Mind The Gap: How To Clear Mind Chatter & Be In The Now

So often it’s suggested that we turn off mind chatter and be in the now. The trouble is that few of us know how to do that. But the why is clear: Incessant mental noise and unnecessary focus on the past and future are huge stressors, and they keep us from being present in where we are and what we’re experiencing. So we miss out on the now, the right now.

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The good news is that clearing mind chatter and being in the now are tandem skills we all can learn and get good at with practice. The best guide book I’ve found is The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. I read it recently on a plane to London, and practiced while I was there. By the end of my 4 day visit, I was much better than when I started, which shows that clearing mind chatter and being in the now are learnable skills.

To be in the now, we have to learn how to turn off our thinking. By thinking, I mean the thoughts that run through our heads by themselves, with little or no direction on our part (aka mind chatter, as in that involuntary, mental monologue we hear).

This post shows you how to start the turning off process.

Just listen

You can start the turning off process by becoming an active listener to your thoughts. Just listen, as if you’re a separate person from yourself. Don’t judge what you hear, just hear it. Notice how the thought process runs by itself, without your effort, much like involuntary body functions like digestion and circulation.

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Mind the gap

Notice that in between thoughts, there’s a small gap of “no-mind.” It’s much like those digital message boards that wrap around theatre marquis and entire buildings in Times Square. In between each message, there’s a gap of empty space. Similarly, in our minds, thoughts run in succession, interspersed by gaps of empty space.

These gaps contain no thought, so when we enter into them, we feel a sense of stillness and inner peace. At first, the gaps may last only a few seconds, so our sense of stillness and inner peace lasts only a few seconds as well. But over time, with practice, we become aware of the feeling, and we learn to extend the gaps, feeling more and more stillness and inner peace.

Extend the gaps

I would say about 80 to 90 percent of people’s thinking is is not only repetitive and useless, but because of its dysfunctional and negative nature, much of it is often harmful. Observe your mind and you will find this to be true. It causes a serious leakage of vital energy. – Eckhart Tolle

With a good bit of practice, we can get to where we can extend the gaps to long periods of time. That’s what lets us be in the now, or present where we are and in what we’re experiencing now, unencumbered by the past and the future.

Create gaps

Another way to mind the gap is by actively creating gaps (rather than waiting for them to occur). We do this by directing our focus into the now, drawing consciousness away from mind activity, into a gap of intense awareness of the present moment. I’ve found it useful to create a mental image of my thoughts running on a digital message board. As each thought comes in, I envision my hand reaching in and pushing it to the side, so it disappears and all I can “see” is blankness, or the gap.

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Catch the frequency

By minding the gap, so to speak, we’re disidentifying from the mind, thus becoming more conscious of what Tolle calls the inner body. The inner body is not the physical body, but rather, the life inside your body; the animating presence within you. That, Tolle explains, is the real you. Mind chatter, in contrast, is not. Here’s what this means:

The voice inside your head isn’t you.

The more consciousness we direct into the inner body, the higher its frequency becomes. At this higher level, negativity falls away and we tend to attract new circumstances that reflect this higher frequency.

Or so Tolle says. I’ve found it to be absolutely true. But it’s experiential. You have to try and see for yourself.

Think different

You may be saying to yourself, “But I need my thoughts to do what I do.” Yes, you do. Don’t worry. You can still think, just different (and better). Tolle explains:

[Y]ou still use your thinking mind when needed, but in a much more focused and effective way than before. You use it mostly for practical purposes, but you are free of the involuntary internal dialogue and there is inner stillness. When you use your mind, and particularly when a creative solution is needed, you oscillate every few minutes between thought and stillness, between mind and no-mind. No-mind is consciousness without thought. Only in that way is it possible to think creatively, because only in that way does thought have any real power.

Delve in

[T]here is only one criterion by which you can measure your success in this practice: the degree of peace you feel within. – Tolle

This post is an intro to Tolle. To really get him, you have to read him. His ideas are on a level few of us are used to. They’re a path to enlightenment. Which is to say, they don’t lend themselves to summation. I’ve tried my best to get you started.

OVER TO YOU: What’s up with all that mind chatter? Have you ever tried just listening to it? Will you try? What do you think of minding the gap – in Tolle’s way? Let’s talk in the comments.

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NOTES & FURTHER READING
Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now at 17-24, 27, 29, 39, 41, 110-11, 113, 117, 120, 123. See also A New Earth. Tolle’s point is that thought comprises only a small part of intelligence. There is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought. Things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond thought; from beyond the mind. They arise from the inner body, which isn’t the physical body, but rather, the life inside your body; the animating presence within you. That’s the real you. Not the voice inside your head. That’s why we need to learn to turn it off.

Comments

  1. Hi Susan,

    Good to have you back and the new, improved and super cool app4mind!

    I just wanted to humbly and briefly add a few of my reflections on what you have written here and, hopefully, encourage others to join in.

    As a long-time meditator, it is encouraging to see others open the door on ‘mindfulness,’ whatever route they may take to get there. I have to say I have never read Tolle’s famous book and my own interpretations are simply based in my own experience of buddhist meditation and drawing on authors like Jon Kabat-Zin, who has done so much good work with his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts.

    I think there can be a danger that while midfulness and awareness are skills that can, undoubtedly, be developed, that they don’t become seen as only as useful ‘techniques’ that can be quickly picked up and acquired. Just as someone who picks up a weight is not Mr Olympia any time soon, or the newbie runner is likely to complete a marathon. In fact, being too goal oriented or utilitarian about creating mind-space risks missing the point of practise.

    It is all about the process not the product at the end of it. It is straightforwardly about just practising, I think. That is not ‘navel-gazing’ but practising, very similarly to the idea of deliberate practice, developed by Anders Erikson and popularised by Malcolm Gladwell and others. It is very much a doing process of developing mindfulness but also awareness, in the first place; noticing that thoughts arise. Whatever the thoughts are, good or bad, as we might describe them, they are just thoughts and, in practising mindfulness we become aware of them and then let them go, if necessary just labelling them ‘thinking’ and come back to a point of focus, usually the breath. That is something that even expeirienced meditators will usually agree is no easy thing. People new to mediation and mindfulness are often shocked by just how much chatter and activity is taking place in their minds. It really is like a wild horse and will stubbornly resist any efforts to train it.

    Ideally, however, meditation and mindfulness are not just something we do, but become something we live, taking the space that may be graduallycreated into the way relate to ourselves, being less self-critical perhaps but also we are with the world.

    Thank you Susan, for putting this article our there.

    Warm regards,

    Julian

    • Thank you so much, Julian. You’re the very first person to post a comment on this new site!

      Your insight on meditation is invaluable. I’ve read a good bit about it, but it’s clear to me that I’m a long way from understanding it. What appeals to me about Tolle is that he presents the skill of being in the present as just that – a skill. My work is very skill based, so it’s not surprising that Tolle resonates with me.

      As I shared in the post, I practiced this skill in London over a 4 day period, and I felt myself gradually improving at it. I’ve continued practicing in Tolle’s way – which isn’t meditation as is commonly thought of. It’s a process of bringing your mind into the present, whatever it is and wherever you happen to be. I especially like this approach because it’s a method that fits beautifully into the motion loop of app4Mind. Do you think your approach to meditation fits as well?

      I would like to understand the difference between mindfulness and mindlessness. I see both terms used, sometimes (seemingly) interchagebly. Might you shed some light? At this point, the term I like best is mindlessness. My understanding of it is getting to a place of no mind, meaning (I take it), to let go of one’s thoughts, most of which (as Tolle observes) are useless and not reflective of what’s real.

      I admire your good efforts and practice at meditation. Here something I wonder about: You wrote that it’s about the process, not the product at the end of it. I’m a very process oriented person – as this site reflects. Yet I very much believe it’s important to consider the effects and outcomes of what we do throughout any process we undertake – because effects and outcomes provide feedback needed for reworking what we do. So, for example, if a person is practicing something, whether it’s meditation or bike riding or a business skill or something else entirely, an inherent part of the practicing process would be to consider the effects and outcomes of the practice. I don’t mean beholding them as products; I do mean examine them for purposes of iterating and carrying on in one’s efforts.

      What do you think of this idea? The quote in the margin of the post suggests that Tolle would agree. According to him, if his methodology (or whatever we call it) “works” (for lack of a better word), then it brings us peace. Peace is the metric, according to him. This makes sense to me. If one is practicing his approach and still experiencing mind chatter and unrest, it’s something to be aware of, because it suggests a need for reworking the practice process itself.

      One thing I think is important to consider with regard to mind methodologies, whatever they are, is congruity – meaning this: Is how we live and what we do congruous with what our meditation and mindfulness (or mindlessness) happen to be – to us? Also, as I see it, a life built around these things needs more. Specifically, what’s still needed is tangible doing and action that contribute in some way to those around us and the world. I believe we’re all here to do good and useful things. It takes a lot of getting started and screwing up and trying again and again and again. Meditation surely can serve as an enabler for just that, but by itself, without actual, tangible doing in one’s life, I question its worth.

      As always, I would love to know your thoughts.

      Thanks, Julian.
      Susan

      • Chris Clay says:

        Thinking that we are here to be good and useful suggests that we are here by design. Meditation can have no motive, or at least motives fall away as you sit in emptiness. ‘It ain’t what you do, its the way that you do it’ is what gets me through the day. Its seems that abhorrent behaviour becomes self abusive when you realise that the gap we are minding is shared by all. In this way we are steered by life rather than en route to a destination.

        • Thanks, Chris. Good to see you here. I really like what gets you through the day: “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.” It’s all in the execution, isn’t it?

          Not sure what you mean in the sentence beginning, “It seems that abhorrent ….” Hope you’ll clarify.

          Thanks so much for being part of the dialogue. Hope to see you back!

          Susan

          • Chris Clay says:

            Hello. I feel that ‘the gap’ is who we are, not the ‘I’ that chatters in our heads. It is independent of ‘I’ and interdependent with everyone else. I meant that negative behaviour to another equates to negative behaviour to myself. Good deeds well up from this. Thinking/deciding to do good is ego driven and so inherently selfish. Reasoning is tool that cannot understand ‘the gap’. However trying to do so is the essence of life. An enjoyable paradox and I reckon that’s what Buddha statues have a half smile.

          • Chris:

            I think you’re on to something. The gap, I think, is either who we are, or it’s where we find who we are. Our mind chatter is not us (thank goodness, you know?).

            You’re so right about the equation of negative behavior – and about reasoning not understanding the gap. Detaching from reason is a skill, I’ve found – one that requires some serious practice to be able to do and improve at.

            I hadn’t noticed the Buddha half smile. I’ll have to take a look at that.

            Good thoughts, Chris. Thank you. Great having you here.

            Susan

  2. I really like your intro to Tolle, and I too find him invaluable. The Power of Now is a great entry point to his insight, and A New Earth is his more complex, more deep, next-step book. I don’t find myself able to “turn off my thinking” for long at all, and when I saw that as my goal I felt like I set myself up for feeling like a failure. I like the ACT therapy image of our thoughts as a “gloom and doom radio” that we can turn down the volume of, but not ever truly turn it off. The core insight, and wow is it important, is that you are not your thoughts. And when we bring our awareness to now, we create space around our thoughts. It changes one’s minute to minute experience of life in a very positive way. I LOVE your saying, Mind the Gap. I’ll give you in return a “tool” I’ve adapted from a great book about EMDR therapy, Getting Past Your Past: to bring yourself into the now think Earth, Wind and Fire. (Maybe even hum a bar of your favorite E Wand F song.) Earth–put your feet on the ground/floor and feel your connection to the earth. Wind–breathe deeply and bring awareness to your breath. Fire–see your mind as like a fire burning up the thoughts of past and future and creating the warmth of creativity. You can add Water too–be aware of the spit in your mouth and move your tongue around to create more–great if you’re nervous about something you are anticipating. Thank you, MDA for linking to this wonderful post!

    • Thanks so much, Jill. Very cool to find another Tolle enthusiast.

      A agree that “you are not your thoughts” is the core insight. I’ve been learning a bit about meditation, and part of the idea, as I understand it, is to get to where we can notice our thoughts, as a third party observer might. It’s a useful endeavor, and it aligns with the core insight. We can observe a thought as an intangible, unreal thing (mere vapor in the air). It’s especially helpful when troublesome thoughts emerge – because it helps keep us from getting invested in them and letting them snowball. (It’s hard to be troubled by something you don’t view as real.) Without exercises like these, we can take ourselves way too seriously.

      I like your EWF tool, especially the part of feeling our feet on the ground. I’m going to try that out for sure. Thank you for sharing.

      Really good seeing you here. I hope to again – here and on MDA!

      Susan

  3. Timothy Cunningham says:

    Hi Susan, Just wandered over here from Mark Sisson’s site. This is an interesting discussion of Tolle, and I can well appreciate your interest in his approach. I’ve read his stuff, although I’m more of a practitioner of mindfulness than a reader about it. Since 1970, when I started down this path while in college, I’ve learned a few basics. One key is to relax and be non-judgmental. Then, work diligently to create an outcome, but don’t place much emphasis on that outcome. That’s the trick. Work diligently, try hard, but don’t care too much one way or the other about what happens. Embracing the ambiguity in the sense of “I wonder what’s going to happen next?” while paying attention seems to work for me. Oh, and dogma is a killer. It creeps into these sorts of pursuits like a kudzu of the mind. Openness requires just that. The stories we make up and place stock in are often just distractions from the essence of being. Just my two cents.

    Tim

    • Hey Tim:

      Glad you found me via MDA. That’s a nice thing to have in common.

      Thank you for what you’ve written – it’s worth way more than two cents! The part of Tolle’s teachings about outcome is key. I can see that especially in something I experienced earlier this week. I’d set things up for a particular outcome, and they played out differently (and slower, but ultimately better). It would have been a lot easier on me to think, “I wonder what’s going to happen next.” As I see now, looking back, I was too wed to the outcome I’d had in mind, and it ultimately didn’t matter whether it happened or not.

      It takes some doing to learn to live this way. Our natural tendencies aren’t quite aligned with it.

      Dogma, stories, distractions – we must manage them. They come so easily, don’t they?

      Thanks so much, Tim. Great seeing you here. Hope to chat more.

      Susan

  4. Love this post. Found it when working on a post I am preparing for tomorrow. Lately I’ve been writing about hacking our own consciousness, have a kind of NLP influence, but also mindfulness and the power of our positive imagination.

    One thing to add to your post that may be of value. It relates to your point about turning off our thinking. We may not have to do that and observation is the key. I had a teacher say ‘you’re not responsible for what thoughts come into your mind. You’re responsible for what thoughts you hold there’. In meditation, I have found it is nearly impossible to shut off the mind, but reasonably easy (with practice) to elevate above it to a place of stillness. It’s still chatting away, I’m just not paying attention to it because we are all much more than our minds.

    Thanks for stimulating the thoughts – in a positive way.

    • Hey Steve:

      Thanks so much for your good comment and for linking to this post on your blog.

      I agree with your observation that it’s very possible to elevate to stillness and get to where we’re pay little or no attention to the mind as it’s chatting away. It is, as you suggest, quite different from turning off our thinking – which can be a pretty daunting objective. Rising above it is more doable.

      I like the differentiation your teacher has drawn between entering thoughts vs. held thoughts. I’ve found that sorting through thoughts and choosing which ones to keep vs. jettison is a practiceable skill – one we can work on and get better and better at over time. Tolle’s work (aka minding the gap) has been super helpful, as has Csikszentmihalyi’s (ordered consciousness), which I wrote about here. Have you read him?

      It’s good we’ve found each other’s blogs. Hope to talk more with you.

      Best,
      Susan

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