“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius was instructing us that when we take control of our minds, we will reduce the tendency to wander into the past or future and furthermore, this present focused awareness would give us the inner strength (and wisdom) needed to respond to the challenges of the day. This ability to control our own minds leads to greater discernment in what we have control over and what we do not. If we spend our time and energy directed toward controlling our mind, through meditation and mindfulness, we will grow stronger. On the hand, if we spend our time consumed with the past or worrying about the future, we will grow weak and exhausted.
Before you start judging yourself, Marcus Aurelius, or this blog message it is important to consider the 2010 study by Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew Killingsworth. They made a startling discovery that people spend 46.9% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing. These psychologists came to two conclusions:
- The human mind is a wandering mind.
- The wandering mind is an unhappy mind.
Mind wandering may have some negative consequences, yet it is important to note that without being able to learn from the past and plan for the future, our species would likely not have survived, so mind-wandering served an evolutionary purpose. You are simply human, and your mind will wander. Unfortunately mind wandering does not always serve us well in today’s world; in fact, we often overuse it to our detriment. When mind wandering serves as a coping mechanism it can gain power from getting reinforced in the moment. It later becomes an automatic habit and it is believed that many people who self-identify as ADHD, may simply be caught in an automatic pattern and be over-using this survival skill.
Many people resist learning to meditate or practice mindfulness tools because they experience the mind wandering and give up. Rather than throwing in the towel, I encourage my students to practice nonjudgment, to notice the mind wandering and then to simply bring attention back to the present moment or object of attention. This is a moment of mindfulness that leads to strengthening our ability to control and direct our mind. Just like every repetition of lifting weights strengthen our muscles, redirecting attention back to present moment builds and strengthens the control we have of our mind.
Mindfulness in daily life can be a simple way to weave this mental conditioning into a routine. This is simply choosing to focus attention on one thing in the moment and sustain all attention for a designated time on the task at hand. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), skills group is an excellent place to gain mindfulness skills to facilitate emotion regulation for people who struggle with mental health issues. Some of my favorite ways to practice that arose from facilitating DBT fro the past 20 years are when I am eating, brushing my teeth, showering, doing the dishes, and driving. I also have found what the researchers found, I am far happier, and derive enjoyment and peace when I am fully present, even when doing dishes!
Formal mindfulness training is essential to derive the strength that Aurelius was pointing to in the quote. Setting aside time, 20-45 minutes daily to train attention to be present focused, either directing attention to one object or practicing open choiceless awareness. Using guided practices can be extremely helpful for meditation beginners and even for well-trained students who experience a stressor (most likely all of us right now!). Return to online classes or use apps as a guide. A few of my favorites:
- Insight timer
- Head Space
- Stop Breathe Think
If you have been away from practice, do not fret, just start again. Need support for your practice? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org I am willing to coach you toward rebuilding a daily practice.
Here’s to today, whatever kind of day it is!
Sending Metta to all beings,
Dr. Patty and The Sacred Treehouse Faculty
Patty Thomas Shutt, founder of Sacred Treehouse, is a licensed psychologist and co-owner of Therapeutic Oasis of the Palm Beaches. Dr. Shutt is passionate about helping others discover the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. She offers Beginner Meditation & Advanced Meditation classes at Sacred Treehouse, in addition to Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, Mindful Self-Compassion and various book studies throughout the year.