A former monk shares a simple mind trick to help you combat negative thoughts and feel calmer in times of stress
- Cory Muscara is a mindfulness teacher, a frequent guest of the "Ten Percent Happier Podcast" with Dan Harris, a professor, and an ordained Buddhist monk.
- The following is an excerpt from his book, "Stop Missing Your Life: How to be Deeply Present in an Un-Present World."
- In it, he describes a workshop where he encouraged hundreds of Fortune 100 executives to sit silently and listen to a bell ring three times. This exercise is meant to help people focus on the present moment.
- Muscara argues that it's important to be intentional about our thoughts and where we direct our attention, as this can help us combat worries, fears, and negative thinking.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Within the first 10 minutes of any workshop, I do an exercise to help people connect with the power of focus. I ring a bell and ask the audience to pay attention to the sound, which has a long, deep resonance.
Recently, I was running a workshop for a big Fortune 100 company. There were over 200 executives in the room, all suffering withdrawal from being off of their phones for the last three minutes, and I was going to put them through my meditation exercise whether they wanted to do it or not.
The instructions were simple: I'll ring the bells three times. If you'd like to close your eyes, you may. All you need to do is bring your full attention to the sound of the bell until it dissolves back into silence.
Everyone looked around at each other like I had just asked them to get naked and hold hands.
"Don't worry, it will be easy," I assured them. "And it will only take about a minute."
They adjusted their posture, as if reviewing the catalog in their mind for how you're supposed to sit when you do weird hippie stuff like this. Some closed their eyes; some kept them open.
I rang the bells once, and the sound ran for about 15 seconds.
The room got quieter.
I rang the bells again, and everyone continued to listen for the sound to soften into silence.
More people now had their eyes closed. I could feel something shifting.
I rang the bells a third time, letting the sound run its 15 seconds and watched as the group settled into it.
After the last bell faded into silence, you could hear a pin drop. The room was still. And it appeared that everyone had their eyes closed.
In a gentle tone of voice, I invited them to open their eyes again.
They stayed quiet.
"So … how was that?" I asked.
"I liked the quiet," one woman said. "I think that's a new experience for all of us … at least at work. I didn't want it to end."
"Yeah," I responded. "So, you get a taste for just how much we're consumed by the noise of our lives."
"What else did people notice?" I asked.
A man raised his hand. "In the silence between the bells, I noticed a lot of other sounds in the room, especially the ticking of the clock. I was surprised I was able to hear that."
"Very cool," I said. "So, even though we raised awareness around one thing, in this case the bells, it enhanced our awareness of other, more subtle things."
There was a pause.
Eventually, one last woman chimed in. "I just feel so calm. I'm usually caught in my thoughts and worries, and when I was listening to the bells, most of that fell away."
The whole room seemed to nod in agreement.
I've done this exercise more than 500 times, and there are usually common themes in people's responses, but the one response that always comes up is an increased sense of calm.
It could be that the bells are very pleasant to listen to, or that the room is quiet, or that they're not immersed in emails — but it seems that when we make the intention to pay deeper attention to one thing (in this case, the bells), we're less prone to falling into the dominating stream of thoughts and stimuli that typically consume our attention and create extra agitation.
You know those thoughts, right? The judgments, the worries, the rumination, the thoughts about the future and the past. Not only do they create agitation and stress, these pesky little critters become the filter through which we experience our life.
Some skeptics might think that I'm suggesting we clear our minds of thoughts, never think about the future or the past, and just focus on what is happening right now, all the time, in every moment.
Eh, not quite. If that were the case — or if it was even possible — I'm not sure how we would get anything done. We should spend time thinking about the future — planning our goals and scheduling out our day — and time reflecting on our past — what we need to improve and what went well that we want to remember. Both of those domains, the future and the past, heavily inform how we live our life in the present moment.
However, in my own life, I've noticed that my mind can go into the future and the past without me asking it to. And it's not always helpful. It often leads to extra stress, extra worry, and extra judgment about things that have very little to do with the reality of what is happening right now.
So, this is not about clearing thoughts from our mind; rather, it's about developing an awareness of what is going on in our minds — Where does our attention go, moment to moment? What does our mind reflect on when we're not aware of it? — and then being more intentional about where and how we direct our attention.
A thought can be a powerful and positive force in our lives, leading to creativity, planning, and problem solving; a thought can also be meaningless neurotic chatter. We want the ability to leverage the former and not be swept away by the latter.
But, Cory, I don't want to constantly monitor myself. I want to be free and spontaneous!
The kind of freedom I'm talking about is not being trapped in the unconscious pattern of reactivity. It's about seeing what our usual impulse is in the moment and then being able to choose to follow it or respond differently.
I believe this sentiment is best captured in this quote: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth, freedom, and happiness."
The ability to respond in that space between something happening and our response to it is where we find freedom. It's where we can show ourselves a little more compassion when we're beating ourselves up. It's where we can decide to be a little less impulsive when we're about to say (or text) something we shouldn't. And when it comes right down to it, it's where we start to make meaningful changes in our life.
Excerpted from the book "Stop Missing Your Life: How to be Deeply Present in an Un-Present World" by Cory Muscara. Copyright (c) Cory Muscara by Da Capo Lifelong Books. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
This article was first published by Business Insider in December 2019.
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