Do you have an inner dialog running in your head all day long? How often do you catch yourself? Author Josh Baran shares how to calm your restless mind, find peace with yourself and which three little words might change your life.
By the time I was 14 years old, I spent much of my waking hours in my head, living out a fantasy life in the future.
I first realized this at a concert by the beautiful beach in Santa Monica, California. In the middle of the performance, I became intensely aware of all the thoughts and images in my mind. I caught myself fantasizing about the way I would tell friends about the show the next day at school. The music and the band played on, but I was too busy with the unrelenting thoughts and images in my head to notice. I had taken a road trip into an imaginary future that left me totally disconnected from reality. My body was seated in the auditorium, but my mind was miles away.
Obviously, this inner chatter was nothing new—it had been going on for years, but for whatever reason, it suddenly came into focus that evening, staring me in the face. I felt like I was trapped in a bubble, separated from the world around me. Increasingly, in my everyday life, I saw how my mind was filled with anxiety and distraction, constantly bouncing here and there, but mostly there. My mind would not shut up.
I needed to find a way to deal with this inner agitation. I felt like I was wandering in a fog and needed a way home. How could I calm my mind?
At first, I had no idea what to do or where to go. Who could help me? I could barely even express what I was feeling, and my friends couldn't relate to my predicament. So, where was the road map?
How Josh found his own road map
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
The poet Lew Welch wrote a short piece called "Small Sentence to Drive Yourself Sane." He suggested that the next time you do something absolutely ordinary, such as making love, shaving, washing the dishes or cleaning the room, say to yourself this phrase: "So it's all come to this!"
This. This very ordinary moment is it. We don't need to seek the extraordinary because when we allow ourselves to be fully at home in the ordinary, it becomes extraordinary and full of wonder.
When we think this is not it, not good enough, not the right time, not the right place, not the right person—when we think happiness is in the future, after we lose 20 pounds, after we find the right lover, after we get a better job—then we are in constant hoping, waiting, scheming and seeking, living our lives in a time warp, disconnected from here and now.
This is it reminds us that we can find the magic, the spiritual and the sublime in the ordinary, in this next breath, in this chair, in this body. This is not just another philosophy orsomething else to believe. Instead, it is something to experience, and I invite you to try it out. Make it an experiment. Try it anywhere and anytime.
This is it. This is the only life that you are living. This moment, as you read these words—your life is completely unfolding. This body is the Buddha. This land is the pure land. Nirvana is here and now.
Former Zen priest and well-known communications consultant Josh Baran is the author of The Tao of Now: Daily Wisdom from Mystics, Sages, Poets and Saints. He was recently featured on Oprah's Soul Series on SiriusXM.
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Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, March 9, 2014
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