When the Mind Stops
How mental quietness leads to well-being.
Posted Aug 15, 2018
How often is your mind quiet? If you're a typical human being, the answer is probably very rarely. For most of our days, our attention is immersed in external things—the tasks of our jobs, our hobbies and chores, or TV programs, magazines, or blogs or social media interactions. In the moments when our attention isn’t immersed externally, we’re usually immersed in what I call "thought-chatter’—a stream of mental associations consisting of anticipations of the future, memories, daydreams, replayed fragments of conversations and songs, and so on.
Being immersed in thought-chatter usually isn't very pleasant. It creates a sense of disturbance inside us, and often gives rise to negative emotions such as anxiety (when we think about the future), guilt or bitterness (when we think about the past) and frustration (when we daydream about alternate realities in which our lives are better). In fact, as I suggested in my book Back to Sanity, the reason we are so keen to immerse our attention in tasks and distractions is because of an impulse to escape from our thought-chatter. We like to focus our attention outside so that it isn’t focused inside our minds.
Moments of Mental Quietness
But from time to time, we all experience moments when our thought-chatter quiets down, or even disappears altogether. In these moments, we experience a sense of great well-being. We feel a sense of inner spaciousness and harmony. Our inner energy seems to be intensified, as if we are glowing inside. We feel as if we’re free of problems, and feel satisfied with our lives as they are.
The strange thing is, though, that most of the time this happens unconsciously. There are many activities that have the effect of quieting our minds, and so produce a state of well-being. But we usually don’t associate this well-being with a quiet mind. And we usually don’t think of a quiet mind as the aim or result of these activities.
For example, think about what happens when you go walking in the countryside. You might be feel stressed and agitated when you start out on the walk, but slowly, after a couple of miles, your mind begins to settle down. The beauty and stillness of nature captures your attention, and has a therapeutic effect. By the end of the walk you feel almost like a different person. You’re no longer immersed in thought-chatter. You feel that you’re a part of your surroundings. You feel more alive, and much happier—largely because your mind is now quiet.
In my view, this is the main reason why people love to look at beautiful landscapes, and beautiful works of art. Of course, these things have an innate aesthetic quality that attracts us, but a large part of their appeal is that they can stop the mind. Sublime beauty halts us in our tracks. It snaps us out of the trance of associational chatter and wakes us up to reality. When people go to see the Grand Canyon, the Eiffel Tower or the paintings of Monet or van Gogh, they are unconsciously hoping for a mind-stopping moment, in which they’re taken out of their thinking minds.
Stopping the Mind through Sport
The same is true of certain intense sports, like surfing, hang-gliding, or climbing. Here, part of the mind-quieting effect comes from facing danger. Many of us are strangely attracted to danger, and willing to risk our lives for the sake of a few hours of exhilaration. I would suggest again that part of the appeal of danger is that it has a mind-quieting effect. In dangerous situations, we have to focus our complete attention on the challenge we’re facing, and our minds become—in Buddhist terminology—"one-pointed." There is no space for thinking. Deprived of the fuel of our attention, our thoughts slow down and disappear. So at the end of the activity, in addition to feeling the exhilaration of contact with nature, we also feel a sense of inner spaciousness, a heightened mental energy and clarity.
More mundanely, and less powerfully, I think that watching films, concerts, or plays can sometimes have this effect, too. Have you ever walked out of a theatre or a concert hall, and felt that somehow the world was a slightly different place, and as if you were somehow a slightly different person? A really good play or concert can also have the effect of stopping our thoughts, for two hours or so. As a result, at the end we may also feel a glow of inner harmony.
It is also possible that our estimate of how enjoyable an activity or performance is, depends on its mind-stopping capacity. In other words, the very best performers and performances–and the most rewarding activities–are those which are so engrossing and intense that they can completely stop our minds. (I went to a U2 concert like this, when I was at high school, in 1984; films like American Beauty and The Shawshank Redemption had this effect on me; as did the play A Long Day’s Journey into Night.)
All of this might sound a little reductionist—but of course, I’m not saying that inner quietness is the only reason why we enjoy these activities. Nevertheless, we should certainly become more aware of the association of a quiet mind with well-being. And at the same time we should be aware that it’s possible for us to consciously and directly cultivate a quiet mind, rather than as a byproduct of certain activities. And in the end we might develop a permanently quieter mind, so that we would permanently awaken from the trance of thought-chatter, and attain a state of ongoing contentment and harmony.