Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wise Mind

A tendency that many people have is to try to solve every problem that arises through rumination and endless cycles of "thinking things through." Individuals who are prone to depression are especially susceptible to the notion that, if they just think about their problems long enough, they will figure them out and feel better. Actually, studies have shown that the opposite appears to be the case. Ruminating and over-analyzing actually leads to a deeper sense of hopelessness and helplessness when things don't seem to improve.

One reason for this outcome is that the more we try to think our way through something, the more "real" the problem tends to become and the more we may believe the thoughts that arise about it. It reminds me of growing a crystal. The problem thought begins as just a small object that is somewhat annoying, but not overwhelming. Then I add more thoughts to it trying to figure out a solution to this upsetting thought. Each time I engage in useless rumination about the thought, it grows more crystal points, until it becomes very large and, seemingly at least, very solid. Now I have something that becomes a real problem that will find its way into my daily life through my moods and eventually my relationships.

Instead, I recommend switching from the "doing" mode of constantly trying to analyze and figure out the thought, and deploying "being" mode, in which we just acknowledge the situation and then let it be. As counter-intuitive as this seems, the paradox is that when we hold these troublesome thoughts or issues with a more open hand, they have more space around them. They can breathe a bit, and so can we because the problem is now not as big as it once was because we have increased the space around it. 

At the same time, the part of our awareness known as "Wise Mind" is allowed to work on the problem behind the scenes. Wise Mind is that part of us that knows the real answer and can come up with novel and more effective solutions to problems. It is basically the same process employed by composers or mathematicians when they are stuck on a problem. They might get up from their piano or desk, and go make a cup of tea or take a walk or do something totally unrelated to the problem task. When the do this, the answer presents itself as if by magic.

I've experienced Wise Mind countless times when I can't remember the title of a movie or someones name. If I sit there and ruminate about it, approaching the problem head-on, I often don't get very far. So I just let it go and talk about something else, and in a few moments, the name presents itself to me.

Naturally, we learn how to cultivate and deploy Wise Mind in our meditation practice. When unpleasant experiences arise, whether in the form of physical sensations or thoughts, we can just acknowledge them, allow them to be, and then make the choice to return to the feeling of the breath. Left alone, the feelings or thoughts tend to just move into the background and eventually go away completely. We might even get an insight about how to deal with these problems from Wise Mind that would not have come to us otherwise. When we acknowledge the presence of difficult thoughts or feelings in our daily life, we can do the same thing, always returning to the present moment through the senses.

It takes practice, and the rewards of this kind of diligence are increased happiness and ease, and decreased amounts of suffering. 



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