Originally written as a series for The Dragontree
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 movement (in the form of manual labor) and not enough stillness (rest), but in the urban centers of 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 at breakneck speeds while managing an increasingly complex burden of stress. In the past, most people engaged in much less mental activity (i.e., 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. Because uneasy minds are prone to look for more data to engage with, this can make for a vicious circle.
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. Meditation. It acts as both self-care and training. As an act of self-care, it is the quintessential fix for a mind imbalanced by excessive movement and not enough stillness – and all the health repercussions, both physical and psychological. As a form of training, it teaches us the valuable skill of shifting our awareness.
Our awareness is the broader consciousness within which the mind is contained. It’s vast. In comparison, the mind is quite tiny. But, our experience is powerfully influenced by where we focus 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 paying attention to the mind and “step back” from it, into our broader awareness, it’s like stepping back from an old school arcade machine where we were engrossed in a video game for a long time. We get a little perspective – the video game was just a small part of reality.
The thoughts, whether we attach to them or not, 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. Added bonus: we don’t become incapacitated or insane.
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 our body still counts as a break from our incessant focus on the mind.
If we’re unpracticed at shifting our attention, it can be tricky to focus on something as seemingly boring as how it feels to be in this body. The mind is sooooooo 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.
It’s hard for the body to compete, but luckily it’s equipped with the equivalent of a laser light show. It’s called your 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 yourself clenching your awareness 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.
So, by now you’re probably thinking, “Laser light show, my ass!” Yes, yes. That comparison was a stretch. But: (1) I’m competing with your mind. I needed to say anything to get your attention! (2) When you begin to get the hang of meditation, you will have moments that are at least as interesting and even more gratifying than a laser light show. Plus, the price of admission is free!
Dr. Peter Borten
Copyright 2017 by Peter Borten. All rights reserved.