“The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master” Robin Sharma
I recently came back from a weeks’ silent retreat. Such retreats often have a simple schedule where each day starts at 6am and we spend the day practising sitting meditation and mindful walking. Meals are eaten in silence and mobile phones are handed in. The experience is often tiring and yet deeply restful and nourishing. On the one hand it requires effort to be working those muscles of attention – using a different part of the brain to the one we normally use when we are engaged in habitual thinking. And on the other hand, it’s a deeply restful experience to step out of that habitual engagement in repetitive thought patterns. There is nothing for the mind to tweak or plan or analyse. My task each day was simply to sit or walk or eat and be with my experience as fully as I was able to. I slept deeply, I had no food cravings and, when I returned, my husband commented (as he always does) that I looked peaceful and younger.
Usually when we get an ache or pain in the body we tend to stop and think about what we are doing – are we standing or sitting in a bad position; are we doing something too strenuous; are we over-working or over-stretching a set of muscles? However, when we experience worry, anxiety, panic or uncomfortable emotions, we very rarely stop to consider how we are using our minds. I guess we think that our minds are just there and we have no control over them. But just as the way we use our bodies will have an impact on our joints and muscles, equally the way that we use our minds will have an effect on our sense of happiness and well-being. So it can be really helpful to pay attention to what the mind is doing.
Coming off retreat, I can almost feel the mind churning as it gets back into dealing with ‘real life’. And it is easy to see how much of the content of the thoughts fit into the category of either ‘rehashing’ or ‘rehearsing’. Rehashing involves going over the past (remembering what happened, what was nice, what could have been different etc). Rehearsing involves planning future scenarios (running through the things that need to be done and even anticipating the outcomes).
Our minds or thoughts literally drive us and, in some ways, it can feel really good and efficient to be driven in this way. After all, there are lots of things to do in order to run a home, manage a family, earn money and pay the bills. However, when we notice how the mind is always looking for what’s wrong or what could be better, or what shouldn’t be happening, we can see how this creates a never-ending list of things to do, a continual state of striving for more or a state of anxiety and stress.
As the saying goes: “The mind is a wonderful servant but a terrible master”. If we can begin to notice when the mind is dashing between past and future scenarios and if we can see that this is just a habit, we may not feel so compelled to act on those thoughts and instead, we can choose to rest awhile in the here and now.