One of the things I love about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is its ability to distill complicated problems down to simple ones. If you were to look in a textbook of TCM pathology, you’d find a list of probable causes (“etiologies”) for every disease, and before long you’d notice that there’s a fairly small number of root causes. These are things like overwork, trauma, and exposure to harsh climatic conditions. One interesting cause that comes up with great frequency is “imbalance between movement and stillness.”
Historically, this imbalance usually referred to too much physical exertion (in the form of manual labor) and not enough rest. But in the modern world, we almost always see the reverse. Huge portions of our lives are spent sitting, and exercise has become optional for many. It’s an oddly unnatural trend, where physical fitness must be scheduled into our calendar and is often performed indoors on machines.
Meanwhile, there’s an opposite form of movement/stillness imbalance that’s equally unhealthy and often harder for us to remedy. While we’re more physically immobile than ever, on a mental level we’re constantly running marathons. Humans in the developed world are epidemically overworking our minds, processing huge amounts of data, trying to make sense of all the news, while managing an increasingly complex burden of psychological stress.
In the past, most people engaged in much less mental activity (“movement”) and had much more opportunity for mental stillness than we do today. Unfortunately, the simultaneous trend toward physical inactivity means we miss out on the calming and stabilizing effect that physical activity provides for the mind. Because uneasy minds are prone to look for more data to engage with, this can make for an unhealthy cycle.
For optimal health and balance, we need periods of mental stillness during waking life – a deliberate practice of resting the mind that’s different from sleep.
In a word, I’m talking about MEDITATION. It functions as both self-care and training. As an act of self-care, it’s the quintessential fix for a mind that’s imbalanced by excessive movement and not enough stillness – and all the health repercussions of that stress. As a form of training, it builds the valuable skills of holding our focus and shifting our awareness.
Our awareness is the broader consciousness within which the mind is contained. It’s vast. In comparison, the mind is tiny. But our experience is powerfully influenced by where we put our attention. If our attention is habitually focused on our own mind, the mind can feel like the whole world. If we just swim around in our thoughts all day, we start to believe that our thoughts are who we are, or at least a very important part of who we are.
We can’t imagine ourselves without our thoughts. But, in actuality, when we stop giving our attention to the mind and “step back” from it, into our broader awareness, we begin to remember something of tremendous value – who/what we really are, and what’s possible for us.
Do you remember those old school arcade machines from the 1980s? The screen was set deep within the machine so that when you leaned in, the sides acted like blinders, and it was just you and the game. If you were really absorbed, “you” even disappeared and all that seemed to exist was the game.
When we allow our mind, body, and possessions to be the lens through which we experience life, it’s like being immersed in one of those arcade machines. In my case, it could be called “The Peter Game.” In your case, maybe it’s The Emma Game or The James Game.
Once in a while we pull back from the machine and look around. Whoa. What time is it? How long was I playing? We remember: life isn’t really just this game. We’re in a room with a whole bunch of other people, all immersed in their own games, but there’s something bigger and more real.
Sometimes this broadening of perspective occurs through spontaneous spiritual revelation. Unfortunately, as far as I know, there’s no reliable way to cause such an experience to happen. Sometimes it comes through psychedelic (or entheogenic) drugs, though it doesn’t tend to be self-sustaining when the drug wears off. Perhaps you remember Ram Dass’s 1971 book Be Here Now, in which he explained that no matter how long he spent in a drug-altered state of consciousness, he always eventually “came down” and returned to being Harvard professor Dr. Richard Alpert with all his neuroses and materialism.
Meditative arts, in my opinion, are the only way to reliably cause this change of perspective in a sustainable and self-empowering way. The empowering part comes from the recognition that you are choosing this and working at it, day in and day out. By meditative arts, I mean certain forms of yoga, certain forms of qi gong and martial arts, and especially seated meditation.
The thoughts, whether we attach to them or not, tend to continue to stream by – just like the video game, which runs continuously in “demo mode.” And, lo and behold, even if we decide not to focus on them, we feel quite alright! Better than alright. We see from this perspective that our attachment to these thoughts, like our unconscious attachment to the imperiled main character in a thriller movie, makes us uneasy. Divesting our attention from the mind is therefore refreshing. Despite the mind’s resistance and apprehension to being deprived of such importance, it’s quite the opposite of being lobotomized.
So, please try it. Sit down comfortably, close your eyes, and rather than squeezing your consciousness down to the size of a peephole that’s focused on your own thoughts, imagine that the peephole is broadening. Let your breathing deepen, but without manipulating it. Open your perception. Not only can you perceive your thoughts, you can also perceive your body. Your perception can go much bigger, but for now that’s big enough. Becoming aware of your body still counts as a break from your incessant focus on the mind.
If you’re unpracticed at shifting your attention, it can be tricky to focus on something as seemingly boring as how it feels to be in this body. The mind seems so entertaining in comparison. Not just entertaining, but compelling – like a tragic news story. It screams, “You’d better pay attention to this! Your survival depends on it. Seriously!” Do you realize what a shameless liar your mind is? It’ll say anything to get your attention.
Luckily, we’re all equipped with an expanded-reality-remembrance-device, AKA the breath. You can just watch it – watch how it expands you, watch how it subsides, watch how you don’t need to do anything to make it happen. Just watch, don’t manipulate. If you find your awareness narrowing around a thought, go broad again, open to the perception of your body, and stay with it. Notice how your everyday consciousness is changed by this practice. I’d love it if you’d share about your challenges and experience in the comments section.
Dr. Peter Borten
P.S. Our book Rituals for Transformation has been instrumental in helping so many people establish a daily meditation practice. Going through the book after it was printed even helped me make meditation a more consistent routine. Check it out.