Guide To Calming The Mind

2013-10-09 09.10.53-1This post is part of a series that makes up my Simple Guide To Health which is part of a broader collection of posts on Living Well.

In keeping with the other guides in this series I’m going to provide my best tips for calming the mind in priority order, you certainly don’t need to do them all.  Many of us live in a frantic complex world and we need to protect ourselves from some of it’s negative effects, if we are to fully enjoy it’s benefits.   One thing for sure, the way we live today bears little relationship to the way we evolved to live so we need some help.

    1. Walk outdoors.  I don’t think there’s anything better for the mind than taking a walk in nature.  To be honest a quiet walk anywhere is pretty good.  You might substitute a cycle ride for a walk but it would have to be somewhere that allows you to be relaxed (not dodging cars or pedestrians).  Walking alone is best for quieting the mind but walking with others is a great way to nurture relationships.
    2. Meditate.  Meditation is surprisingly simple, but it gets a bad reputation because when most people think of it they assume they will need years of practice for hours a day to get a benefit.  I recommend the simplest of practices:
      1. Find a time during the day when you can reliably spend 5-10 minutes uninterrupted
      2. Find a comfy position and close your eyes
      3. Breath through your nose
      4. Try and feel the air as it flows through your nose
      5. Keep your focus on your breath
      6. THIS IS KEY  — Expect thoughts to keep interrupting your focus
      7. THIS IS KEY  — When these thoughts arise, don’t fight them, just accept that they have arisen and then let them go
      8. THIS IS KEY – return your focus to your breath
      9. Keep at it for a few minutes. Add a minute a week until you are spending as much time as you enjoy, perhaps 15-30 minutes
    3. Worry less about money.  Remember that 30 years ago we lived very comfortably on perhaps a third of what we have now.  I’m preparing for retirement so I made a list of all the things I could live without, or substitute with something lower cost/free.  I was amazed at how comprehensive the list was.  I decided to try an experiment, to see if I could live for a year without buying anything for myself, I’ve gone 150 days so far and I’m loving it.
    4. Be grateful.  There is so much in life to be grateful for, but we rapidly become accustomed to the amazing world we live in.  By being more aware of what we have to be grateful for we can address that though.  We can keep a gratitude journal (jot down three things each day) we can keep a sense of awe and wonder about the amazing world we live in by reading about science, we can go without for a period of time, for example no lights during Earth Hour, or not buying anything except essentials for a month.
    5. Be mindful.  Mindfulness, like meditation sounds complex, but its dead simple.  Just pay full attention to what you are doing right now.  If you do this, you will find that after a little while even the most mundane things can become very enjoyable:
      1. Consider washing up the dishes, watch the water as it flows into the bowl, watch the turbulence, pay attention as the bubbles form, burst, reform.  Feel the hot water on your hands.  Enjoy the feeling of taking something dirty and swiping that food away leaving a sparkling clean plate.  Stack the dishes carefully, neatly.  You get the idea,  the key is to pay full attention, to really be aware of the process.
      2. Go for a walk around the garden with bare feet.  Feel the grass on your feet, between your toes, embrace the cold.  Look in detail at the garden, trying to see what’s changed since yesterday, look for life in the garden (worms, snails, slugs, insects) and seeds that are sprouting, buds that are bursting.
    6. Don’t compare you inside to other peoples outside.  One of the biggest mistakes we make in life is comparing ourselves to others, the classic ‘keeping up with the Jones’ scenario.  This is even worse because we compare the inside of our lives with the outside of others.  We meet a married couple and we see them laughing, smiling, holding hands, making plans and we might be jealous of their perfect life.  We don’t see the rows over money, the fights over the chores, them watching TV all night in separate rooms.  Although it’s easier said than done, it’s best to try to stop comparing your life with others full stop, to focus on finding peace and contentment by accepting yourself and your life and being content.  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t improve your life, just don’t live always dreaming about a better future.
    7. Invest where you spend your time.  Invest your time, energy and money in improving the areas of your life where you spend the most time.  People often make the mistake of investing in the wrong things, like a flash watch, jewellery, an amazing one week holiday.  There’s nothing wrong with this, but don’t make that investment until you’ve done the time audit first.  Make a list of how you spend your time in order (sleeping, using a computer, driving, preparing food) and then brainstorm how you could improve the quality of that time, eliminate frustrations, make it more enjoyable, relaxing.  For example:
      1. If you spend a lot of time in a boring commute figure out how to make that commute more enjoyable (I recommend listening to podcasts and audio books)
      2. If you spend your time working on a computer make sure you have a great keyboard, screen and plenty of memory.  If you are like me and work from home and your company won’t buy you a 27” IPS screen, just buy one yourself, your worth it.
      3. If you spend a lot of time on conference calls, get a great Bluetooth headset so you can walk around, do some stretches
      4. If you work in a noisy office all day long get some high quality noise cancelling headphones
      5. If you write a lot don’t use the horrible free pens that your company provides, buy yourself a space pen and never look back.

  1. Look at panoramic views.  We are never more at peace than when we can look at a panoramic view and see that we are safe.  Imagine how we evolved, always needing to be on the lookout for danger  (big cats, wild boars, other tribes, snakes) but on top of a hill, on a wide open field, watching the sunset on a beach, we can see we are safe so we can truly relax.  We can capture that feeling and bring it to mind during our normal lives.  Spend time just soaking up the view, really pay attention while also breathing deeply. if you need that feeling again when stressed out after a difficult meeting, close your eyes, imagine the view and breath deep.
  2. Laugh.  Pretty obvious, Debbie and I try to watch a 30 minute comedy each night, its a perfect complement to the fun we have as a family every day.
  3. Play games. Not so obvious is how relaxing it is to just throw a ball, on your own against a wall or much better with someone you love.  I try and drag Debbie or the kids out into the garden to play catch whenever I can, it’s a great time to talk, to pay attention and laugh.  Of course you can choose another game, but a ball is so easy. I keep one in the car and in the conservatory to remind me how fun and easy it is.
  4. Limit exposure to the news.  The news isn’t healthy, it’s full of mostly irrelevant bad news.  I suggest quitting the traditional news sources and replacing them with a custom news application on your PC or tablet.  I like Zite.  The benefit of apps like Zite is that you tell them the kind of news you want to see and you skip the rest.  I’ve not watched a TV news show or read a daily Newspaper for over a decade and I’ve never missed it.
  5. Let go of negative thoughts. All manner of negative, sometimes disturbing, often irrational thoughts pop into our heads.  If we don’t know how to deal with these thoughts they can cause all manner of problems.  It’s important to catch them early, assess them quickly and then decide if we want to keep them or throw them away.  Don’t supress them though, allow them to happen and discard them.
  6. Reframe difficult situations.  Sometimes discarding thoughts doesn’t make sense, we need to reframe them.  Reframing requires that we take a deep look at the thought, and turn it into something actionable or positive.  For example:
    1. if we are angry stuck in traffic we can see it as an opportunity to do some deep breathing, or to pop on a favourite song and have a good sing-along
    2. if we are despairing having lost our job, we can take some constructive actions to improve our health, learn a new skill, plant a vegetable garden, reach out to our social network for ideas
    3. if we are suffering from anxiety about a presentation, we can see it as a learning opportunity, a challenge to overcome that will reduce our anxiety next time, a new skill to perfect
  7. See things from other peoples point of view.  One surprising thing that happened to me when I started meditating was I became much better at seeing things from another persons perspective.  This meant that what I’d previously often seen as unreasonable behaviour in others started to become understandable and thus easier to bear.  I even started to empathise with political opinions that I disagreed with and managed to understand better why people committed crimes.  This made the world a much nicer place to live, I didn’t get as frustrated with other people or situations.  I think meditation helps us to become more aware of our responses, to catch them before they become judgemental.
  8. Consider scrapping your to-do list. If you are anything like me you never get around to 90% of the things on your to-do list.  I scrapped mine years ago.  Now on Sunday I decide what I need to achieve next week and each day identify the top 2-3 things I need to achieve.  It’s liberating not to have to look at the dozens on tasks that I’m failing to do each day.  I do still keep a reminder list to remind me of the things that I need to do infrequently, like wash the bedding every 2 weeks, get the boiler serviced every year.
  9. Review you social networks.  Social networks can be incredibly rewarding, allowing you to keep closer to your friends and family, avoid loneliness, make it easier to maintain relationships when circumstances make it difficult to be together.  They can also be an addictive soap opera that adds no value to your life, just leaches time.  Negativity spreads through social networks better than positivity as well, in part because you are looking at peoples ‘best’ outside and comparing it to your inside, but also because of some complex maths about network theory.  I’ve pruned my social networks recently, so it’s focussed on people I actively want a stronger connection with.



The picture today is of Filey beach where I met this little seal pup last year.  There’s probably no better way to calm the mind that an early morning walk along a deserted beach, listening to the lapping of the waves.

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

2 Responses

  1. April 25, 2014

    […] Calm The Mind. Chronic stress is the hidden killer, it affects our lives in a myriad of invisible ways.  Learning to deal with stress is moderately easy though and so it gets third place. […]

  2. August 22, 2014

    […] case you’re confused this isn’t another post on mindfulness meditation this guide concerns mindful living.  In mindful living the object is to live a more conscious […]

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