I wrote a few days ago about paying attention to what our minds are up to (The Hidden Life of Minds). One way to pay attention is to label. By labeling, I mean gently identifying what is going on inside. I’m not talking about labels that carry judgment, as in “Boy, was that stupid.” I also don’t mean complicated descriptions, as in “Pondering quantum alternatives in the space time continuum.” I mean neutral, simple observations.
For example, here is what labeling would look like for me right now – thinking, rehearsing, anxious, breathing, relaxed, distracted, remembering, talking, loving....
Labeling helps us gain insight. If you are motivated to do a little puppy training with your mind, as I mentioned in the earlier post linked above, insight can help. Understanding our minds will help us train them rather than traumatize them. When my mind is being particularly unruly (most all the time), I sometimes picture it as a little puppy. Labeling helps me get its attention. Then, as Pema Chodron quotes from one of her favorite cards, I can say gently, “Sit! Stay! Heal!”
If we can refrain from our tendency to judge (if you can’t, you can even label that – judging), we can make friends with our minds. As James Baraz writes in Awakening Joy, “There is a huge reward in learning to make friends with your mind: you discover the exquisite experience of just being present.” Lovely.
Making friends with your mind can also get you through some scary times. Tara Brach describes the following example in her book Radical Acceptance. An elderly Buddhist teacher named Jacob continued to teach even though he had mid-stage Alzheimer’s. He sat down to teach a large group one time and suddenly couldn’t remember why he was there. His training kicked in and he started labeling out loud what was happening – afraid, confused, shaking, lost.... Gradually, he relaxed and he labeled that, too. The students were moved to tears by this deep teaching. By simply labeling, he stayed grounded and didn’t get sucked into his agitation. He didn’t make his feelings an enemy. He stayed on friendly terms with his mind.
That story inspires me so much, I’m going to go get the puppy treats.
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