How can we quiet our minds when they are inundated with constant thoughts? Over thinking can cloud our spirits and trap us in a cycle of negativity, but for many people, it is hard to escape the snares that our own minds can set for us.
In this video, British philosopher Alan Watts addresses the challenge of turning off the thinking part of our brains to escape viscous cycles. “What is the mind in the grip of vicious circles?” Watts asks. “One of the most obvious instances that we all know is the phenomenon of worry.”
Say you are getting ready to undergo an operation. It’s natural to worry, Watts says, but it also can be counter-productive and beget only more worrying.
“Since worrying takes away your appetite and your sleep, it’s not good for you,” explains the philosopher. “But you can’t stop worrying, and therefore you get additionally worried that you are worrying, and then furthermore because that is quite absurd and you are mad at yourself because you do it, you are worried because you worry because you worry. That is a vicious circle.”
How can people quiet their minds, he wonders? Once people learn to think, they often just can’t stop. “The mind seems to be like a monkey, jumping up and down and jabbering all the time,” Watts says.
Many people feel uncomfortable with silence and spend their lives making sure their minds are occupied. Some people can’t stand to be alone with themselves, which is why they go out to socialize, or find something mindless to do, or get drunk or whatever it is to distract themselves from solitude.
“Why do you want to run away from yourself? What’s so bad about it?” Watts asks. “It’s because you are addicted to thoughts. This is a drug.”
“You really have to stop it if you want to be sane,” Watts says. “If I think all the time, I won’t have anything to think about except thoughts.”
But it’s very difficult for people to stop. Watts, who was perhaps the most prominent Western evangelist of Zen Buddhist principles until his death in the 1970s, suggests that meditation practice is a way to calm the mind and break the cycle.
“The first rule is don’t try to,” he says, “because if you do, you will be like someone trying to make rough water smooth with a flatiron, and all that will do is stir it up.” Instead, he says, if you learn to leave your mind alone, it will quiet itself.