Take a few moments to try this simple experiment:
Close your eyes for a minute or so and just listen to whatever sounds are going on around you. Be "a rock with ears," hearing sounds the way a video camera would, without any preference for one sound over another or story about what the sounds mean or where they come from.
If you become aware of any internal chatter, just do your best to refocus on the sounds outside your head instead...
How was that? Does the world seem a bit different than it did a few moments ago? Do you feel more peaceful or relaxed?
One of the things that most people are striving for in one way or another is a quiet mind. Books, audios, and courses abound promising to teach techniques for achieving inner peace, reduced stress, less worry, and peace of mind. Yet, curiously, many of these programs seem to add to the number of shoulds, ought tos, musts, and have tos that fill our already-noisy brains.
The distinction I have found most useful in relation to all of these ideas came from the theosopher Syd Banks, who pointed out that there is a profound difference between the act of "meditating" and the state of "meditation."
Meditating is an activity that at its best guides people into a state of meditation -- the inner stillness I am referring to as "a quiet mind." However, if you've ever struggled to maintain a meditation practice (or as I've done, made yourself laugh at the irony of getting mad at the people who are "disturbing your meditation"), you probably know that it's all too easy to get caught up in the activity at the cost of the state.
My favorite illustration of this distinction came from a friend who was speaking at a major corporation about research that showed most people experienced their greatest moments of quiet insight in the shower. After the talk, which was extremely well-received, one of the heads of the company came up to them and asked: "How long should I get my people to shower each day?"
Chances are that some of the most profound experiences of stillness, inner quiet, and peace of mind you have experienced in your life occurred far away from the meditation pillow. Walking in nature, sipping a cappuccino, looking out over the ocean, and communing with a cat have all been known to induce a quiet mind, yet the simple secret behind all these activities is this:
The nature of your mind is quiet; the nature of your being is well.
So the fastest way to a quiet mind is not a particular practice, whether spiritual or secular; it is simply to realize the nature of mind itself.
Of course, if your mind is spinning away at a million miles an hour right now, trying to sort out the world, your life, and everyone in it, that's probably not so much a comforting insight as an annoying one.
"Oh, I see, all I have to do is realize the nature of mind? Why didn't anyone just say so? I could've saved myself years of practice, not to mention thousands of dollars on books, medication, and courses..."
But stick with me a few moments longer. If the nature of your mind is quiet, then there's nothing you need to do in order to "quiet" it. Just let it be, and it will return to quiet all by itself. That's different from trying to "stop thinking" or even "watching your thoughts." It's simply allowing enough space in your life (and in your head) for the "thought dust" to settle, and then resting in the peace that naturally arises into that space.
Can meditation, exercise, walks in nature, long showers, and communing with cats help? Sometimes. But if you notice that you're spending more time trying to do self-care than time feeling cared for in yourself, why not just take a few moments out right now to enjoy the experience of being alive?
Worst case, you'll feel a little bit better and enjoy yourself a little bit more; best case, you'll drop straight into the natural quiet of your mind and drink deeply from the well of your being.
With all my love,
For more by Michael Neill, click here.
For more GPS for the Soul, click here.
This story appears in Issue 39 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, March 8.