Over the last few years, I've been struggling with what I like to call "busy brain." My brain won't shut up. If I'm not actively working on a project (reading, writing, music, painting), or telling myself a story while I take a walk, my mind starts to obsess about chores, errands, grocery lists, job stuff, and the Future. It's not pleasant.
It's almost like I get so worried that I will forget something important that I allow my brain to review a never-ending list of things I need to do and even things that are admittedly beyond my control. It drives me crazy. It helps to write these concerns down, to purge them from my mind somehow, but it doesn't solve the underlying issue. My brain just comes up with a fresh list to natter on about.
Unfortunately, I often take out the frustration of my own "busy brain" on other people, particularly my husband. Sometimes, it feels like I unintentionally volunteered to be the person who keeps track of everything, which makes me mad and resentful. I often feel that I want him to relieve some of the mental burden from me.
Do you ever feel that way? Like, why are you the only one who is worried about whether you remembered to pay the electric bill? Or gave the cats their flea medicine? Or whether it's time to get your car's oil changed?
But if there's one piece of wisdom that I try to remind myself of daily, it's that you cannot change other people. Full stop. You can only change or control yourself, particularly your reactions to other people or events. Yelling at my husband won't solve my busy brain. I struggle to remember that, but I'm always trying.
To get a better hold of my busy brain, I've been doing several things lately:
1) I talk to a therapist regularly. I cannot recommend this step enough. It is so helpful to feel heard and to have someone help you recognize patterns of behavior that may be negatively affecting your life. A perk of working at a university is that we have accessible mental healthcare on campus. Ask around, I think you'd be surprised at some of the places you can find a therapist outside of private practices.
2) I try to exercise as regularly as possible. Right now that means a daily 15 minute walk at midday, a 1 hour walk with my dog in the afternoon, and 10-15 minutes of strength training each evening (pushups, tricep dips, bicep curls, squats, and planks). Also, after taking a long running break, I've started to squeeze in a short jog (25 minutes) maybe once or twice a week.
3) And finally, I've started meditating semi-regularly.
I've been interested in meditation for a long time. Way back in high school, I had a Chemistry teacher who believed in the positive effects of meditation and taught our class a few rudimentary basics. By the time my brother had her for a teacher, she actually started each class with five minutes of simple meditation. A very interesting woman.
Since then, I've practiced meditation very sporadically. For a while, I used these guided videos from Yoga Yak, which are excellent, but since I moved to a house in the country where we have no internet, I haven't been able to use that online resource as often.
I've tried various apps, and some were good, some were ok, and some were so obnoxious that I found it impossible to focus. None of them really became a habit for me, though, probably my phone tends to initiate busy brain tendencies anyway, which sort of defeats the purpose.
Then I read this article from The New Yorker about a former buddhist monk, named Andy Puddicombe, who has been teaching meditation and mindfulness to laypeople for years, eventually developing an iPhone app that has become extremely popular. I thought what Puddicombe had to say about meditation was interesting, but I wasn't interested in purchasing another app subscription.
I did, however, give his book, Get Some Headspace, to a family member who I thought might be interested. Do you ever give a book and then decide you want to read it too? Well I bought myself another copy, read it in just a few sittings, and absolutely loved it.
I've been looking for a resource like Get Some Headspace since I was about eighteen years old and first noticed that my obnoxious brain was getting in the way of my relationships. And until recently, I don't think I understood how much my busy brain was also getting in the way of my writing. How can I sit down to write when I'm so worried about stupid things, like filing estimated taxes and returning phone calls, that I can barely think straight. You can't.
You have to stop allowing your thoughts to control your well-being and your life. That's how I understand meditation. It's about learning how to take control of your own brain rather than the other way around.
Or as Puddicombe puts it, "The one thing that remains the same throughout the day is that your thinking dictates the way you feel."
Exactly! I don't want to feel that rush of shame whenever my brain randomly thinks of an embarrassing memory. I didn't want to think about that time I said something stupid, but my brain has those thoughts on its own, and then I feel bad about myself. I didn't want to feel that way, but my thoughts are clearly out of control.
That's busy brain. It's mindless thinking.
I want to be a mindful thinker and I believe that's what meditation helps us to do.
Puddicombe does an excellent job of explaining some of these finer points of meditation. I guess I always misunderstood meditation to mean a state of mind where there is an absence of thought. So I'd evaluate my meditation practice by how few thoughts I managed to have. Apparently, this is a common misconception. By explaining the approach, practice, and probably most importantly, the integration of meditation and mindfulness into our daily lives, I think Puddicombe's book has done a better job of helping me to retake control of my thoughts, which allows me to feel calmer and better prepared to work on my personal, professional, and creative goals.
If you're like me and have a natural tendency to get "stuck" on thoughts or trapped in your own head, I think you should read this book. Ten minutes of meditation a day, plus a more mindful awareness of what I'm doing throughout the day, really does seem to make a difference.
Do you meditate?
p.s. Puddicombe also has a book out on mindful eating, called The Headspace Diet, which looks really interesting (less about what to eat, and more about how). If your New Year's resolution includes losing a few pounds, maybe it would be a worthwhile resource.