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How To Stop A Racing Mind

By Colin Megill
On October 11, 2006

From the moment the alarm goes off in the morning, it's impossible to escape a racing mind. One's thoughts and emotions develop and compound all day, until at night it can be difficult to turn it off and sleep.

Peace of mind isn't an American cultural value. We're big on comfort; the affections of the suburban life. And we're big on hard work and prosperity - but collectively we're very thin on the deeper aspects of life. It's not a stretch to say we have a spiritual drought in this country. We've made life so complicated it's easy to get lost at the macroscopic level - every day there are things to get done in the present, things that will have to be done in the future and things that could have been done differently in the past. What time is left - what time do we take as a collective - to focus on introspection?

The anxious, wandering or untamed mind is such a norm in our society, we don't even conceive of an alternative. There is an alternative. Happiness does not have to be fleeting and circumstantial. Tranquility is achievable, not a lofty ideal. Peace and joy are things we should be focusing on working towards each day, that we might better our lives and the lives of those around us. Mindfulness is the path to this alternative.

Clinical psychology has a definition for a racing, worrying mind that focuses on the past and future instead of the present moment - anxiety - the treatments and causes of which are a still developing field that includes psychotherapy and powerful narcotic drugs.

Psychology names many specific types of anxiety - social anxiety disorder, panic disorders and specific phobias for instance - but one of the most devastating in America is General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Symptoms include being chronically tense and consumed with worry. Also, chronic fatigue can be present, as well as depression, a lack of concentration and difficulty sleeping. GAD affects four million to five million people in the United States. The chance that any given person in the United States will develop it over a lifetime is estimated at 8 percent to 9 percent, according to

There's a distinction between stress and a more free-floating anxiety not necessarily brought on by external situations. Rational anxiety is typically defined as stress, and though it can be damaging to health and well-being, is less of a problem. I'll demonstrate using a typical college example - test taking. There are usually two types of students worrying a lot around finals time (at least, more than the usual desire for everything to go well). The first is the person who has skipped class frequently and doesn't have a grasp on the material. Now that it has come time to take the final, they're in a real tough spot trying to absorb so much material. This is a fairly rational fear, because their immediate goals and desires and happiness are connected to passing the course.

Then there's the other type of test taker, and everyone probably knows at least one. Regardless of having a GPA above 3.0, or 3.5, or 3.8, there's still panic about every single test. The person feels they are not prepared, regardless of the fact that every piece of evidence points to the contrary - they've been to every class, taken extensive notes, done all the readings, met with the professor and started studying two weeks before the class. Despite this, they're not only afraid of the test, but its larger implications for their failing in life.

It's well-documented that anxiety or stress has detrimental affects to both the body and mind. But while the West has turned to powerful drugs for the solution, the East has had a concept and solution to it for literally millennia - mindfulness. They've also had a path to mindfulness - meditation - which is a well documented method to changing ones own body chemistry.

A useful visualization for someone initially trying to understand their mind and how meditation can affect it is picturing the mind and thoughts like a river. One can't rationalize one's way out of ones own mind. Similarly, one can't grab at the water to escape a current, one must swim. Swimming out of the river of thoughts is accomplished through meditation. Attempting to justify insecurities with rational thought, on the contrary, only feeds the thoughts and emotions and adds energy to them. Besides, regardless of how much evidence one can provide oneself for an irrational fear one knows in the heart to be false, it won't matter. The truths are not found in the details. The truth is found in the realization that the anxiety itself is the problem. The question - what am I going to do with the rest of my life? - can't be solved with rational thought. How can one know what the opportunities will be in the future? All the question serves to do is isolate the individual from the reality of the present moment and peace of mind - it's perfectly fine to simply not think about it. What would change if the thought disappeared? Most likely, the answer is nothing, except one would gain more peace. The constant "what ifs" are themselves the problem.

How should one get out of a river of ones own thoughts? The way to silence the mind is to grab hold of a strong rock - the present moment. This is done by focusing the mind on the breath. The river races past, pulling you along with it. The mind returns to the breath. And as you get pulled downstream, be mindful of your surroundings, anchoring yourself to the breath and the realization of the present moment, until it is easy to climb out onto the bank. It will be possible to slow thoughts down considerably after some practice, and at that point deep relaxation will be achieved. It will become easier and easier to allow the thoughts to pass unhindered, to simply step back and observe them. And then, after practicing for some time with dedication, it will be possible to stop the mind entirely, and simply be. Then as one sits on the shore, the river becomes a tranquil lake.

The best way to start is to pick up a book on mindfulness, which is a secular practice of observing one's own mind and can deepen the spiritual insight of people of all faiths. My favorite book is titled "Mindfulness in Plain English" by Bhante Gunaratana.

Senior Columnist Colin Megill is a 7th-semester foreign relations major. His column appears on Wednesdays.

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