In search of answers, I became a spiritual seeker and was drawn to meditation and various mystical traditions. At the time—the mid-1960s—meditation was an exotic Asian discipline practiced by an elite few, but I managed to teach myself a simple meditation technique with the aid of a few books. It wasn't easy. I would try to sit still for 15 minutes, paying attention to my breathing, but I usually only managed to stay focused for 10 or 15 seconds before drifting off. I needed more guidance and support.

When I was 20, I found a community in Northern California where I became a serious student of Zen Buddhism. Beyond the seated meditation practice, Zen emphasized mindfulness in everyday life: paying full attention when walking, eating, making the bed or working in the garden. At first, staying focused was difficult—my mind still wandered—but as I continuously brought my focus back to what I was doing, the mental fog began to slowly lift.

After a few years, I was appointed the community's cook, and the job came with a spiritual manual called Instructions to the Chief Cook. Poetic and inspirational, this ancient Zen text stressed that preparing food was not just a mundane activity, but a form of active meditation. Cutting vegetables, washing rice and boiling water, when done with full attention, was seen as the activity of the Buddha. These teachings became my daily road map to staying aware.

There was also a famous Zen poem that I would return to. It said that Nirvana, or enlightenment, was right here and now—that this body was the Buddha's body and this place was the pure land. From this poem, I created my own catchphrase that would come into my head many times a day—an inner anchor to bring me back to the present moment. I would say to myself, "This is it." These three words nailed the entire view of meditation. This is it.

So, when my mind departed on a journey to the past or the future, I would catch myself and say, "This is it." This moment is my life, completely.

When I would catch myself daydreaming or operating on automatic pilot, I would say to myself, "This is it," and it would bring me right back to the present. And whenever I would get worried, depressed or want things to be different than they were, I would ease my mind by saying, "This is it."

This phrase may not sound like profound prayer, a powerful mantra or positive affirmation, but it was my touchstone, and it worked. Those three words stopped my habitual seeking mind, the mind that always wants something different, better, bigger or newer, the mind that is always yearning for special experiences, easier times or a different life, the mind that wants someone or something to rescue us. Whenever I found myself ruminating on how things should be different, I would say, "This is it," and perhaps only for a moment, came home to a more present experience of reality.

How to find peace of mind from your own restless thoughts


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