The Minimalist Mind: making room for thought.

Ivy picture

Only in quiet waters things mirror themselves undistorted.

Only in a quiet mind is adequate perception of the world.

Hans Margolius

As a child I lived in a house that was covered by climbing plants. My favourite was the white clematis, and for four weeks every spring, its flowers surrounded us with the tantalising scent of approaching summer  There were the huge red cabbage roses that added their fragrance throughout the summer, and much less welcome, far too much ivy.

We fought a constant battle with the foliage, trying to balance living in a state of near constant twilight, the result of partially obscured windows, with the undoubted benefits offered by beautiful and fragrant plants.

These transient pleasures were won at the cost of time. The time spent, every couple of weeks, precariously perched two metres up a rickety ladder clipping back the rampant climbers that seemed to take malicious delight in blocking our windows.

In many ways, if we wish to maintain a minimalist mind-set we need to go through a similar process. Finding the delicate balance between being unable to see what is going on in our mind because of mental clutter, and being free to reflect on what is important and matters to us the most.

When we let light into our mind we can see what is there beyond the surface noise. This means that we can prioritise where to place our attention.

If there is too much going on, our mental efficiency falls off rapidly. It is difficult to think clearly when the things we want to concentrate on are hidden behind a wall of unwanted and unnecessary mental clutter.

“Why did my boss say that?”

“Oh my god, why did I say that?”

“Why hasn’t Susie answered my text?”

Managing mental overwhelm is increasingly important in the information rich, digital world that is life in the twenty-first century. Information overload is becoming the norm. Too many competing demands for our attention swallow up our focus and prevent us from seeing, or thinking, clearly.

Estimates suggest that the human race generated as much information between 2013 and 2015 as it created in all of its previous history.

We produce some 2.5 Exabytes of information every day – 1 Exabyte = 1 billion Gigabytes. To put this in context, this is the same volume of information as can be found in:

  • 75,000 libraries of Congress. (I found one reference that said 250,000)
  • 90 years of HD video.
  • 530,000,000 songs.
  • A pile of memory CDs that would reach almost to the moon.

Perhaps this is no surprise when Google receives 3.5 billion requests a day, and many of our favourite social media are just as busy recording our likes and emoticons.

As we have gained greater understanding of how memory works, estimates of the storage capacity of the human brain have also increased. However, the main difficulty is not with our memory, but in the ability to process the right information.

We can process a maximum of 150 kilobytes of information a second consciously. Which means that a great deal of what we do in our daily lives is automatic, or the result of learned behaviour and habit. The body and brain have systems that respond to the world without our needing to pay conscious attention, systems that evolved to keep us safe in a threatening environment.

This makes it even more important to free our conscious mind of extraneous distractions so that we can use our conscious awareness to concentrate on what matters to us, letting us reprogramme the automatic mental apps that we develop as we grow and mature.

When our minds are so busy and full of thoughts that we cannot focus or concentrate, it is time to stop fighting the noise, and take time to observe our internal world. We can let what is unimportant pass and reclaim our mental space and energy for what truly matters to us.

Developing a mindful approach to life helps with this. When we pay mindful attention to the here and now, to what is happening in our external and internal worlds at this very moment, we can filter out the signal from the noise. When we do this repeatedly, carefully and without judging the content of what is happening, we start to create space for our mind to pay greater attention to what we regard as important.

However, this needs care and a gentle mindset towards whatever we might discover. When we sit and focus on a problem we get set in a problem focussed mindset, and end up trying to solve what is happening around us. It is difficult to do this, as these are the things that lie outside our control and power to change. When we strive to alter these situations we can make our mental state worse, and fail to add to our freedom to live and choose.

Your time is limited; so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.

Steve Jobs

Instead, we pay attention to the thoughts and emotions that arise in response to these events, and do so in a mindful way so that we can avoid getting caught up in the story that they tell us. Stories that are not of our choosing, and which are based on what others want for us, and that they have taught us to want for ourselves.

This is a hidden source of anxiety and dissatisfaction for many of us, we find ourselves living to an agenda set by others. If we wish to break free of this, we need to take a creative approach to discovering what we wish for ourselves, the mental equivalent of getting back to basics, clarifying our beliefs and then living up to our own expectations.

If we adopt a stance of not knowing, we are then free to reflect on ourselves, our reactions, and our inner world without getting trapped in the

One way to do this is to develop a state of reverie from which to think. Reverie is that relaxed, free-floating state of awareness that provides a wide based, big picture kind of focus. If we use this state of relaxed attention to inform us as we write a journal, or hold a conversation with ourselves, we can slowly explore what it is that makes us tick.

  1. Take the stance of being your own biographer.
  2. Adopt Oliver Cromwell’s attitude of “Warts and all”.
  3. Set out to write the story of your life from a viewpoint of not knowing.
  4. What is it that I do?
    1. Be unsure.
    2. Describe it as if you were explaining to someone from another planet.
    3. Imagine that the stranger is there to help you reflect.
    4. That they are there to help you discover exactly what you do.
  5. Why do I do what I do?
    1. Be gentle.
    2. Do not settle for your first thoughts, but explore behind them.
    3. Gradually try to peel back the layers of motivation and belief until what you see resonates.
  6. How does this fit in with your sense of being you?

When we do this steadily over time, we come to understand our hidden motivations and responses, and as we remove this mental clutter we can take back control of our beliefs and behaviours.





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