Here I sit, alone, at the keyboard, staring at the blinking cursor. It’s the new year and time to publish a new post on our blog. I have high expectations—I want to write something insightful, helpful, and that strikes a chord. Yet these expectations are crippling. All I can focus on is the outcome, and I fear that the result of my work will be banal and meaninglessness. More drivel. Just another insignificant drop in the ocean.
So my mind races. The very thing—focus—that is required to achieve the outcome I desire—insight—escapes me. The shorthand for this state of paralysis is writer’s block.
It’s a strange thing, writer’s block. It’s not like I forgot how to write. Writing is merely the act of putting down words on paper. As Seth Godin likes to say, it’s not like anyone gets talker’s block. You just talk, and the words dissolve into the ether. And I guess that’s the rub: These words are staring me in the face. They’ll exist for all time, and will be subject to the judgment of others. Hence, the high expectations.
In moments like this, as I’ve learned over time, the only way out is to confront the constraints head-on. Write what you know, as they say, and right now all I know is that I’m trapped by my mind. So here we go.
‘The Mind is an Excellent Servant but a Terrible Master’
The origin of this quotation is uncertain, but it’s meaning is crystal clear: Your mind is your most powerful ally but can be your greatest enemy.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we are constantly thinking. Just stop for a moment, stare at the wall, and consider whether that voice in your head is an aberration or a constant companion.
Unless you’re a trained Buddhist monk or have cultivated the routine of meditation and stilling the mind, the incessant chatter is almost always present. Some might occupy themselves hiking, knitting, or fixing up an old car and still the mind that way as well.
But most of the time, the mind natters on. Even worse, for many of us that nattering voice is often negative. The negativity is a manifestation the “monkey mind,” which produces feelings of shame, doubt, and unsettledness. It’s the voice of the inner critic that tells us that we’re not good enough, smart enough, or worthy. Ironically, our monkey minds stop us from going out on a limb. It can keep us from taking a chance, or daring to do something we want to do from our hearts, because, after all, what will others think?
To bring this full circle: Writer’s block is just another form of punishment from our “terrible master.” But the implications of the inability to tame the mind are, of course, more consequential than that. Far too many people spend much of their adult lives unknowingly trapped inside their minds rather than conscious and alive in the amazing world bustling all around them.
As the writer David Foster Wallace (who tragically and ironically succumbed to his own demons) explained in a commencement speech at Kenyon College, one of life’s greatest challenges is, “[T]o keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life, dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone … day in and day out.” The alternative, as Wallace describes it, is “[B]eing conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”
Wallace spoke these words in 2005. They are even more relevant today. In the digital world we all live in, external forces—most of whom are based in Silicon Valley—are fighting a multifront war to capture our most precious resource: our attention. We’re not only being bombarded, we’re being manipulated by algorithms that feed us information that is hard to resist. This information appeals to our basest instincts, such as greed and envy, not to our best selves.
Sounds pretty stark, right? So what to do?
The answer lies, as best as I can tell, in shifting one’s perception of what’s possible. The mind is a mysterious thing, but through attention, awareness, and discipline it can be harnessed.
We spend our youth engaged in a continual process of learning and education. We train our minds. A confounding thing happens when we reach adulthood: many of us stop learning and contemplating because we’re too busy doing. We get caught up in the “rat race” of chasing meaning from extraneous excesses.
Our minds become conditioned by myth and marketing to believe that happiness lies just around every corner, and so we never stop to appreciate the moment. We live trapped in the regret of the past and the anxiety of the future, rather than the present perfect. If you fixate only on the past and future it’s impossible to be conscious and alive, for the present moment (however imperfect it may seem) is all there is.
Our minds, like our bodies, are not untethered from us. It’s possible to train both throughout life. The “self,” or identity, that exists in our heads is not static. The thoughts racing through our minds are not uncontrollable. It’s not easy to fight back. It requires mindfulness, practice, and hard work. But it’s worth it.
Six Ways to Take Back Control
Success, happiness, contentment, joy, accomplishment—all of these things hinge on one’s ability to tame the mind. To be conscious and aware. To make our minds our servants, not our masters. Here are some ways to take back control.
Escape Outside: Research suggests that being in nature benefits mind and body, from reducing stress and anxiety to increasing a sense of awe—the feeling of being a part of something larger than ourselves. In other words, a walk in the woods, with the sounds of leaves rustling and feeling of the wind running across your fingers, can help you get out of your head, into your heart, and connected with the outside world.
Practice Mindfulness: Stress, worry, and anxiety are symptoms of spending nearly every moment lost in thought—we’re held hostage by whatever those thoughts may be. Through meditation and mindfulness practices, it’s possible to get off the hamster wheel in our minds and recognize that we can control our thoughts and emotions, or at least our reactions to them.
Read: When we’re trapped in our own minds, we cling to our own worldview and it’s hard to appreciate the perspectives of others. Reading is a way to break the spell. It’s a quiet practice that requires concentration, reflection, and mindful attentiveness.
Write in a Journal: Journaling is an ancient method of self-exploration. There’s something transformative about getting thoughts out of one’s head and onto paper—it’s a means to process and explore the nagging questions and doubts that cloud the mind. Once you see it, you can address it.
Listen: If you’re consumed by the voice in your own head, it’s impossible to listen those of others. In conversations, another person’s thoughts become speed bumps that merely slow you down from jumping in with your own perspective. By focusing intently on listening, rather than speaking yourself, you can let go of your inner chatter and be fully present in the moment.
Engage in New Experiences: One of the best ways to interrupt the patterns that result in getting trapped in default settings is to pursue more new, novel experiences. We call these “first moments.” Sometimes you need to break the script of your life (and your mind), to appreciate what’s in front of you, to see what’s possible, and to slow life down.
There’s nothing stopping us from living purposeful, intentional, happy lives except ourselves, our limiting beliefs, and our negative self-talk. Our minds can imprison us but also set us free. It’s our choice. We must choose wisely.
Jay Harrington is an author, lawyer-turned-entrepreneur, and runs a northern Michigan-inspired lifestyle brand called Life and Whim. He lives with his wife and three young girls in a small northern Michigan town and writes weekly about living a purposeful, intentional, happy, outdoor-oriented life on his blog.