What I Learned From an Effort to Control My Mind
Do you ever imagine how it will feel to be in full control of your thoughts, emotions, and actions? How to reduce worry, fear, anxiety, or be in full control when you are angry or your ego is attacked? I embarked on this journey a year ago, and while I am not close to having full control of my emotions and actions, I have learned a few things about the mind and the body and how they work together to determine how I feel and react. Here is some of what I have learned.
1) I run the mind or it runs me
Have you noticed how fast your body reacts to criticism or opposition? When someone tells you “you are wrong”, “you are selfish”, “you are lazy”, “you are mean”. My mind kicks in very fast and tries to defend or give excuses. I often don’t like how I react or what I say, and this keeps repeating like a program. How do I control how I react? How do I delay my response for a second and think? I have been studying the source of these reactions(my mind) and have found that it runs in three modes: auto-pilot(about 70% of the time), focused and controlled (about 29%), and still mode (less than 1%). Let me give a few examples of each mode.
In graduate school, the assignment I detested the most was to read and summarize a research paper or a book. I would check the number of pages in the paper and spend my time complaining. The hate of reading overshadowed any value the paper or book could add. After more than 10 years of this captivity, I realized the source of my hate — English literature. In my second year of secondary school, I always had my only failed grade in English Literature. I hated everything related to it — reading and analyzing novels or writing poems. I had concluded “I am not good at it” and each time I encounter reading/writing, this script auto-replays and gives me heartburns. This is a disease that plagues a lot of people. A teacher/parent/friend/test result told you “you are stupid” or “you are too dumb to learn anything” and that script has been running you for decades, determining how you feel in the face of any challenge.
To more positive news, when I am answering a quiz/puzzle that is time-limited, almost all of my mental energy is focused on the problem. The same happens when I am focused on fixing a bug in my code. I feel a powerful focus that wipes out the concept of time. This accounts for a small fraction of my time. The vexing part of it is that even during focused work, I sometimes discover I had shifted to some thoughts of zero relevance to the work. At times, I find myself replying to Whatsapp messages or on some google search and I am like “how did I get here?”. There are just a few moments when my mind is fully focused on a task and these are very productive.
There are a few times when my mind goes quiet. This happens when I see striking beauty of nature, like the breathtaking views of Lamu Island, or the beautiful landscapes on the Kenya-Tanzania highway. I discover I have a glimpse of no-mind, when I find myself not thinking, but just feeling/enjoying the beauty. These are the most relaxing moments, and they don’t last very long.
Now, how do I know my mind is on auto-pilot? How do I make my focus last longer? How do I make my quiet and relaxed moments last longer? While reading books, I found conflicting facts like
the mind is the only thing in this life you can control.
“It is not so much that you use your mind wrongly — you usually don’t use it at all. It uses you” Eckhart Tolle
These seemed conflicting at first but I started getting more clarity from reading and practicing. Before I delve into ways of keeping the mind “under control”, let’s look at how the mind relates to our mood and action.
2) Emotions are triggered by the mind
Eckhart Tolle puts it better
“Emotions are the body’s reaction to thoughts which originate from the mind.”
Any emotion I can think of: excitement, happiness, pleasure, sadness, stress, anxiety, anger, irritation, depression originates from my mind. The puzzling part of this is that it’s not what happens to me that determines the emotion, but it is how my mind interprets what happens. For instance, when I am discussing with someone and they suddenly focus on their phone, I go one of two ways. “I am boring them to death, they don’t want to be here”, or “maybe they are waiting for an urgent message or are just addicted to the phone”. These two have very different reactions, although I have learned to just ask. Moreso, if you fail to answer a question in class and the teacher calls you a fool, you can see this as a sign to focus in class and study harder or you can believe you were made stupid. One of which will kill your self-esteem and potentially make you stupider and the other will lift you out of laziness.
Why are emotions so polar though? Is it possible to stay on one side of the polarity? well, yes, negative emotions dominate my mind. I can wallow in self-blame, inadequacy, self-pity for days. I am not able to hold happiness for half as long. What is the point of these emotions then? Can I control them? Can I get rid of them? Can I “hack” them and stay on the positive side? The theory is very simple — If the mind controls emotions and emotions control how I feel, then If I control the mind, I can control how I feel? How do I control the mind then? That’s what I have been trying to find out.
3) Consciousness takes away power from the mind.
How do you react to the question “why are you so angry?” or “Why are you so annoyed”. “I am not angry”, is usually my first response, but of course, I was angry, I didn’t realize I was till my attention was drawn to it.
I went to register for a driving test after spending most of my evenings studying the material and getting my mind ready. The lady told me the registration portal had not been opened and I’ll have to wait another two weeks. My mood flipped in a split second. “Why are you so angry? I can see it on your face, the veins are showing up,” the lady asked. Immediately, I realized how angry I was and the anger subsided very fast. It was like turning the lights on when a rat is enjoying some leftover food in the kitchen. The guy panics and tries to disappear. This happens to negative emotions because I don’t really want to carry these emotions.
A similar thing happens when someone asks “why are you so happy?”. Most of the time, I don’t even realize I am happy till someone points it out, then I start evaluating why I am feeling happy.
The point in all of this is that we are most often not aware of how we feel, and that is dangerous as feelings most often dictate our actions. If I quickly realize I am angry, I can let the anger be there but not control me. I can tell someone what they said or did annoyed me without reacting the way my mind dictates. This is being conscious, and it is one good way to control the mind. How do I notice these emotions (more like shine a light on them) before they consume me?
4) My mind is my tool.
I am not my mind
I always say if I execute thoughts that come to my mind, I will be evil beyond imagining. I keep wondering where thoughts come from and why they keep streaming in without my consent. I saw Echart Tolle’s words “you are not your mind”, and I immediately went “Yes, I am definitely not my mind, I actually don’t want to be my mind, I rarely approve of what it thinks”. My mind is its own entity, running its own scripts based on years of evolution of the human mind, my own history, the thoughts and ideas of others, conditioning from music, movies, social media, and the list goes on. This terrifies me. How do I control something with so much history and data to run on?
5 Tips to Control the Mind.
- Put the mind to work.
The mind can only focus on one thing at a time. This means if the mind is at work, there is no mind left to auto-pilot into sad thoughts. This is why I find multitasking very unproductive. When I am distracted during work, it discontinues a flow of thought which takes minutes to get back. This is often a window for the mind to auto-pilot. If I can catch my mind deviating from focused work early enough, I can minimize auto-pilot time and increase productivity.
I have been practicing Stephen Covey’s concept of self-awareness — the ability to think about your very thought process. I continually check-in with my mind, “What is running in there?”, “What I am supposed to be thinking about?”. With time, I started catching myself deviating from focused work into dreamland. One thing I am sure of is that the mind will always deviate from focus, but constant awareness helps me get the mind quickly back to what I was focused on.
I have also found that setting blocks of time to work and rest helps me stay conscious and focused. I have tried several work/rest cycles and found a 45-minute focus, 10-minute rest working well for me. I set the timer on my computer to 45 minutes, remove all distractions — turn off the internet on my phone and keep it out of sight, close everything which pops up notifications of any sort (actually better to use extensions which can block notifications for the focused time). Clicking the start button on the timer has become a trigger to focus my mind. In the 10 minutes of rest, I take a walk, listen to music or check my messages. You can find an optimum tempo for yourself and keep repeating it, the brain adapts to it very fast.
2. Quiet the mind as much as you can
“Your mind is an instrument, a tool. It is there to be used for a specific task, and when the task is completed, you lay it down”. Eckhart Tolle
How do I lay down the mind? I didn’t even believe I could stop the mind from thinking. That comes from the mind because it doesn’t want to be stopped. The mind sees the end of thinking as death, but it is actually the beginning of peace. I have learned I can actually stop my mind from thinking, starting with a few seconds at a time. When I accumulate all these seconds to ten minutes, it feels much more relaxing than a ten minutes power nap. I started reading and practicing sorts of meditations. The simplest technique for me has been to focus and listen to my breath. I also try to listen to the energy in my joints, focusing on the silence or space around me. When thoughts come in, I try to let them pass through like cars on a highway. After some time, I started catching thoughts running in, which felt magical. This translates well to everyday life because if I can quickly catch thoughts of anger, pride, defense, or worry, I can control how I respond to them.
3. Add routines to your day/plan your day, week, month, and year.
“What has this got to do with controlling my mind?” Well, if you don’t have a plan or routines, the mind is more than happy to help. I don’t want my mind running things so I set plans/routines. With a plan, I can stay focused and evaluate progress at the end of the day or week. I try to plan my week on Sundays and update the plan every morning to suit the work of the day. I have included wake-up and before sleep routines. I try to meditate, read, write, and do a morning run before work, then listen to gospel music before sleep.
4. Train the mind to have positive thoughts.
Thoughts are not completely random as they mostly come from our past. Today is tomorrow’s past so I can as well keep a good past to help me have better thoughts tomorrow. Some of my thoughts come from the type of music videos/movies I watch, the news I subscribe to, the content I consume on social media, how I interact with people, and the way I do work today. At the least, these are within my control. I started auditing these aspects which control my sanity the next day. If I am watching depressing content, I should be ready to deal with depressing thoughts the next day, if I am watching explicit content, I better be ready to deal with sexual urges the next day.
I also started listening to motivational content and I have found them uplifting. I have always thought motivation is short-lived. Well, yes, it is, but that just means I should consume it daily. I try to listen when I am cooking, cleaning, or during my 10 minutes break, and I feel bursts of energy afterward.
5. Define some behaviors ahead of time.
This can work miracles especially if you can’t deal with afflictions like anger. Customer service agents train on this principle. What do you say when a customer is angry and curses you and your company? Naturally, we will fight back, but that is not good for business. Training enables these agents to know what to say during these extremes. We can borrow from this and set reactions for our defense/excuse mode. How do I react when someone says “you are wrong,” or “I don’t like your hairstyle”. If you think deeply, you will find situations that make you overreact and start defining behaviors for those situations.
What I have tried to drive home here is that our minds will control us (more like drown us) if we don’t proactively take control. Being conscious and self-aware takes away lots of power from the mind and gives us a chance to rewrite our actions and scripts.
I am grateful to the authors of some of the great books I have read on my journey, some of which are directly quoted in this article. My top five picks are How to stop worrying and start living-Dale Carnegie, The Power of Now-Eckhart Tolle, The 7 Habits of Highly effective people -Stephen Covey, Mindset, The New Psychology of Success-Carol S. Dwek, Can’t Hurt Me-David Goggins.
Top Quotes/book excerpts
A man is not hurt so much by what happens, as by his opinion of what happens. Dale Carnegie
To be wronged or robbed is nothing unless you continue to remember it. Dale Carnegie
If our feelings control our actions, it is because we have abdicated our responsibility and empowered them to do so. Stephen Covey
The bottom line is that life is one big mind game. The only person you are
playing against is yourself. David Goggins
It is most often not work which gets us tired, it is the attitude with which we approach work — worry, frustration, resentment, anxiety, fear, rush, tension. Clasence Neba Shu