The Joy of Not Thinking: Installing your off switch

Sometimes we enjoy the company of our own thoughts. Pleasant thoughts, constructive thoughts, thoughts that support our taking action — this genre of thinking is helpful. Yet at other times, our thoughts can be troublesome — negative, intrusive, obsessive, ruminative … we’ve all been there. It’s the nature of mind to think yet sometimes it would be nice to be in charge and have it back off in response to: “enough already!” 

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There are times when a mental off switch would be helpful. In the yoga tradition, there are specific meditation techniques that develop a mind that is concentrated. The technique to skillfully develop a concentrated mind employs the simultaneous focusing of attention on multiple elements: 1) breath, 2) mantra, and 3) fixation. More on this later. 

The yogic approach to meditation differs from mindfulness. In the mindfulness tradition, awareness of breath is a core practice. Attention is turned toward sensation of breath and when the mind wanders, attention is redirected back to the breath … again and again. This technique increases awareness of the present moment and is instrumental in reducing anxiety and increasing quality of life. About 75% of my personal meditations are in the mindfulness tradition. And there are times when I turn toward the yoga tradition and benefit from thinking less, building the skill of deliberately quieting my mind — installing the off switch

You may have heard of TM, or Transcendental Meditation. This practice is rooted in the yoga tradition. Transcendental meditative states refer to creating and sustaining a state of consciousness that transcends ordinary mental states that are on autopilot, e.g. a mind that’s lost in its own thinking. This extraordinary mental state is obtained by developing a concentrated mind - a mind that transcends ordinary states of consciousness, a mind that is skillfully free of thoughts.

So how do you install your off switch? First, it’s helpful to notice throughout your day when you have moments of mental ease, moments of less thinking. Furthermore, notice how your mind begins to disengage as you fall asleep. This doesn’t always happen easily but notice when it does. Cultivate awareness of how your mind already knows how to turn itself off. 

Installing your off switch:

  1. Bring attention to your breath. Experiment paying attention to the sound of your breath (yoga tradition) or sensation of breath (mindfulness tradition), or a bit of both. 
  2. It’s relatively easy to keep attention on your breath, especially if you constrict the back of the throat a bit so your inhales and exhales are more audible. It’s a bit like fogging a mirror — try it first with mouth open, then with mouth closed. 
  3. Begin to add additional elements to help your mind focus with relative ease. So-hum, a simple mantra that sounds a bit like the breath is helpful. Imagine you hear “so” on each inhale and “hum” on each exhale. Feel free to substitute an English word of your choosing, e.g. peace, love, calm, etc. 
  4. After settling into the sound of the breath and your mantra, give the mind an additional element of focus rather than on its own thoughts. Fixate your visual attention on a point between the eyebrows (the third eye in yoga), as if you are gazing inside your head. Your eyes may lift and converge a bit. 
  5. Bring curiosity to the space that emerges between your thoughts. The space my be brief. Just notice the moments of when your off switch is active. 
  6. Begin to pay more attention to the space between thoughts and less attention to the thoughts themselves. Just let thoughts come and go like clouds in the sky. 
  7. You may find it helpful to make this a playful game. No effort required. No right or wrong. Just have fun finding the space between thoughts and bringing more awareness to the space. Suspend concern of how brief the space may be. 

Installing your off switch takes time and patience. It’s fascinating what we can train the mind to do. You can build the skill of noticing the space between your thoughts, anchoring attention on that space, and sustaining that space for longer periods of time. Three elements of concentration will support your install: 1) sound of breath, 2) mantra, and 3) third eye. 

I have been benefiting from this approach to meditation for over 30 years. As with any skill, when my practice is erratic, I’m no longer on top of my game — my mind delivers  many more intrusive thoughts. 

Have fun with your install. Enjoy the many benefits of having an off switch!