The Fluid Mind

Sometimes our minds feel like a sieve. Things go in one ear and out the other, we walk into a room and forget why, or we go to the store and come back without the main thing we went for (my wife could tell you stories…).

This is usually due to a lack of attention, a refusal to make a list, or, as much as I hate to admit it, advancing years.

Other times, our minds act like a fortress, possessing thick walls and a moat to keep out things we want to keep out. Broken fixtures that need to be fixed; uncomfortable conversations we don’t want to have; our own sadness, anger, or guilt that we don’t want to face go unseen or pushed into the recesses of our psyche.

Paradoxically, our minds can sometimes seem like a bear trap, locking down thoughts, feelings, and emotions we don’t want to let go of. Those things trapped in the prisons of our mind can be positive—happiness, pleasure, love, etc.—and other times they can be the angers, resentments, and fears that often fuel our dysfunctions.

Most of the traditions from which mindfulness practices come tell us that both the fortress and the bear trap can be problematic for us and lead to suffering and ineffectiveness.

When we attempt to resist those mental and emotional phenomena that we want to avoid, they build up and become worse. They gather at the walls and pile on top of each other until they overwhelm us. What was a small problem becomes a larger problem that we eventually have no choice but to face.

When we try to hold onto our experience after it should have run its course, we eventually feel disappointment and dissatisfaction. Thoughts that we expect to give us joy lose their potency, our angers and resentments make us bitter and isolated.  

The Fluid Mind is that quality of the mind that equips us to accept what is coming our way and let go of what is (or should be) finished. The Noticing quality of the mind we discussed in the last article alerts us to signals of discomfort and the causes of that discomfort; the Fluid mind then steps in and creates space for that which we are avoiding to come in and the freedom to release that which has overstayed its usefulness. It allows our thoughts and emotions to arise, serve their purpose, and move on.

The Zen Buddhist tradition talks about cultivating a mind like water—a very useful metaphor here. To illustrate, imagine standing in the middle of a gentle, clear mountain stream. Water flows toward you, washes around your legs, and moves on. Attempts to stop the water or keep it from leaving are fruitless. The same is true of our thoughts and feelings. We need to learn to let them flow naturally.

Contrary to how some think of mindfulness, the goal is not to empty the mind, it is to unblock, unburden it, and set it free. The purpose of mindfulness is to stop us from grasping and avoiding, and to instead allow our emotions to settle and our thoughts to flow like water.

We can do this in a couple of ways.

First, practice unburdening and uncluttering your mind.

We carry too many things in our minds and we usually do so in an unorganized way. Calls we have to make; gifts we have to buy; names, dates, and details that might (or might not) be important. Trying to keep everything in our heads causes stress, obsessively repetitive thoughts, and endless distractions. It causes us to ignore the important things we should be noticing and stifles our ability to experience the creativity that comes from a calm mind.

We can remedy this by unburdening (getting things out of our heads) and uncluttering (getting better organized).

There is a very simple solution to help us unburden our minds: write things down. Get them out of your head and onto paper (or into your device of choice) as quickly as you can. Doing so allows the mind to settle and become clear. Think of your mind as a container. The more that is in the container, the heavier it is, and the less fluid, flexible, and adaptive we can be. Unburdening makes the container lighter and makes you more agile. (For example, I carry a small Rocketbook reusable notebook in my pocket and use the Braintoss app, which has a dictation function, on my mobile for when I am driving. Each evening the thoughts I’ve collected during the day get put onto my to-do list or discarded.)

Uncluttering relies on becoming more organized—effectively using systems for scheduling, managing to-do lists, prioritization, etc. It is like putting things in their place on your desk or kitchen or workshop—doing so allows you to be more efficient and reduces the stress and aggravation that messiness causes. When things are in their place we can operate with focus and precision, dispatching simple tasks without wasting our brain’s precious energy. And, like the water in the stream, it allows us to calmly move on. (The systems you use are not as important as whether or not you are using them!)

Second, practice the Name, Resolve, and Release exercise, which involves the following:

  • When we notice some sense of dissatisfaction, either because we are holding resisting or holding onto a thought or feeling, we need to, first, name it. Tell yourself exactly what the dissatisfaction is; give the feeling a name. “I am feeling worried,” “I am feeling fear,” “I am feeling anger,” etc. The more we practice noticing what we are experiencing and the more quickly we do so, the easier the following steps will be.
  • Ask yourself why you are feeling the dissatisfaction. What events or circumstances led to this feeling? What am I avoiding or holding onto, and why?
  • Resolve, to the extent possible, the situation causing the dissatisfaction. Anxious about tackling a project? Develop the capabilities or get the help you need to complete it. Feeling embarrassed about something you said or did? Apologize and make amends. Angry about being mistreated by someone? Take the steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. (Granted, not every situation can be resolved. Life is full of injustices, some jerks are unavoidable, and some sorrows take years to get over. Somethings we will always have to carry. But not as many situations are as unresolvable as we sometimes trick ourselves into believing.)
  • Once the issue is resolved, release it. When you find yourself continuing to think about something that has been resolved, gently remind yourself, “This has already been resolved” and turn your attention to something else. For some people, it can be helpful to write the issue briefly on a piece of paper, crumple up the paper, and throw it away.

The role of the Fluid Mind is to create a state of calm, efficient, skillful flow. It reduces the stress and aggravation that come from our grasping to that which needs to be released and embracing that which needs to be accepted. It helps us understand what is important and what is not. We can’t be mindful without it.

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