Is your mind a river or a lake?

Reflections on the watery nature of our conscience

We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still.

In this memorable statement, Carl Sagan pointed out that, since the birth of mankind, even before we organized as societies, we have broken every barrier, exploring places even outside our home planet. And we will never stop.

But, paradoxically, we seem to wander less and less within ourselves, our own minds. In a world with ever-changing, readily available information, obsolescence is constant and immediate, and so we feel the need to absorb everything as fast as possible with fear of disconnecting from a world punitive to those who are not online 24/7. We reach out to the world and leave ourselves behind.

In his TED talk “The art of stillness” , Pico Iyer, a writer who has been traveling since his youth, argues that the only way to make sense of all experiences he has in his life is to remain still and reflect upon them, by getting away from mundane distractions, such as cellphones, or concerns, such as his deadlines at work. What he means is that he has his inputs from the outside, but they will only have an actual meaning and prove useful to him if he processes them, if not only he listens to what his mind is telling him, but also understands it.

The issue is that we have massive inputs, or, as some would say, food for thought, but we don’t have time to digest it. Our minds become clogged and all this food starts to be discarded and most or all of its value is lost. We repeat mistakes and throw away valuable lessons, creating a cycle of frustration that can only end if we stop once in awhile and ponder. And these thoughts come in the form of a relentless storm, clouding reason, distorting our conscience, generating a crippling anxiety that threatens to stop the gears in our brain.

But how can we guarantee both a healthy intake and processing of these inputs? In an iconic interview, legend martial artist Bruce Lee said:

Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. […] Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.

I believe our minds also are water and water that can assume different states: a river or a lake. Let us dive into that line of thought (pun totally intended).

  • Our conscience can be a turbulent river, where it flows quickly and it’s difficult to see into it. Even worse, what we see might be distorted because of the dust that rises from the bottom, or the foam that is produced from its violence. We fear entering it at a first glance and, with time, we just give up.
  • On the other hand, it could be a crystalline lake, where we can clearly see through the waters. Our eyes can track every movement within and we feel comfortable to delve into it. We can see how our own presence changes it, by looking at the tiny crests that ripple through the surface when gently touching it.

What we want to achieve, then, is the lake-like state. And that state is only achieved by turning ourselves away from all the noise that comes with our routine.

Think of yourself as a hermit or a monk that decided to wander around for reflection in the lands (a.k.a your mind). To enter this contemplative state, isolation is paramount. Only then the waters will be calm enough for you to enter. Then you will be able to understand your thoughts and make good use of them, to see with clarity what had been in your head all this time, but you couldn’t see. You will actually be able to spend time and have a conversation with your own self, like you would do with a friend.

This contemplative state is even good for creativity, as Monty Python comedian John Cleese observes in a talk at Google . He speaks of creating moments and spaces where you will have no interruptions, where you will be able to let whatever is in your head come out and play with it. A place with no cellphones, television, computers or people in a moment where you can leave all your concerns at your doorstep. Your main interruptions will be people needing to personally talk to you, so it would be a good idea to create some mechanism to prevent that, such as putting a marker on your doorknob. Or, really, just let them know you will be unavailable for some time.

For Cleese, the resulting flourish of creativity allowed him to become very critical of his experiences, which he used primarily to produce humor, but, probably, to many other sections of his life. One of his most emphatic points is that our society has lost the capacity to be quiet and think, that is, we don’t know how to be like hermits anymore. We feel that we live in a futuristic age, with abundant technology to solve every problem, but, by giving up on these contemplative states, we end up looking too much at the present and ignore both past, because we don’t analyze it, and future, which is the result of how we used the past to learn.

In practical terms, how can one achieve the contemplative state? As for me, I have had these moments since I was a teenager. I remember that, during school vacations, I would sometimes stay up until late at night, just pondering about whatever surfaced from my mind. I would open my bedroom window and a cold breeze would come in, and, with it, my thoughts. It was in those moments where they would come at a pace and intensity that allowed me to calmly look at and make sense of them. Those were the moments when I learned the most about not only who I am, but also about what other people and the world are about. It is letting all your inner voices speak. Sadly, it’s a habit that I have lost during the years, but that I am attempting to recover, and the most recent attempts have been successful and helpful.

I like to think about our ancestors from very long ago, sitting around a campfire at night, looking at the stars and wondering, letting their minds fly away. And how can we reproduce that kind of moment today? Here are a few tips that I have been following and that have been helpful to me:

  • Find a space and time where you will not be bothered for some time.Probably, the best moments will be early in the morning or late at night. This time could be as short as thirty minutes, test what works for you and it doesn’t even need to be everyday. Also, it could be a walk in the park. Walking helps the thinking flow not only for me, but for Arianna Huffington as well .
  • Turn off any source of connection with the external world that may distract you, such as your phone, computer and television. In the first attempts, you may feel the urge to check your e-mail or notifications, so you may want to turn off your phone and even your wi-fi to avoid the temptation. With time, that need will pass.
  • Background music may help, but it’s important that you can listen to it passively and not actively, just so that it aids you in reaching a more calm and peaceful mind state, so prefer instrumental music, such as classic ones. Spotify even has playlists for that.
  • Leave all the urgency behind. If you don’t stop thinking about that appointment you have tomorrow or the deadlines that are approaching, your mind will remain connected to the outside world and the anxiety will build up, preventing you from relaxing. Remember that the time you spend will help you have more focus and resolve later and that it may be as brief as thirty minutes.
  • It may also help to have pen and paper around. Specially if you enjoy writing or drawing, you can use the paper to transmit your thoughts and play with them. Sometimes, I write down the questions or conclusions I had after reading something, such as a book or an article. I feel that the questions are particularly valuable, as they are more input for thinking.
  • Mind your breathing and your level of tension. It is often the case that we don’t even notice how tense we are and that our breathing is accelerated. Minding your breath, making it deeper and calmer, and relaxing your muscles will help the thoughts flow better, as a friend once taught me, and I agree; the turbulence subsides.
  • Make it a habit. The busiest you are, the more likely it will be for you to drop these sessions in favor of your deadlines. That is why you need to create the habit to visit your haven, so that it becomes part of your routine, which means you will stop relying solely on motivation to do it, and, thus, you will not end up discarding it.

These are the steps that were either recommended by the aforementioned people or that I found out by my own and they have been of great help so far in understanding better what is on my mind. As a matter of fact, without these contemplative moments, I would hardly have written this article, because only then could I let my thoughts surface, and then organize, write down and connect them in a rational structure. So it will be with whatever might come up for you.

I would love to know if the advices were helpful for you and, also, what are your own steps to reach the reflexive state and make the most of it.

A special thanks to the people who gave me valuable feedback about this article before publishing it!



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