Quieting the Mind

A quiet mind is a strong mind. In an age of busy-ness and urgency, of multi-tasking and work overload, it’d be understandable to think that what’s required is a really switched-on mind, or a really busy mind. 

But, nothing could be farther from the truth!  The noisier the mind, the less productive it becomes. This is because it is actually engaging in switch tasking – incorrectly known as multi-tasking – which is really counter-productive: it degrades tasks, stresses the brain and body, and actually takes longer! 

By contrast, a calm mind leads to efficiency, mental clarity and high productivity.  And central to this is mindfulness. Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.

When we practice this, we are training our brain to be less reactive and more objective. We become more effective at dealing with everyday tasks because we’re less distracted, more aware, more observant.

  • Mindful presence is not necessarily meditation. We can be mindful in fishing, cleaning, conversing, working, etc.
  • Nor is it merely relaxing or letting the mind drift.
  • Rather, it is constituted by mental ‘work’ in the sense that it is not easy, it takes focus and effort, but it can be substantially strengthened as a personal capability.

Why do we want a quiet mind? Well, there is a huge range of empirically validated physical, cognitive and emotional benefits:

  • Physical: Increased immune function, lowered blood pressure, lowered heart rate, less inflammation.
  • Cognitive: Increased awareness & perceptual acuity, higher brain functioning, better attention and focus, Increased clarity in thought.
  • Emotional: Lower anxiety, more calmness and stillness, feeling more connected.

Importantly, all this is often reflected in increased density of grey matter in the brain regions linked to these functions, so it is actually hardwiring a capacity for mindfulness.

How do we use breathing to calm the body and the mind? By modulating the sympathetic and the parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system is often described as the fight-flight system. When it is operant, heart rate and blood pressure increase, the body accesses its energy stores, and we breathe faster to access more oxygen. All this in service of urgent life-saving action. It is meant to be a short-term response and is damaging to the body and mind when chronically activated, high causing inflammation, anxiety, and impaired cognitive function.

The parasympathetic system, often called the rest and digest system, is the other branch of the autonomic system designed to quieten the body: lowering blood pressure and heart rate, lessening inflammation, stimulating the immune system and digestion and leaving us calmer and with a quieter mind.  Ideally these systems are in constant modulation with each other: each in-breath energising us and each outbreath relaxing us. We want this balance of activation and relaxation to be optimally productive and well.

One technique that is particularly effective in restoring our balance is extended out-breathing. How does it work? By doubling the out-breath’s duration relative to the in-breath, over time you are decreasing the ratio of oxygen to carbon dioxide in the blood. When your brain recognises this, it ‘concludes’ you are very relaxed or chilled as you are not breathing in so much so, it initiates a relaxation response including switching off the fight-flight system in favour of the parasympathetic system.

The extended out-breathing exercise is simple: you sit comfortably upright then take a deep breath for a 4 count, then breathe out for an 8 count. Don’t strain or struggle. If it starts to come easily, increase the in-breath and out-breath counts as you continue. Try 5 in and 10 out, 6 in and 12 out etc. With practice you can get excellent results in several minutes. Increasing the lengths of the breaths makes the technique more efficient because of the doubling and it also expands and loosens the intercostal muscles of the rib cage making deep breathing more natural.

The most common mindfulness practice is Mindfulness of the Breath and it’s quite a simple approach. Once again you sit comfortably upright and take a nice deep breath and let it out slowly.  Here is a suggested approach:

  • First notice sounds outside you, gradually turning your attention to sounds closer to you and eventually to sounds within you.
  • Then find a location (nose, throat, chest, belly, back) where it is easiest for you to notice the sensations of breathing.
  • Begin by counting breaths. Count ‘1’ for the in-breath/out-breath.  Then ‘2’ for the next in-breath/out-breath, and so on up to 10.
  • The start from 1 again.
  • After 30 breaths observed like this let go of counting and see if you can simply observe, without changing, the sensations of breathing. Do not try to breathe in a special or ‘better’ way.  Allow your body to breathe naturally.
  • When you inevitably notice your mind is not paying attention, intentionally pull your awareness back to the breath.
  • Sometimes it is useful to ‘note’ what distracted you by using a label (‘thought’, ‘memory’, ‘imagining’, ‘anxiety’ boredom’, ‘discomfort’, ‘itch’ etc)
  • Then tug awareness back to your intended object:  the sensations of breathing

It’s absolutely normal in mindfulness practices for our attention to wander. But of course, It also does this generally in life while we are undertaking everyday tasks somewhat mindlessly. Think of showering, brushing teeth, eating meals, dressing yourself, walking. How much do you pay attention to the actual activity? One way of building your mindfulness capability is to turn these everyday activities into mindfulness practices.

Just choose one, and it might be showering.  Practice noticing every feature of that, every sensation every sound and every sight. Do this daily for 3 weeks and notice the calmness and serenity that result. Then switch to another task and do the same. These activities won’t take any longer and perhaps you’ll also notice that you do the tasks much better!

Another very frequent everyday activity in which our attention drifts is when we are listening while other people are speaking!  We frequently are ‘allegedly’ listening as we get lost in our own thoughts, or in our own desire to speak. This is an opportunity to practice what I call ‘interpersonal mindfulness’. Here the object of attention is not the breathing but is another human being.

You try to be 100% present and listen with your whole being. Become genuinely interested and curious in understanding the other person. Push away your thoughts, brilliant ideas and desire to respond in favour of this curious listening.  Of course, you can smile, nod, respond etc, but limit your talking in favour of listening deeply.  Practice this for 3 weeks.

Notice what improvements result interpersonally: your insights into people; your own sense of calmness and affection for others; improvements in relationships; people relaxing and being more open around you, and so on.

So, remember, a quiet mind is a strong mind, and it leads directly to a happier mind.