Don't believe everything you think.
Five Breaths. You are about to take the first step in learning to meditate. Start by settling comfortably in your seat. Close your eyes. Slowly, deeply draw in a breath. Feel your chest rise and your belly expand. Inhale until you feel your lung tissue stretch and flood with oxygen. Now exhale slowly. Let your chest relax, your belly go limp. Then take four more breaths the same way.
Your breathing can be ever so relaxing. Why? Because, believe it or not, your mind follows your breath. As you deliberately savor the cool air flowing in, and feel the warm air coursing out, you slow the flow of your thoughts and emotions. As you slow your breath, you soothe your mind. As an experiment, try the reverse: pant like a dog. You'll find you feel a bit nervy.
If you breathe each breath with full attention, you also narrow your mental focus. When you focus on just one thing, your mind lets go of a lot of other things-often dozens or hundreds of others. Consider that, as a routine, you think about one thought per second. That's about 3,600 per waking hour, or 60,000 thoughts per day. Cutting down on all the hustle and bustle can dampen a lot of tension and anxiety.
Why is this so? Because an overly busy mind runs away from the present moment. It flashes between the future and the past. At one moment, you're busy regretting a spat with a friend. The next, you're fretting over blowing the toast at your brother's wedding. Absorbed in the past and future, you lose track of the here and now. And that is where stress arises: from missing the joy of the present moment, getting lost in the past and future.
Paying attention to what you're doing right now is mindfulness. Just breathing-that's mindfulness! Just walking-that's mindfulness! Just eating-that's mindfulness! In mindfulness is relaxation. How many moments of the gazillion in your life have you lived mindfully? The more you can count, the better you probably feel.
Paying little attention to the present moment is mindlessness. Just regretting or fretting or wishing or expecting-that's mindlessness. In this chapter, you'll discover that stress comes from mindlessness. It comes from letting ourselves get swept away in an avalanche of thought and emotion. We may find many gems in that avalanche. Gems of wisdom, compassion, grace, creativity, and joy. We don't want to lose them. But we do want to dodge the hurtful stones of stressful thoughts that come whistling by at the same time.
Makings of a Stressful Life
In Maria Borne's life you might see hints of how stress disrupts the calm of your own life. Enlisting in the U.S. Army at nineteen, Maria became a one-star general's secretary in just four years. She won the job as a specialist when the general passed over a pool of other worthy candidates from the entire post. She handled all her boss's communications at division headquarters-and even ran the office on her own when he flew overseas. Maria had succeeded in a way many of her peers could envy.
But consider how, after "succeeding," she felt more stress. "Part of my job was to be the ideal soldier," she explains. So she trained to meet those high expectations. Among her top goals: to hold her top-ten spot in her group's physical-training test. To do so, she got up at 4:30 a.m., ran a loop through the neighborhood, spit-shined her boots, and donned a starched uniform. At 6:30 a.m., she did physical training. She worked out-doing lots of sit-ups and push-ups-for sixty to ninety minutes.
Now consider Maria's job duties. Under the army's open-door policy, all soldiers can call a general to air a gripe. They can call a general's secretary, too. Maria thus fielded five or six ticklish calls every day. Parents railed about daughters' or sons' treatment by officers. Soldiers pleaded for leniency after crimes or drunkenness. Maria listened. She absorbed the distress. Then she played back the reality of army regulations to her callers. "I was always the bearer of bad news," she says.
Maria didn't have a lot of control over her work. Does this sound familiar? A lack of control stresses all of us. In Maria's case, the stress was compounded by a huge workload. When soldiers needed answers, she had to rattle them off. If she couldn't, she had five minutes, tops, to produce them. "I had to be the fount of information," she says. She busied herself reading anything she could get her hands on about military regulation. She was frantic to keep up.
Maria worked, as many people do, in constant fear-the fear of not measuring up. And for Maria this was acute. "I was working in a fishbowl," she explains. "All eyes were on me." As the top secretary, she couldn't screw up. Everyone would see. Everyone would talk. Maria dreaded not meeting her goals. She feared defeat. She especially feared defeat in so visible a job.
We hope you don't have as stressful a job as Maria's. But you probably recognize some of your own patterns of stressful thinking. Like Maria, you may fasten your mind on meeting sky-high (too-high!) expectations. You may strive for control you can't secure. You may hunger for recognition. You may feel vulnerable. Or helpless. Or hopeless. Try as you may, you feel overwhelmed by second thoughts about the past and second-guessing the future. In simpler terms, you may find yourself stuck with the same burden as Maria: "I was carrying all this stress and not putting it down," she says. "I could not relax."
How Your Mind Reels
You don't have to have a high-pressure job to feel stress and anxiety. Most people from all walks of life have to cope with stress. A Lou Harris poll found that nearly nine out of ten Americans experience "high" levels of stress. A report from Indiana University says that one quarter of Americans have felt they were on the verge of a nervous breakdown. No wonder that among the twenty top-selling drugs in the United States are four for depression and anxiety.
But how can this be so? You may be familiar with surveys of people's well-being. These show consistently that most people are happy most of the time. And for the most part it doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, or from a rich or poor country (unless you're destitute). Most people report that they feel at least mildly happy. They say they are satisfied with work, marriage, health, finances, friendship.
But here's the catch: Counting yourself as happy doesn't mean you enjoy a life free of stress. No matter who you are, stress may get the better of you. As we've started to find with Maria, there's a simple reason: our minds often have a "mind" of their own. They get carried away. As novelist/essayist Virginia Woolf put it: "My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery-always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in the mud."
When our minds get carried away in this fashion, they can sweep us into states of stress and anxiety-even when nothing in our lives appears upsetting. One reason is that our minds work so fast. They pile up thoughts at such a rapid clip that they can knock us silly in seconds. Scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi notes that our mind can process seven items at once-items such as sounds, odors, images, or emotions like joy or anger. He notes further that we need only 1/18 of a second to process each item. The result is that we can process 126 pieces of information every second. That's 7,560 per minute, half a million per hour!
Our unconscious mind-out of sight but not, so to speak, out of mind-churns through information even faster. Thousands of times faster. It is in the unconscious that we store habits of how to think, feel, and act. But we don't see the unconscious with more than dim awareness. We only see hints of it in puns, jokes, slang, dreams, and slips of the tongue. We also see hints as we repeat behaviors throughout our adult lives that we learned in early childhood.
Such capacity does the mind have! Neuroscientists estimate the human brain contains 100 billion neurons. Each neuron has 1,000 connections. Each connection fires on average 200 times per second, resulting in 20,000 trillion calculations per second! With such horsepower, the mind can easily produce all the action of a three-ring circus. Imagine the scene: In the left ring, we run old newsreels of childhood. We relive a game of tag, or we remember a scolding. In the middle ring, we concoct visions of the future. We win the most-valuable-employee award, or take in a movie. In the right, we track what we're doing right now. We're pedaling our bike through potholes in a rainstorm. All the while, we feel the brush of related feelings, thoughts, sensations, urges.
We may enjoy this circus. At least sometimes. It's titillating, after all. But the good circus acts always come with the bad. Sometimes they're overwhelmed by the bad. If you're under pressure at work, you may find this circus especially unpleasant. You may fret about all that could fail tomorrow or next week. You may worry about how your next project will affect your career. You may even lay awake nights in spite of recent successes.
You may find, in short, that your mind is wracked with negative thought. One businessman we know described this state colorfully: "I had this dog and cat fight in my head and I was in the middle of it," he said. "It felt like an infinite number of cats and dogs."
You may have exhausted yourself spawning thought that triggered just this kind of mental conflict. Instead of focusing on the here and now, you may have let your mind churn with useless cat-and-dog thinking. If so, you have to ask yourself: When you feel tired at the end of the day, are you tired from your job? Or are you tired from countless-needless-revolutions of your mind?
The "One-Minute Mind"
In trying to heal your mind, you will come upon a startling fact: When your mind runs out of control, it may seem like an infinite number of thoughts are running through it. But if you write them down, you'll find no more than several dozen. Our minds rarely spew forth as much original thought as we think. We're creatures of habit. Roughly nineteen out of twenty thoughts we think today are the same as those from yesterday.
Despite our huge potential for fresh thinking, our mind mostly repeats. Over and over. In spite of flashes of creativity, we largely step from one time-worn piece of mental turf to the next. We deepen decades-old ruts minute after minute after minute. At any given time, the best and worst of our thinking bubbles nonstop in our heads. The clairvoyant and confused, the generous and greedy, the loving and hateful, the courageous and fearful.
For all the variety, the perceptions that run through our minds each day are similar. The memories are similar. The urges, the emotions, the plans-they're all similar. If you pluck from your day one minute of thought, you may easily pluck a miniature of your whole life. This is the day-to-day mind. The everyday mind. The habitual mind. We call it the "one-minute mind."
The one-minute mind is a name for the mind that directs us along habitual pathways of thought. It bedevils us by putting us on negative tracks of thinking. It recycles painful memories. It guides us mindlessly into age-old behaviors. It is a mind that often runs at warp speed. We experience this mind all day, and we know it far less well than we think. And it is this mind-the one-minute mind-that fires the boilers of stress.
Take for a moment the mind of a teenager. You can imagine the types of thinking that play over and over: Can I make my grades? Do I like chemistry? Why am I even taking chemistry? Will I pass the class? Am I ever going to get a girlfriend (boyfriend)? Should I be in school? The one-minute mind runs back and forth over this and other territory time and time again. It can put any teen in a whirlwind of anxiety. Yet it often amounts to much ado about nothing.
Most of us, aware of the misery in the world, feel we have little to complain about. That's why so many of us report we're happy. But our minds are always attacking our contentedness. We feel hassled with doubt. We feel pestered over trifles. Even if we don't have a one-star general rapping on our desk, we let life's irritants, big and small, get under our skin. The result is that we have trouble becoming happy at our core. We feel stuck with a sense of dissatisfaction....
...and we learn that we can let go of the dissatisfaction through meditation.