Most people on this planet are stuck in their heads most of the time. Thoughts about the past, worries about the future, and just plain trivial nonsense dominate most peoples’ moments. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that past years have seen an upsurge in public awareness that this state of affairs is not a good thing. For millennia before this, people accepted that their minds were who they were and didn’t see this as particularly concerning. The boom in meditation and mindfulness has the world trending in the right direction.

The faulty understanding of dealing with the mind

But many wading into the incipient stages of these practices have a faulty understanding of what the true game plan is. They identify, correctly, that the mind and all of its injurious, involuntary thinking, is the main culprit. They then deduce, logically, that the way to approach this problem is to try and conquer or control this mind that has caused them so much grief throughout their lives.

How does this strategy manifest? In meditation, people say to themselves, “Okay, let’s focus on stopping my crazy mind from thinking…” This may work for a short while, but then the thoughts inevitably come charging back with a vengeance.

How we go wrong in mindfulness practice

In practicing mindfulness, it comes out when, for example, someone is out in nature and says, “Wow. What a beautiful sunset. Let’s just stop thinking and be present with it…” This also ends in frustration and increased thought traffic.

Or when their spouse says something that infuriates them, they stop, close their eyes, and say to themselves,

“Okay. I’m not going to let that incredibly stupid and insensitive comment rile me up. He/she probably didn’t mean it the way I’m taking it. Just chill out…”

That’s not mindfulness. It’s suppression.

Observe, don’t conquer

The point is that the human mind cannot be wrestled into submission by direct action. So what is the best strategy for slaying our noggin dragons?

It is to simply observe your thinking mind. That’s it. Don’t conquer it, observe it.

What that requires is self-evident: You need to separate the real, conscious you from the egoic, thought machine you (i.e., the mind). You to need separate the subject (real you) from the object (not real you thinking mind).

Unfortunately, doing this is difficult. Why? Because we’ve been stuck in our heads believing we are our thoughts for as long as we can remember. It happens so automatically for most of us that it’s hard to notice and therefore hard to prevent.

Our minds have a method to their madness

It’s important to acknowledge that the mind produces all these thoughts for a reason. It is desperately trying to make things “okay” for us. It uses all of our past experiences as data points in determining what thoughts will result in an okay you. The problem is that the mind is almost always wrong.

Fine. So we’ve concluded that the chattering mind is injurious to our well-being, that trying to conquer it is futile, and that the best solution is to observe it.

That leads to the inevitable question: How do we teach ourselves to detach from and observe our minds?

Answer: We do it by practicing meditation and mindfulness correctly.

The key is nonjudgmental observance

Both of these practices are, at their essence, about nonjudgmentally observing what is happening in the present moment.

In meditation that means following your breath, listening to that truck that just drove by, and, most important for our purposes, noticing the thought I just had about my tennis match yesterday. The tennis thought is no different than the truck sound or the breathing. It’s just something that isn’t me appearing in my field of awareness, so I treat it as such.

In mindfulness, this manifests similarly. If we’re waiting in an interminably long line at the grocery store checkout and we notice that feeling of annoyance stirring in our gut, what we don’t do is say to ourselves,

“There’s that annoying feeling. Let’s be mindful and stop that. We’ll get through the line when we get through the line.”

What we do is say,

“I’m in a long line and I’ve just noticed feelings of annoyance and anger because of it…”

And that’s it. No commentary or judgment or about those feelings. Just observing the feelings.

Fortunately, the more we meditate and simply observe our thoughts as something that is separate from who we are as a speeding truck, the quieter the mind becomes. It takes a while, but slowly, surely, and gradually, it happens.

And as it does, we become calmer, less anxious, more focused, and, best of all, more content.

The takeaway

Bottom line: Don’t try to defeat your mind. It’s a frustrating and unwinnable battle.

Instead, do something much easier: Observe your mind, without judgment.