“Within you, there is a stillness and a sanctuary to which you can retreat at any time and be yourself.” ~Hermann Hesse
When I work with people who are suffering from anxiety, fear, grief, or other challenging issues, I like to take them through a simple exercise I call “The Noticing Exercise.”
It’s my first port of call when helping people break free from mind-created suffering.
It’s amazing how quickly, and effortlessly, people can move from suffering to peace, simply through shifting their focus to being aware of the present moment—noticing the sensation of the body touching the chair, the ribs expanding on the in breath, or the sounds in the room.
Even deeply troubled individuals can experience peace the very first time they try this simple meditation.
How is this possible?
It is because peace is already there inside all of us. It’s an integral part of who we are. When the mind’s activity subsides, even for a moment, peace is what remains.
The ocean provides a good analogy.
At the surface, the water is constantly in motion. It never stops, even for a moment. But when you drop down into the depths, there is stillness and peace.
It’s exactly the same with the mind.
On the surface level, the mind is always active but, in the depths of our being, there is a natural peace and stillness that is unchanging… always present, always available. Being part of our essential nature, it can never leave us.
Although this inherent peace is always there, it goes unnoticed in most people through the deep-seated habit of giving our exclusive attention to the surface movements of the mind.
We are so pre-occupied with what’s going on at the surface that we simply fail to notice what’s happening in the depths of our experience.
And, of course, there is nothing ‘wrong’ with any of this.
Spending our days lost in thinking is the human condition. It’s what we all do.
Being swept away by the restless waters of the mind is perfectly normal, particularly when we are faced with intense patterns such as anxiety, trauma, or grief. And yet, the fact remains that, despite appearances, there is a peace inside every one of us that is untouched by what’s going on at the surface, however intense it may be.
Withdraw your attention from the mind, even for a moment, and it’s there.
You don’t have to create it; just recognize what has always been there.
Peace doesn’t leave you. You leave peace.
Stress, anxiety, and unhappiness exist primarily in the form of thoughts.
If you are able to become fully present in the moment, thoughts subside, and stress and anxiety are replaced by peace and stillness.
Of course, most people will pick up their painful stories again as soon as the meditation comes to an end, but the fact they were able to be free of their suffering, even temporarily, provides us with clues for finding a more permanent solution.
With practice, anyone can learn to withdraw their attention from the mind for longer periods of time and thereby extend the periods of peace.
Have You Been Barking Up the Wrong Tree?
Most people are looking for peace where it can never be found—not lasting peace anyway.
It’s a bit like losing your keys in the house and looking for them in the garden.
You’re never going to find them… because they are not there.
Most people I help have been searching for peace through the path of self-improvement, often for years.
And it makes total sense.
If my mind is causing me trouble, then the obvious solution is to try to fix it—to ‘work on myself’ and try to convert all my anxious and unhappy thoughts and feelings into pleasant, happy ones. Try to create a new, improved version of myself.
But, if you’ve been down this path for any length of time, as I have, you’ll know that fundamentally changing the mind is not so easy.
The problem with this approach is encapsulated in the following quote from the Indian spiritual teacher, Nisargadatta:
“There is no such thing as peace of mind. Mind means disturbance; restlessness itself is mind.”
Like the surface of the ocean, the mind is constantly in motion. It is restless by nature.
And, although there may well be fleeting moments of peace here and there, they will inevitably be followed by moments of agitation and disturbance.
Restlessness is the nature of the mind. Trying to make it calm and peaceful is like trying to iron the surface of the ocean. It’s simply never going to happen.
Making Peace with The Mind Just as It Is
To find a solution that actually works, we must first understand the true cause of suffering. It’s not what most folks think.
People believe, as I did for years, that the anxious, stressful, or fearful thoughts themselves are the primary cause of suffering.
They believe that:
- the mind is broken and needs to be fixed.
- anxiety, fear, confusion, etc. are inherently bad or wrong.
- there’s something wrong with them for having these thoughts.
- they can’t experience peace or happiness until they are gone.
These beliefs are the main reason people suffer.
As the Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello said:
“There’s only one cause of unhappiness; the false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so common, so widespread, that it never occurs to you to question them.”
What if, instead of spending years trying to fix the content of the mind, we focused instead on making peace with the mind, just as it is?
What if, rather than fighting and resisting fear, sadness, envy, or confusion, you were able to accept them as natural expressions of the human condition?
What would happen to your anxiety if you didn’t see anything ‘wrong’ with it?
Or your sadness if you didn’t mind it being there?
They may still feel unpleasant but, in the absence of resistance, they’d lose their power to affect your peace.
We can wrap our non-peace in the peace of acceptance.
You Don’t Need to Have a Peaceful Mind to Experience Peace
On the path of self-improvement, the goal is to find peace of mind.
But this approach is unlikely to succeed simply because the mind is restless by nature.
Here’s the truth:
You can’t stop bothersome thoughts from arising, but you can stop bothering about them.
One of my teachers used to say, “You suffer because you are open for business.”
You entertain your thoughts and invite them in for tea—engage with them, ruminate over them, wallow in them, play them over and over in your head—and create suffering for yourself as a result.
You don’t need to have a peaceful mind to experience peace.
You need to stop giving your thoughts so much attention and importance.
If you are able to accept whatever appears in your head, whether pleasant or unpleasant, with an attitude of non-judgmental acceptance, you will always be at peace.
Acceptance is like kryptonite to the mind. It loses its power to disturb your peace.
The Two Types of Peace
There are two types of peace.
There is the feeling of peace, which is a temporary respite from feeling restless or agitated. Like all feelings, it comes and goes, like clouds passing across the sky.
Then there is the peace that exists in the depths of your being; the backdrop of peace that is unchanging, ever-present, and has nothing to do with what is going on in your head.
Even in the midst of the most turbulent storm at sea, in the depths, the ocean remains calm and unmoving.
There is a peace inside every one of us that remains untouched by the movements on the surface, no matter how intense.
And it’s not difficult to find. How could it be if it’s already who you are?
You don’t need to fix or change anything about yourself to experience what is ever-present inside you.
You just need to dive below the surface and discover what is always there.
The peace you are looking for is with you always. But you’ll never find it on the level of the mind.