I have a chainsaw for a brain. And let me tell you: it’s a real mixed bag.
We had a spectacular, terrible ice storm here in 1991. In the days that followed, chainsaw blades growled and whined as the city ground crews cut up the hundreds of beautiful old trees that blocked the streets.
Chainsaws are indispensable when you need to cut through a lot of material and do it fast. And I’m grateful my mind can be that kind of tool. It can cut through the underbrush around a towering project, neatly fell it, then cut it into manageable chunks.
On the other hand, my mind can tear things to pieces in no time flat. And that creates big problems for me.
In a morbidly funny scene in Robert Altman’s movie, Short Cuts, firefighter, crazed with pain and rage at his soon-to-be-ex-wife, takes a chainsaw to their belongings. As he savagely rips into their couch, he screams something like, “You want half? I’ll give you half!”
My mind can go crazy like that. If I let it get out of control, it can destroy a good mood with a few minutes of undisciplined thinking, leaving me anxious, overwhelmed or crushingly discouraged.
Thinking without a license
Our education system is crazy in this department. It neglects any training in the understanding and use of our minds. After all, you do need a license to drive. James Bond needs a license to kill. And as a sensitive person, I’m thinking (there I go again) that I should need a license to think.
In all seriousness, my ability to discipline my thinking has more effect on me than anything else I do. That includes exercise. And I love to exercise, do it a lot and feel great when I do it. The chainsaw can tear apart even that level of well-being—if I let it.
I’ve come to see mental discipline as an essential responsibility to myself and to others. I believe this is particularly important for me as a sensitive person. It is harder for us: our minds generate possibilities and permutations so quickly, and we have strong emotional reactions to the scenarios we create.
What to do?
My mental discipline habits includes these six practices:
- Meditation: I set every morning, to set up the day, and sometimes at night to quiet my mind
- A habit of mindfulness: I watch myself as I work and pause to do some breathing exercises if my mind starts to run, using a timer to remind me to check in
- Consciously setting my intent throughout the day for things I’m about to do
- Regular breaks when I work (to remind me to notice how I’m doing)
- Breathing and body-centering movement before bed—these help my mind “turn off” so it doesn’t saw wood all night
- Focusing: I cultivate the ability to be present with my mind so I experience it as “something in me” rather than “all of me”
All this helps, but my mind is still like Swift, the golden retriever I grew up with: given the slightest opportunity, it bolts for freedom. The only times I’ve seen it way slowed down were after the seven-day meditation retreats I did. I loved to feel fresh air in the area behind my forehead where a crowd of thoughts normally jostled for attention.
While I found those retreats arduous, they did make it simple to attend to my mind. The setting, the routines, even the clothing we wore were designed to support that.
Disciplining my mind when I’m in front of a computer in the midst of a complicated day is another level of difficulty entirely. I look on it as the Iron Man of mind challenges. I need to finish a “Tin Man” first. I’ll let you know when that happens!
If you too have a chainsaw brain, let me know how do you handle it.