Is Your Mind an Amusement Park?

Grace Livingston
May 21, 2019

When some people hear about meditation, they may imagine that it’s a cool, calm chill-out with no distracting thoughts or feelings disturbing the Zen.

And then, since that’s not what anyone actually experiences, lots of people become convinced that they can’t meditate because their minds are so busy and distracted.

The truth is, though, distractions happen! Whether out in the world or seated in meditation, the mind will pretty much always find something to do - and it’s not always going to do the thing we might hope.

What can you do?

A lot of it is just a matter of perspective – for example, whether you think of your mind as an amusement park or a museum.

You’re probably familiar with your mind’s amusement park. Distracting thoughts are like roller coasters – sometimes I’ll eagerly run over to one, and without a second thought, strap myself in for the ride. Some of these thought rides are exhilarating, and I can get caught on them for long stretches of time, only to come up for air feeling a little dizzy, but mostly thrilled.

Others are actually unpleasant – loop-dee-loops of painful memories, anger, or fear. My mind has a way of circling back again and again to mistakes I’ve made, like missing an important work deadline or losing my cool in an argument with my partner. These are not fun rides to be stuck on.

Then there are games beckoning me to play. Step right up! Take your shot! Oh well, not this time. Want to play again? For me, planning thoughts have this addictive quality: what I need to do today, what I’ll likely eat tonight, how many pairs of pants I’ll pack for a vacation that’s three weeks away. Even though they seem so practical at first, I can’t actually fulfill these plans in the moment, so they’re really just mental noise. Winning these games is rare.

Still other times, I’m like a little kid, racing from ride to ride, thought to thought, double fisting french fries and cotton candy, trying to win a giant stuffed bear. It’s exhausting!

Imagine, though, relating to these thoughts and feelings not as amusement park rides, but as exhibits in a museum.

In museums, even children usually exercise some degree of restraint. We don’t run from piece to piece in an exhibit screaming, “I LOVE THIS ONE!” or “THIS ONE IS TERRIBLE!” while double fisting ice cream cones. Instead, we approach each piece of art with curiosity, maybe even with respect. We don’t go for a ride; we notice and relate and observe.

If, for example, a painting calls our attention, we might spend some time with it, but we don’t ride it again and again, or rush exuberantly from one to the next.

The same holds true for distractions in meditation. Distractions still appear; the “cool, calm chill-out” is mostly a myth. But instead of nauseating rides that we rush on compulsively, they can be like exhibits in a museum that we notice, observe, and acknowledge without taking them for a ride.

In meditation lingo, we can be a mindful witness to these distractions. The “mindful” part is all about remaining open to what’s actually happening - in this case, distractions. We don’t obsess over a given distraction as it arises, nor do we push it away; rather, we notice it, and acknowledge it without judgment. We know it’s there, and that’s fine.

The “witness” part refers to the choice we have to step back, rather than going for a ride. With a non-reactive stance, it’s possible to bear witness to the distraction - mentally standing before it, but not getting caught up in the story or becoming part of it. In other words, as a witness we don’t have to ride the ride.

Of course, not everything in this museum of our minds will be easy to look at, but even difficult distractions can be observed, appreciated – and eventually passed by. That’s a lot more balanced than riding on rides that make us sick.

Don’t take my word for it - see if this rings true for you! Next time you find that your mind is distracted during meditation, consider asking yourself, “do I really have to ride this rollercoaster? Could I just notice it, like artwork in a museum, instead?” See if that works some of the time.

And if it doesn’t, if it’s just a roller coaster kind of day, then mindfully hold on tight!

Grace Livingston worked as a Senior Researcher for Ten Percent Happier, and wrote and taught movingly on courageously living life in the face of illness.

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