This is a transcription from Dr. Christianson’s recent show on “Reset Me With Dr. C”
Resetting Your Mind Without Meditation – By Dr. Alan Christianson
Hey, there! Dr. Alan Christianson here, and this is how you can reset your mind if you cannot meditate. There has been a lot of talk about the benefits of meditation; however, a lot of people try various techniques, and their minds just don’t stop. They cannot sit still, get frustrated and find it’s counterproductive. It’s a valid goal to calm the mind, but sometimes, the common approaches do not work for everyone. Even simple things, like mantra-based meditations, are sometimes just too much of a struggle and more stress than they are worth. I’m going to talk about a very different approach.
This approach is based on a yogic technique, called Trataka, which involves using visual focus. It’s also paced in an intentional way to keep the busy mind more occupied than common techniques. So, we are going to find a fixed point, ideally something on the horizon, but at least something more than ten feet away. Where I am right now, I will be looking at a point on a rock, off in the distance. We hear about “seeing the big picture”, and there is relative truth to that metaphor. When our vision is always myopic (close in), it narrows the possibilities of our thinking. So, it’s good when we see things on a larger scale, as we spend so little time looking beyond what is right in front of us. If you are inside a room, the far corner of the room will work. If you can see outdoors or be outdoors, then find a distinct point far away. That is going to be the frame of visual focus.
For this practice, you want to set aside ten minutes and use a trusted timer. The reason I say “a trusted timer” is because I’ve had times practicing this and start thinking, Why hasn’t the timer gone off? I should be done by now. It has been at least 10 minutes. It must be broken or off, or I didn’t set it right. Test your timer. Test it on a minute first and make sure it works, so you can have that part out of the way. Also, let everyone know this is quiet time and not to interrupt you for anything short of a house fire. Turn your phone off and find a comfortable place to sit. That might be this cheese-grater granite I am on right here, but probably not. It will probably be a nice chair or a soft spot. If you are flexible and you know the Lotus pose, cross-legged is awesome. If not, just sit where your back is straight, and you are relatively comfortable. I wouldn’t suggest a recliner, as we are not talking sleep-comfortable. You want to be comfortable, but you want to stay alert. Where I am, I’d be craning a little bit, so make sure you’re positioned where that distant, visual point is naturally aligned—where you’re looking straight ahead to see, without too much bending or craning.
What will go on in your mind is simple counting. This is no chanting to Krishna or saying Hail Mary’s. This is simply counting numbers. You want to briskly, mentally count as you breathe in and out. In terms of the pace, try something like this: I am breathing in 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. I am breathing out 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. A slow pace might seem like it would be more relaxing, but for many of us, our mind is going to fill in whatever gap it can. If you are breathing in and out and are mentally counting at a pace slower than your breathing, your mind will start to run away from you. So, intentionally keep up a faster pace, keeping within the natural length of your breathing.
So, we are staying alert and visually focused at this distant point. Here is what is going on inside my head as I’m breathing: 1,2,3,4,5,6. 1,2,3,4,5,6. 1,2,3,4,5,6. 1,2,3,4,5,6. It’s very normal, after a moment or so, for your breathing to become more slow and controlled: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. You might be counting a bit more too, but that is roughly the pace you want.
The pace is enough to occupy your mind in order to keep up with it. You’re counting and changing your count with each breath, but it’s not so complex that your mind becomes frustrated, stressed or tired from it. For most people, it’s just about the right pace to be challenging and occupying without being laborious.
Many have told me they struggled with meditation and didn’t feel it was working, though they wanted to do it and knew it would be helpful. So, the visual focus prevents a lot of mental distraction. When we close our eyes, we think about images, concepts and ideas. It’s a set-up for our minds to wonder. Though many have done quite well with different types of meditation, having the eyes open works well for those who’ve been unsuccessful otherwise.
The two types of meditation are mantra-based and awareness-based. One is where you repeat something, and one is where you become aware and dispassionate about your thoughts. That can be hard to start but powerful. Many find the mantra meditations are easy to begin and be consistent with. If there are things you cannot do—are not competent at—you will lack confidence and not be drawn back to them. The things you can do well, you will like, give yourself little mental rewards and want to do it again. Doing things in ways that won’t block your confidence will help maintain your competence.
The real secret of meditation is to get some freedom from the tyranny of your thoughts. Some have said the biggest illusion we experience is that our thoughts are real. Here is a really odd concept but so true psychologically: Right now, I am seeing a camera, a person holding a camera, rocks and bushes, but I am actually not experiencing those things directly. I am experiencing my mind’s impression of all those things. In terms of raw data, from the nerves of my brain, these images should be upside down. I do not know if you’ve heard that images come into your brain upside down. I believe there was a man in the late 1800’s who made glasses that allowed him to see the world upside down. He wore them day in and day out. After about five days, he awoke one morning and saw things normally wearing the glasses. His brain had so adapted to the glasses, when he took them off, the world was upside down! He recovered after a while, but that is a small example of how we create our experiences internally. We are really experiencing our brain. We are experiencing our thoughts. We are not directly experiencing the world around us. It’s so easy for our thoughts to take on a larger sense of reality than they deserve. They are not really who we are. Our thoughts change and come and go, yet our identity persists. We do not always have to act on them, nor are they meaningful in many cases. The power in resetting your mind or meditative practice is experiencing moments of clarity in which you are out of the tyranny of the chattering mind. (Some can sit down and make their minds still, but that is probably an Olympian-level of proficiency most of us do not have.) If we take steps to engage our minds without distraction or being overwhelmed, we can shift our perspective on our thoughts, making them less troubling to us.
For example, let’s talk about our feelings. We have feelings of fear or frustration, and we assume it’s the result of something that has happened. This could be part of it, but it’s really our thoughts about that event causing us pain and trauma. If you can be more dispassionate about your thoughts—seeing them more like a cloud going through the sky—that is fine. You don’t have to do anything to get attached to them, and they will be gone in a bit. If we can see our thoughts more like that, it opens up vast amounts of peace, clarity, energy and resiliency.
So, if you have failed at meditation, you are not alone. The pace of modern life sets us up to fail at it. Resetting your mind the way I’ve described works very well for us in the modern world. It’s very easy, and you will not fail. Plus, you’ll reap huge amounts of benefits in terms of reduced stress, less depression, freedom from anxiety, more energy and alertness. You’ll be amazed how many ways it can spill over into other facets of your health. You’ll have less chronic pain, better digestion, immune function and tissue repair. I wish you all that and more.
Dr. Alan Christianson here. Take care, and we will talk again real soon.