The critical first steps toward cultivating a more efficient, more meditative mind are observing and controlling judgment. We like to focus on bigger judgments (‘is this the right job for me?’ ‘is he a good person?’ ‘—am I a good person?’) but like most things in life, what is big must start small. The bottom line is that in thinking, we separate ourselves from what is happening right now. We follow thoughts, feed them, create entire movies and TV series about our pasts, our future visions, but it is the initial thought—the first intrusion of mind into our present moment, that must be addressed before larger gains are achieved.
We all must learn language; connecting to people and the world around us is obviously essential for our growth. Learning language starts with vocabulary, which starts through word associations and naming the things we encounter in life (‘bird,’ ‘rock,’ ‘tree,’ etc.); this labeling—this need to assign everything a name, is where the mind first activates and how it begins to take control of our reality. For example, in Kentucky there are lots of horses but a horse is not something I see everyday, so when I do see one, my mind says ‘horse,’ and I say ‘wow, a horse,’ which immediately leads into ‘what kind of horse is that?’ ‘when was the last time I went riding?’ ‘I like horses but I like unicorns more,’ etc.
Before long you are caught up in a huge mental dialog with all these memories and associations, and as a result, are much less aware of and engaged in the remarkable moment. It basically takes seeing an actual unicorn for the mind to stop, and this is only because it is momentarily short-circuited and unable to label what is happening. So again, first stop the labeling and you can stop the dialog. When I talked about my walking meditation across my campus in Taiwan (when I played a game to see how long I could go before my mind carried me away), I actively noticed my mind going ‘tree’ ‘—what kind of tree is that?’ ‘Is it a Sweetgum?’ ‘Is it the same species as the USA Sweetgum?’ Then ‘street’ ‘—this street is so busy!’ ‘There are so many bikes today!’ etc.
Mind wants to label everything (‘this is beautiful!’ or ‘this is bullshit!’) because it needs a name for the folder in which it will store that memory. With an active focus, you can stop that initial labeling; for example, if I need to say something, I instead say ‘wow.’ On particularly beautiful days I say ‘wow!’, ‘wow!’, ‘wow!’ –whatever word you use really doesn’t matter. This is called a mantra, and mantras are great aids to meditations. Basically, you are giving your mind something to play with so your more true self-awareness can come back—so you can be more aware of your breathing, your feet on the ground, the intricacy of the world around you, etc. As this true self-awareness grows (as it becomes more your basic mode), it will remain longer, and you won’t need mantras and games as much to bring it out.
Mind is an exquisite comparison/classification device with limitless input/output potential—it is the Ferrari we use to drive through our world of information; yet again, even a Ferrari, for all its greatness, if driven too much, too hard, too hot, will quickly turn to junk. Mind can record and process what happens to you, but it cannot experience it; that is the fundamental difference. Looking at the world through the lens of the mind will always result in an affected (partial) experience, whereas looking without mind (seeing things without the mediator) gives us a much richer experience because our perceptions are not distorted.
Observing my mind on those simple walks across campus, I was fascinated at how it threw things at me—how it said ‘Think about A!’ and I said “No,” and then ‘Well think about B!’ and I said “No” again. It would go on and on: ‘Then think about C, D, E, F,…!’ again and again until finally it got me and I said “OK, ok. I do need to think about that,” and off we would go together. Still, something powerful started just in my noticing my mind racing like this: I began to be more aware of how locked I was in patterns of judgment (i.e. how frequently I was saying things like ‘that is so bad!’ ‘–so unreasonable!’ ‘—so beautiful!’ etc.). I began to switch out of that by changing the phrasing into ‘that is so interesting!’ ‘—so interesting!’ ‘—so interesting!’ It became another mantra.
I was able to still notice everything (more-so in fact), but I didn’t who? what? when? why? everything. This was one of the more significant moments of my personal growth because it was the first time in my life that I experienced real mental clarity—my mind had literally been ‘blahblahblahing’ for 30-plus years and now it wasn’t. Thus, I had a much more powerful mind at my disposal because it wasn’t wasting energy anymore; when it stopped broadcasting energy out, the flow reversed and the energy started pouring in. The effect was like heating water: when enough energy accumulates, water boils and transforms from a liquid to a gas; by stopping my mind and actively creating space, my thought energy rapidly began to accumulate and a new state of consciousness began to emerge.
Andrew Crenshaw lived in Taiwan for 7 years, studying traditional medicine, language, philosophy, religion and spirituality. Professionally, he has taught composition, TESOL and general-education English at National Taiwan University, National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, National Taipei University of the Arts, University of Louisville, Jefferson Community and Technical College, and Western Kentucky University. He is currently working for Jefferson County Public Schools in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.