Another animal analogy: minds & puppies

Why is it so hard to practice mindfulness or meditation (aka the trendy health topics that Big Tech will eventually find a way to co-opt)? Well, let’s see…SO MANY REASONS.

It could be the dizzying amount of stimuli in our world. It could be the One Ring of Sauron that lurks in our pockets, constantly tempting us to check Instagram or look for the 97th time whether So-and-so has responded to our WhatsApp when we know they haven’t. It could be the countless cognitive biases influencing and nudging our mind toward certain things. It could be the thousands of years of evolution that created a mysteriously powerful brain organ that creates this thing called thinking which we do constantly but do not understand at all. It’s a combination of all of those things and more.

It’s clear from psychological research (and from my own personal experiences) that our minds feed on stimulation. They absolutely crave new stuff — information, observations, data, etc. The neurological and evolutionary reasons behind this are complex and murky. Maybe someday we’ll have a clear enough understanding of how our minds work (check out the dense tome How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker for a deeper and occasionally abstruse account of the mind). I lack the many PhD’s required to talk intelligently about that, so I’ll stick with a more playful account of what it’s like to have our warp-drive minds meet mindfulness.

Our minds are like puppies. Well, if you’re thinking optimistically they’re like puppies, because that implies the constant wandering and ill-advised leaps our minds make are cute. A more pessimistic view might be that our minds are like pimpled, cynical 19-year-old philosophy majors with a drug addiction problem. Definitely less cute. But I like cute, so let’s stay with the idea that our minds are like puppies.

Just like puppies, our mind wanders CONSTANTLY and has no idea of what is good or bad for itself. It jumps and hops and stumbles into everything. And like a puppy, though not quite as endearing, our minds wander into (and pees on) all sorts of things and places that it probably shouldn’t. See how cute it is to imagine negative mental loops and patterns as adorable lab puppies just bumping into things and piddling on the carpet? It’s sweet, really.

Why am I still heavily distracted at work by thoughts of not being good enough? Oh, must be the cute little puppy frolicking in my head! Why am I emotionally distressed and tormented by repeated thinking about that one little thing the person might have said about me? Aha! That’s just the wrinkly little bulldog puppy hopping around between my ears. Or, why do I continue to constantly compare myself to others in ways that I realize make no sense and only drag me into negativity? Whaddya know! It’s that little munchkin of a mutt pulling on a rope with tiny little teeth.

See? It’s easy to take painful, addictive, and unproductive mental activity and frame it as something adorable and snuggly!

But casting this in a cute light does not diminish the distractive power of circular mental loops. In a very specific setting, unconscious or uncontrolled thought patterns can carry you away like a leaf in a river. I’ll try to sit for a 15 minute meditation and 15 minutes later, I am startled to hear the bell because my mind has been sprinting on a legit mental journey — we’re talking like long-rambling-quest-across-the-distant-horizon level of mental movement.

Or, sometimes I sit, and will be battling the soul-moving urge to constantly check how much time is left. In both instances, I feel like I’m the one in the passenger’s seat while my mind is driving. And it has a cell phone that it is checking; a cup of coffee balanced between its knees; a half-eaten sandwich in its lap; and it is frequently fiddling with each of those items. Or, back to our puppy analogy, it’s what the outcome would look like if you let a group of adorable puppies try to drive.

Mindfulness is difficult for our minds because it inherently requires us to slow down, limit stimuli, embrace stillness, and try to stay in one place (the present moment). Our minds did not evolve equipped to easily manage those things and society’s increasing information-overload of stimuli does not help.

Can you imagine a puppy successfully doing any of those things??? Yeah, no.

Our minds struggle with them also. We should treat our minds (and their wanderings) a bit more like we’d treat a puppy. Puppies need structure and training, but harshness and scolding doesn’t produce good behavior — neither does an absence of rules. Our minds need a firm, yet gentle hand to guide them to return to the present moment again and again.

Perhaps the best way to help our minds with mindfulness is to adopt a new frame of mind: pretend our mind is a newly adopted puppy who likes to wander and pee on the carpet. It only needs a steady dose of structure (practice returning our thoughts to the present moment) and whole lot of love and snuggling.

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