There are times when I let my thoughts roam free as wild mares dashing across some quiet beach in the Outer Banks. It’s usually when I’m brainstorming for a creative project, reveling in my imagination to manifest the next level in my glow up, or daydreaming about my flavor of the week fantasy men.
More often than not, though, I have to corral my thoughts, or those feral beasts will stampede through my psyche and graze willy nilly on my peace of mind. It’s a daily challenge that nearly everyone faces on some level.
How does one navigate each day with consistent mental calm and clarity?
Good mental health is not an easy thing to maintain in a culture that is always pressing us on every side to be, do, and have something other than what already is. Even in our promotion of mindfulness and the practices that help us to maintain it, we often slip into perfectionism, greed, impatience, entitlement, and the rigid runaway-go-getter mentality that is ultimately unsustainable and opposed to the very stability that we want and need.
Yet, with responsibilities and the fundamental human instinct to improve always bearing down on us, stagnation is certainly not an option. Life is a constant balancing act that requires minute-to-minute adjustment to the waves of change.
How do you adjust AND stay on course? How do you avoid being taken out by the undertow?
When I first delved into the philosophy behind yoga over ten years ago, “yogas chitta vritti nirodhah” became one of my favorite mantras. I had learned some skills to manage anxiety which first became a challenge for me in my mid teens, and applying mantras like this was the next step in developing a consistently calmer mind.
The phrase is one of the Yoga Sutras credited to the sage Patanjali, and the literal word for word meaning is:
YOGA = to yoke, to join, to unite
CHITTA = consciousness
VRITTI = fluctuations
NIRODAH = quieting of
The aim in applying this mantra is uniting consciousness and quieting its fluctuations—achieving a more balanced mental state by calming one’s mental chatter.
It’s important to note that the elimination of thoughts is not the goal here. Many people who are newly drawn to tools like yoga and meditation often get frustrated with their inability to totally quiet their minds and stop thinking during practice. I used to feel the same way, but now I don’t think that is the point. We need our thoughts. How effective can it be to exert so much mental force in an attempt to wrestle one’s mind into submission? I’ve found that this is actually counter to the essence of mindfulness.
I’ve never embraced complete removal of ego as a worthwhile goal. How can one be “mindful” without any awareness of self? How can one be, do, and have more or grow as a human being without some awareness of “I”, which is derived from the ego?
It is necessary to balance the ego and the mind, and this ultimately involves balancing the thoughts.
The challenges of our current time cannot be underestimated. We’ve got a global pandemic in full swing which seems like only a backdrop to political chaos, a centuries old “soft” race war, severe economic uncertainty, climate instability, and cultural shifts that reveal a massive erosion of our people skills and ability to see the nuance in our experiences.
For me, the COVID crisis has been like a canvas upon which a slew of stressors have been vividly painted. Homeschooling as a full-time essential worker, navigating marital separation and co-parenting, deaths of loved ones, strained friendships, and a raging skin condition that sometimes requires me to bandage half of my face, are some of the challenges that I juggle daily. I’m sure many of you reading this could describe some pretty colorful “paintings” of your own.
In times like these I kick my coping strategies into high gear, strategies that I learned while navigating some early life challenges and the highs and lows of daily life. I start with being brutally honest about what I feel.
In these times, I am in physical pain. I am hypervigilant and untrusting. I am extremely tired (mentally and physically) and likely sleep-deprived. Boiling hot resentment radiates from my chest. And I am hungry. Reeeeally hungry…for carbs and sweets mostly, but I seek blood.
My dreams become more vivid. My sensitivity to light and noise increases. All my emotional grievances flood to the surface, begging to be purged, and any unfortunate soul with whom I have a bone to pick is in danger of elimination. I am the werewolf who pleads with her friend to lock her away just before the rising of the full moon, so I hide it well.
I journal it, speak it softly in prayer, and maybe confess it once and for all to that good friend in order to get it out of my system. I accept the fact that every single one of my emotions are here to help me, but they don’t run the show. They serve as a barometer of my circumstances and help me to determine what my priorities should be in any given moment. They are not in control. I am.
So, once I remember that, I freeze. Now it’s time to really get quiet. I turn down the volume on all the input, opinions, distractions, advice, sales gimmicks, news feeds, DM’s, clap backs, passive aggressive snipes and lowbrow remarks, shallow connections and insignificant attachments, sensual parasites, and social weeds that threaten to deplete me.
When times get tight, it’s not just economic and social measures that have to get a little draconian. Some heavy-handed self-preservation becomes necessary, too. Without slowing down, logging off, and getting quiet, there’s no way I can address the unhealthy habits and negative thought patterns that created all this chatter in the first place.
Once I’ve gotten quiet, I can make better use of my time. I recalibrate my daily spiritual practice. I reaffirm my commitment to getting up early and getting centered. I sit outside and meditate at the start of my day, and spend my first moments just enjoying the natural environment around me. This helps me to recharge my sense of gratitude.
I recommit to daily rest, and stop going to bed at ungodly hours (the hardest part by far). I get reenergized through exercise and preparing healthier meals. I can read more, write more, get lost in more uplifting music. I can sit on my ass and binge watch fascinating documentaries on Curiosity Stream.
Soon enough, I’m ready to toss our bikes onto the back of my car and take the kids on a trail ride. A few days later I may have the energy to make a call to a cousin or friend I haven’t heard from in a while. The next day, I may even go to work without cursing.
I demonstrate all of this openly to my kids, and even find humorous and age-appropriate ways to talk to them about it so that they can see me modeling the emotional intelligence that they need to develop.
Every time you come back to your senses, you recognize that you will need to push through some inertia—maybe a lot of inertia. You have to continue doing the THINGS, even if you don’t feel like it, and that’s fine. But beating yourself up and trying to grind against the grain will likely not work in the long run.
Get quiet. Conserve your energy, protect and take care of yourself from a place of yielding rather than resentment, and prioritize. You can’t do it all, but you gotta do something, so you have to do what counts.
Self-care is more than pedicures, herbal baths, and good wine, although those are all things I thoroughly enjoy. It is making time to get to the bottom of why you feel hungry, angry, tired, and unsafe.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with using a rose-petal-laced milk bath and a little Pinot Grigio to help get you there. Our sweet indulgences, in reasonable amounts, can be valuable tools for keeping burnout at bay. Just make sure you sit down somewhere and develop a long game approach to your well-being so that you can truly experience quality of life and longevity.
I’m a July Leo with a serious jones for the beach, so excuse my extended metaphors about wildness, water and sun. Remember those Outer Banks horses I mentioned? Well, at some point during one of my ass-loafing nerd fests, I learned that they often swim between barrier islands to access new grazing areas.
Horses can swim, but they find it hard to turn in water. They may even sometimes swim right out to sea because they instinctively want to swim in a straight line. But that’s where the greatest resistance is, and that’s where the danger is, because clearly, horses don’t belong in the deep sea.
They don’t always see the value in following the path of least resistance, of turning, swimming along the shoreline, and using the natural current to push them to where they want to be. And I suspect they don’t like being tamed either, having bridles and reins strapped to their heads, and being our servants for life.
Most things, however, require us to counterbalance the wild and the tamed. If you want your mind to help you ride off into the sunset of your best life, it must be trained, daily. You also have to know how and when to let it jump into the ocean and simply swim with the current.