Let’s try a little experiment right now. Finish this paragraph, then close your eyes for thirty seconds. During that time, try to think about absolutely nothing. Are you ready? Go!
My guess is that wasn’t very easy. Most likely, a variety of random thoughts popped into your head. Maybe you thought about an assignment that’s due tomorrow. Or a movie you saw recently. Or an argument you had with a friend.
If you’ve ever tried meditation, you’re familiar with the experience you just had. You closed your eyes and tried to silence your mind, even for just a few seconds, but thoughts still kept popping up.
Zen Buddhism teachers talk a lot about this “mind chatter” you just witnessed. And the thing about that mind chatter is that it never stops.
By practicing techniques like mindfulness meditation, you can learn to quiet your mind chatter. And while that is certainly useful, it also has another significant benefit. That benefit is the ability to differentiate between the “two minds.”1 Let me explain.
The Thinking Mind and the Observing Mind
When you close your eyes and try to think of nothing and thoughts still keep popping up, obviously your mind is thinking.
But have you ever asked yourself this: “If my mind is thinking, then who is observing my mind thinking?”
It’s weird, isn’t it?
When you did the exercise at the beginning of this article, and your mind kept returning to your assignment at work, who was it that was watching your mind worry about work?
It was your mind watching your mind.
In Zen, this is referred to as the two minds—the “thinking mind” and the “observing mind.”
This idea has been around for centuries in Buddhism, and contemporary therapies like acceptance and commitment therapy are beginning to implement it after realizing how useful it is for solving everyday emotional problems.
An Intrusive White Bear
The problem with the thinking mind is that you can’t completely control it. To prove that point, let’s do another quick experiment. Once again, finish this paragraph, then close your eyes for thirty seconds. This time, you can think about whatever you want—except a white bear. Are you ready? Go!
Now, not only did you think about a white bear. You were also watching yourself think about a white bear. Your observing mind was watching your thinking mind produce thoughts and images of the bear. It didn’t matter that you didn’t want to do it. In fact, the more you tried to suppress the bear, the more likely you were to think about it2.
That’s the nature of the thinking mind. It’s pretty much always active. It’s chattering away while you’re waiting in line, when you’re trying to solve a difficult task at work, when you “tune out” of conversations with people, or when you’re trying to go to sleep.
If your thinking mind starts obsessing over your assignment at work, your observing mind can’t stop it. The same applies to emotions. And that’s where a lot of our suffering comes from. Not from negative emotions themselves, but from our tendency to helplessly get sucked into them.
Don’t Try to Change, Just Observe
Here’s the key takeaway in this article: most of our negative psychological and emotional experiences happen because we can’t tell the difference between our thinking mind and our observing mind.
Most people want to get rid of negative thoughts and feelings. They don’t want to feel stress, loneliness, anger, jealousy, and anxiety. And that makes sense. But the thing is, you can’t control your thoughts and emotions. Why? Because they belong to your thinking mind. Thoughts and feelings have popped up throughout your life, and they will continue to do so for as long as you live.
What you can do, however, is change the way you relate to those thoughts and feelings. You can learn not to get sucked into them when they arise. And the way to do that is to pay mindful attention through the observing mind, without getting caught up in the drama of the thinking mind.
The Power of Mindfulness
Jon Kabat-Zinn is a scientist and meditation teacher known for bringing mindfulness into mainstream Western medicine and society. In his book Full Catastrophe Living3, he defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Mindfulness is extremely helpful because it increases your metacognition—your ability to think about your thinking. And the better able you are to do that, the more you can stay with your observing mind instead of getting sucked into the thoughts and feelings of your thinking mind.
Practicing mindfulness means you pay attention to what’s going on in your mind and body without judging or getting caught up in it. As you keep practicing, that way of relating to your thoughts and feelings will start spilling over into the rest of your life. Over time, you’ll develop a more empowering way to deal with what’s going on inside you.
Mindfulness Changes Your Brain
Now, even if you think this concept of the observing and thinking minds sounds a bit hokey, the benefits of mindfulness are rooted in modern science.
Brain imaging studies show that an eight-week course in mindfulness-based stress reduction can be enough to shrink the part of the brain known as the amygdala. That’s a primal region of the brain associated with fear and emotion and involved in the body’s stress response. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex—associated with higher-order brain functions such as awareness, concentration, and decision making—becomes thicker4.
Similar to the way physical exercise creates changes in your muscles, mindfulness training creates changes in your brain. And those changes promote a huge number of benefits, including decreased stress5, better sleep6, happier relationships7, less anxiety8, and sharper concentration9.
And those are just a few examples. The research on mindfulness has exploded lately. More than two thousand scientific articles on the subject have been published at the time of this writing. And with all the amazing benefits being uncovered, it’s no surprise many health experts think mindfulness will be the next public health revolution.
Mindfulness and Self-Discipline
Now, besides optimizing your health and well-being, I’ve found that mindfulness is also a tremendous self-discipline booster.
I used to take my thoughts and feelings very seriously. Whenever one of them showed up, I’d immediately identify with it and adapt to it.
So, if a thought told me that my writing sucks, I’d throw my draft in the trash and do something else. And if I felt restless or bored, I’d immediately look for something else to do.
These days, I know that my thoughts and feelings aren’t the “truth.” They’re simply the result of my thinking mind. And that understanding, combined with consistent mindfulness practice, makes it possible for me to choose a better response.
Instead of getting sucked into my feelings and thoughts, I simply watch them through my observing mind. I let the drama of my thinking mind unfold. I listen to the self-criticism. I feel the self-doubt. Then I do the work anyway. And the more I do that, the less power my thinking mind has over me. The thoughts or feelings that show up rarely control me. Almost always, I’ll be able to take action anyway.
That’s how I stay self-disciplined. It’s how I do the things I don’t want to do. And hopefully, I’ve convinced you to practice mindfulness as well. If so, the first thing you need to do is establish a regular meditation practice. Let’s have a look at how to do that next.
How to Meditate
There are a lot of ways to meditate. But our concern is not to find the perfect form of meditation. What’s much more important is to create a daily habit of meditation. And to do that, our practice needs to be as simple as possible:
- Start small. If you haven’t meditated much in the past, or if you’ve had trouble sticking to the practice, make it ridiculously easy. Commit to just one minute every day. Establish the behavior first. When the practice has become a habit, you can start adding more time to it.
- Pick a trigger. Create an if-then plan for your meditation practice. For example, “If I’ve eaten breakfast, then I will meditate for one minute.”
- Find a quiet place. Make sure you do your meditation somewhere you can have a couple minutes of undisturbed peace. Early mornings or late evenings are usually good times.
- Sit comfortably. You can sit on the floor, on a pillow, in a chair, or on the couch. As long as you’re comfortable, you’re ready to go.
- Meditate. Look at the ground in front of you with a soft gaze or keep your eyes closed. As you breathe in and out, follow your breath all the way from your nostrils to your stomach and back. Sit with your back straight but not tense. If it helps, count: one (inhale), two (exhale), three (inhale), four (exhale). Start over when you get to ten.
And that’s it! If you have a lot of intrusive thoughts stealing your attention away from your breath, know that it’s perfectly normal. Remember—the practice is not about emptying your head from thoughts but rather changing your relationship to them.
So, all you need to do is gently and nonjudgmentally bring your attention back to the breath every time your mind wanders. If you have to bring it back a hundred times, that’s what you do. Every time you bring your attention back to the breath, you are essentially doing one exercise repetition in your mental gym.
Now, while meditation is great practice to learn mindfulness, it’s only a small part of your practice. Ideally, you’ll want to bring present awareness to everything you do.
You can practice mindfulness in everything you do. But, when you’re just starting out, it can be helpful to deliberately choose the habits you want to be mindful of every day. For example, you may choose to be mindful of these daily routines:
- Waking up. Connect to your breathing as your body is waking up. Before you get up, pay attention to the sights and sounds inside and outside the room.
- Brushing your teeth. Try fully concentrating on the action of brushing. Feel each stroke on each tooth, of the toothbrush going from one side of your mouth to the other.
- Eating breakfast. Remove all distractions, such as your phone, TV, and newspaper. Instead, pay full attention to each bite of your food.
- Doing the dishes. Pay full attention to your washing. Feel the sensations of the warm water on your hands and see the formation of the suds.
- Walking. Walk slowly while paying attention to your breath and your surroundings. Be aware of the sounds, the light, and the texture of objects.
As you may suspect by now, I highly recommend a gradual approach. I suggest you start with one habit and then add new ones as you go.
How to Be Mindful, In Summary
- According to Zen teachers, you have two minds: the thinking mind and the observing mind.
- You can’t control your thinking mind. You can only control your observing mind.
- Most of our negative psychological and emotional experiences happen because we can’t tell the difference between our thinking mind and our observing mind.
- Mindfulness is, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn, “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
- By applying mindfulness, you can stay with your observing mind instead of getting sucked into your thinking mind. That allows you to stay self-disciplined, moment to moment.
Set Up a Meditation Practice
✓ Start small.
✓ Pick a trigger.
✓ Find a quiet place.
✓ Sit comfortably.
Choose a Habit for Everyday Mindfulness
✓ Do one of your daily habits in full, present awareness.
Gradually Increase Your Efforts
✓ Once your meditation practice is habitual, incrementally increase the time you spend meditating.
✓ Once you are doing your everyday mindfulness habit consistently, gradually add more of them.
This article is an excerpt from my book The Self-Discipline Blueprint.
- Your Two Minds by Mark Manson
- Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression
- Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Dispositional Mindfulness Co-Varies with Smaller Amygdala and Caudate Volumes in Community Adults
- Mindfulness-based stress reduction as a stress management intervention for healthy individuals: a systematic review
- Mindfulness meditation for insomnia: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
- Mindfulness-based relationship enhancement
- Meditative therapies for reducing anxiety: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
- Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training