is a loss of self-awareness in the activity. Many get this when engaged in a hobby, be it playing an instrument, painting, or otherwise being creative. Some get it from playing a sport they love. Whatever the means, being totally absorbed in an activity takes you out of your thoughts and into the moment.
Breathe. As was said earlier, the breath can be an anchor of consciousness. Focusing on one’s breath, no matter what else was going on, can center you and reduce your tension and stress.
Visualize. Though I am generally not a fan of meditation apps, recently Headspace allowed therapists to get the app for free until the end of the year. (They have done the same for the unemployed, you need only go to their webpage and follow the link). I did so and have been using it periodically. Andy Puddicombe is the face and voice of the app, and in some meditations, he asks the audience to view the mind as the blue sky and the clouds as thoughts. Focusing on the calm blue sky helps reduce the clutter in the mind and create the space many seek.
When I first saw The Lego Movie, I found Emmet’s mind similarly clear. When Vitruvius enters Emmet’s mind, there is nothing there. Though it is meant to be negative (“I don’t think he’s ever had an original thought,” says the character Lucy), I have used this as a visualization for clearing my mind. I picture myself literally pushing all thought out with my out-breath until there is a vast, empty space. Just like Emmet.
Realize most thinking is just self-serving busy work for the ego. This is my favorite and one I use often, as much of my writing demonstrates. Many of my posts talk about how the vast majority of thinking is biased at best, deluded at worst. The brain is built to think, to be busy, to rise one above his peers, to worry, to find problems or threats. In reality, however, much of it is nonsense that never comes to fruition, that is relatively meaningless in the grand scheme of things, and that is robbing you of peace. When you consciously and purposely remember this, automatic thoughts become powerless momentarily. You break out of the cycle (albeit temporarily, as it cannot be sustained forever) and gain more peace.
Many of these techniques are interrelated. Many, in longer versions, are types of meditation. Many can be combined. One needn’t sit on a cushion to create peace of mind. Sitting meditation is an important tool, and the more you practice, the more you can bring this state of mind into being. These other strategies can also be very helpful to attaining peace in the moment, and when practiced over the longer term, they can help create more peace in one’s life.
Copyright William Berry, 2020
Powell, A., 2018. When Science Meets Mindfulness. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/harvard-researchers-study-how-mindfulness-may-change-the-brain-in-depressed-patients/
Tolle, E., 1999. The Power of Now. New World Library, Novata, CA.
Warner, B., 2016. Don’t be a Jerk: And Other Practical Advice from Dögen, Japan’s Greatest Zen Master. New World Library, Novata, CA.