The anticipation of getting a shot terrified me as a teenager, so I stirred muddy water.

A 10 minute wait time. I could imagine that needle entering my arm, piercing layers of skin and the jolt of pain.

I distracted myself with my phone. I practiced tensing and untensing my arm to make the needle enter more smoothly. I tried to shake out the anxiety. I looked up online how to be less scared of it. My eyes read the pages, but I dismissed everything on there. I saw nothing I could act on.

I heard my name called.

I sat down on a plain red stool. The nurse asked if I was afraid of needles. I said, “Sorta”

While she applied the alcohol to my arm, my mind raced. How would the needle feel entering the skin? I played with the thought, hoping that exposure would make it hurt less. I thought focusing on it intently was how people learned to deal with it.

My body responded to my mind, tensing my arm up. That tension made the needle hurt way more than it should have. And I had deliberately made the choice to focus harder on it to make it hurt less. It had the opposite effect both mentally and physically.

Stirring Muddy Water

What do we normally do when we’re exposed to unwanted thoughts? Thoughts of disappointment, self-loathing, anxiety, and depression?

We’ve been conditioned to treat any problem with an action-based solution. If you’re sick, take pills. If you’re bored, do something. If you’re unhappy, spend money.

This is our cultural crux. If you have a problem, use a solution.

This process aided Western progress for centuries. It convinces us to understand things at their deepest level. It shows us how to make progress, set goals, and take action. It made many Western cultures the peak superpowers of the world. Because we can recognize the problem, and we can recognize there’s a solution.

And while the action bias normally saves us, it sometimes screws with us. Especially when it comes to managing thoughts.

Cognitively, when our minds are intruded upon with unwanted thoughts, our first inclination is to do something to get rid of them, or to distract ourselves so we don’t need to think about it.

East Asian cultures understood things differently. They saw systems of energy, meridians, and chi. And while I think those systems are scientifically untrue, I also think that they’re onto one thing.

That sometimes, you let things go as a solution.

Because where our pills don’t work, learning how to distance ourselves from thoughts does work.

Author and pioneer of Zen in Western culture, Alan Watts, says this in The Way Of Zen:

“Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.” 1

Muddy Water from Alan Watts

When our minds are loud with mental noise, our reaction is to stir the water. To fight storming thoughts with more thoughts. Usually, doing more is the answer to this problem. But we can’t solve the problem of too many thoughts, with more thoughts.

The solution to mental noise is not doing more. It’s doing nothing.

Meditation is how we train “doing nothing”. It isn’t sitting on a stool or transcending time and space. It’s a word for “focus training”.

Meditation trains you to distance yourself from intruding thoughts. It teaches you to let those thoughts sink down to the bottom, so your mind is clear. 2

Just like clearing muddy water, we can clear our minds by leaving them alone.

The harder part is knowing how.

How to Cut Through Mental Noise

Cutting through mental noise is a deceptively simple process. Try this process out without judging its efficacy. And even if you don’t feel it will work, put yourself through the behavior and intend for it to work.

1) Recognize that you’re mind is full of unwanted thoughts. Maybe you’ll notice tension in your neck, tightness in your stomach, a little sweat, or that feeling of anxiety. Maybe you’ll notice that every new thought spawns another new thought. Whatever cue you use, recognize that your head is full.

2) Pause for a moment. Stop what you’re physically doing. Take a deep breath, and focus just on the sensation of your breathing. Do it as many times as you need, until you recognize your heart rate going down, and the tension pump away. Don’t mind your thoughts, which might resurface. Think of them as background noise. The foreground is your breathing.

3) Let the thoughts go. When you’re calmer, let your thoughts go. The #1 priority is bringing your attention away from your thoughts. Observe that they’re still in the background of your head. Let them settle. Imagine the muddy water in the jar, and imagine each speck as a thought, slowly settling down. 3

With practice, you get better at managing your anxiety. You learn how to near-instantaneously command mental clarity. And you recognize that you are not your thoughts. You are an observer of them, and choose which ones you want to focus on.

It’s the beginning of recognizing that your thoughts aren’t in control. You are.

Footnotes

  1. From The Way Of Zen, by Alan Watts
  2. What I’m sharing is basic mindfulness meditation. Forbes and Harvard Business Review share research and pragmatic uses of mindfulness meditation, if you want to know more about the research.
  3. Or, choose your own visualization. I imagine the rain, and find total clarity in a few seconds now. Some imagine their thoughts as clouds, drifting by slowly and far away. Others imagine a bird’s eye view, with their thoughts on the ground. Whatever you imagine, it should make your thoughts a “physical” thing that you walk away from
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