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One aspect of life that can feel hard to deal with is managing thoughts you don’t want to have. These can be restless thoughts that fill the mind, or compulsive thoughts that keep coming back despite your desire to get rid of them. Anyone who has had the same tune running through his or her mind for a day or two knows how pointless a restless mind can be. But more serious are uncontrollable thoughts attached to emotions.
Millions of people have anxious thoughts, for example, which helps account for the fact that the number of Americans on long-term tranquilizers has doubled since 2010. There is only a fine line separating the feeling of panic or worry and the thoughts that stream into the mind, as if carried on a wave of anxiety. Let’s consider the whole spectrum from useless thoughts that are just a nuisance to thoughts that impair your quality of life.
Should the Mind Be Full of Thoughts?
The first thing to ask is whether the mind is supposed to be so full of thoughts. The everyday reality of useless, restless thoughts doesn’t really provide an answer. Your mind is busy because you are busy. Your mind reflects the level of stress all around you, including family demands, deadlines at work, and so on. When you go on a vacation to relax from everyday pressure, the mind naturally calms down. So, it might seem that thoughts go up and down according to what is going on in your life.
That’s certainly true, but the reason goes deeper than you might think. The real answer has to do with awareness. When your awareness remains on the surface of the mind, which is where restless thoughts occur, the world “in here” is as busy and chaotic as the world “out there.” In a calmer setting, one’s awareness settles into a quieter place. Mindfulness is really the practice of reminding yourself that you can access this quieter place at will.
Pure Consciousness Is Without Thought
But peace and quiet, which most people long for, is just the threshold to the deepest state of awareness, which we can call pure consciousness. Here you can find the actual answer to the restless mind. Pure consciousness is without thought. It is the ground state of the mind; here you discover that awareness can rest in its own nature, without regard to any thoughts. Once you experience pure consciousness through meditation, your attention wants to go back there as often as it can.
This is not a passing desire. Experiencing pure consciousness brings you into contact with your quiet, peaceful source. Within a few days or a week of meditation, the entire body-mind begins to shift. This can be measured in terms of lowered stress hormone levels, lower blood pressure, and other biological markers. But just as important is how you relate to your mind. Most people mistake the activity in their minds—the constant stream of sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts—for the mind itself.
Meditation Reshapes the Relationship with Your Mind
But your mind isn’t the same as the contents of your mind. Bread, cakes, and cookies can be made from flour, but the flour itself is different from the products it can be turned into. Likewise, the essence of the mind, the raw ingredient, so to speak, is consciousness. Consciousness bubbles up as thoughts and feelings, but in itself, the essence of consciousness is an open, clear, alert, boundless mind. With time, meditation reshapes your relationship with your mind. You stop identifying with restless thoughts and start identifying with pure consciousness. Now you have crossed the threshold from a quiet, peaceful mind to a state of awareness that brings its own stability and permanence.
No one and nothing can take pure consciousness away, diminish it, or affect it through stress and fear. I am not smoothing over the medical side of anxiety and depression. Those states have deep roots, both in a person’s life and biology. It’s a natural part of the body-mind’s healing response, when something makes you afraid or sad, to return to a normal state of mind as quickly as possible. When the process of returning to a normal state of emotional balance doesn’t occur, some kind of therapeutic intervention is called for, just as with any physical imbalance like low blood sugar or hypertension.
Yet the everyday experience of useless, restless thoughts drains a person’s energy, creates mental fatigue, and promotes the effects of stress. There are many reasons, then, to consider meditation, but one of the most practical is the opportunity to relate to your mind at its source, where you will meet a new reality and at the same time renew yourself. Here you discover that the source of the restless mind is not only peaceful and quiet, it is peace and silence itself. That silence is your essential nature.