How to control your thinking? The Zen people call it training the ‘monkey mind’ so that you can rein in those runaway thoughts that just seem to take over when you least want them to.

I was running a workshop on mindfulness this week and yet again the most common difficulty which people talked about was how the mind seems to have a mind of its own, and they felt unable to quieten it.

There are two main aspects to taking charge of your mental chatter. The first is deciding that you want to take control (and understanding that you can), the second is actually learning to step in and stop unwanted thoughts. This entails retraining your mind. The more you do the first the easier the second will become. It won’t happen though unless you take charge.

How to still your mind

The easiest way to think about not thinking is to start doing. Taking steps to become more aware of our physical experience is one way, which is why mindfulness training starts with focussing on breathing. If that doesn’t appeal to you there are many other ways to interrupt that background noise.

If you want to change a habit or some aspect of your behaviour, it is easier to move towards what you want than it is to move away from what you want to change. So, to become a vegetarian, for example, first decide that you are becoming one and then design an attractive vegetarian diet. This will work better than trying to ‘stop eating meat’.

No one likes to lose something (and that even goes for things we might think we want to lose!), so rather than trying to leave your carnivore diet behind, create an attractive vegetarian vision and move towards that.

This works very well for learning habits of thinking too. Would you like to be able to create an instant oasis of calm, so that you can step outside the hurly-burly of your daily demands? To be able to still your mind, to find momentary peace, even amid chaos, is an invaluable skill, so here’s how:

  • Find a natural object like a small stone, a leaf or a flower
  • Find a quiet spot (lock yourself in the toilet if you have to)
  • Sit comfortably and consciously register that you are creating a personal oasis
  • Study the natural object using all your senses. How does it feel, does it have a smell, examine the colours, does it make a sound? Depending on what it is you may not want to taste it.
  • Be very curious about it, how long has it existed, what sort of lifespan does it have, what is its relationship to its environment?
  • Become totally absorbed for five minutes.
  • When you have finished, carefully put the object away somewhere. You can come back to it another time or release it into the wild when you have finished with it.
  • Return to whatever you were doing.

That’s all you’ll see that it is much easier to go somewhere (the oasis), than it is to leave somewhere (chaos). Rather than attempting to flee the chaos, create a moment of peace. Create calm and the noise subsides.