How to Settle the Mind

Three ways to rest the mind so you can experience the joy of mental stillness.

Yury Velikanov/Adobe Stock

Sometimes, you get lucky in life, when the most important thing you need to do turns out to also be the simplest. One example is breathing. Breathing is the most important thing we need to do in our lives, and for most of us, it is also the easiest thing we ever do. If you belong to the population of people who can breathe effortlessly, you are so lucky! The same turns out to be true for meditation, that the simplest skill in meditation is also the most important. What is it? The simplest, most fundamental, most basic, and most important meditative skill of all is the ability to settle the mind.

What does it mean to settle the mind? Pretend you have a snow globe that you are constantly shaking. If I ask you to settle the snow globe, what do you do? You put it on the table, or the floor, or any other stationary surface. One of the literal meanings of the word settle is “to come down onto a surface.” You literally settle the snow globe down, that is all. So easy. Once the snow globe is settled, then over time, the water in it becomes still, the snow flakes fall to the bottom, and the snow globe becomes calm and clear at the same time.

The simplest, most fundamental, most basic, and most important meditative skill of all is the ability to settle the mind.

Settling the mind is similar. To settle the mind simply means resting it so that it approaches some degree of stillness. There are many ways to settle the mind, but I like to suggest three methods that are easy and highly effective.

Three Ways to Settle the Mind

1) The First method is anchoring. This means bringing gentle attention to a chosen object, and if attention wanders away, gently bringing it back. Think of anchoring as a ship dropping anchor in choppy seas. The ship stays close to the anchoring site despite the movement of wind and water. In the same way, when attention is anchored to a chosen object, it stays close to the object despite other mental activity. For the object of meditation, you may choose any object that affords the mind some measure of attentional stability. The standard meditation object (and my personal favorite) is the breath, but you can also choose the body or any sensory experiences such as sights, sounds, touch, or internal body sensations, or even the entire sensory field all at once as a single large object. One person I know found the sensation on the soles of his feet to be his favorite meditation object. That guy is obviously very grounded. And, yeah, I think his idea has legs.

2) If anchoring is too hard for you, here is the second method: resting. Resting means exactly that, to cease work or movement in order to relax, that is all. When I’m physically tired after a hard workout, I sit down on my comfy chair and rest. Similarly, to rest the mind, all I do is sit down and allow my mind to relax. One way to rest the mind is to use an image. Imagine a butterfly resting gently on a flower moving slowly in the breeze. In the same way, the mind rests gently on the breath. Another way is to use this saying, “There is nowhere to go and nothing to do for this one moment, except to rest.” Resting is an instinct—we all know how to do it. The idea here is to turn resting from an instinct to a skill.

As long as you know you are sitting, you are doing it right.

3) If resting is still too hard for you, here is the third method: being. Being means shifting from doing to being. It means not doing anything in particular, just sitting and experiencing the present moment. You can think of it as non-doing, or sitting without agenda, or simply just sitting. The key ingredient of this practice is being in the present moment. As long as your attention is in the present, you are doing it right. Alternatively, and slightly more poetically, you can think of the key ingredient as knowing. As long as you know you are sitting, you are doing it right.

All three practices above, and all practices that settle the mind in general, have two features in common: they all involve some degree of mental stillness and attention to the present moment. Because of that, they all lead to the basic meditative state, which is the state where the mind is alert and relaxed at the same time. When the mind is alert and relaxed, over time, it will calm down the same way the snowflakes in the snow globe settle down, and the mind abides in a state where it is both calm and clear.

Let us give it a try.

Formal Practice: Exploring Ways To Settle The Mind

Let us do a short, five-minute sit. We will spend the first three minutes exploring each of the three methods of settling the mind, for one minute each. We will then spend the last two minutes freestyling, practicing any of the three methods that you most prefer, or any combination of the three.

The Setup:

Sit in any posture that allows you to be alert and relaxed at the same time, whatever that means to you. You may keep your eyes opened or closed.

Anchoring (1 Minute):

For one minute, bring gentle attention to the breath, or the body, or any sensory object that affords the mind some measure of attentional stability. If attention wanders away, gently bring it back.

Resting (1 Minute):

For the next minute, rest the mind. If you like, you may imagine the mind resting on the breath the same way a butterfly rests gently on a flower. Or say to yourself, “There is nowhere to go and nothing to do for this one moment, except to rest.”

Being (1 Minute):

For the next minute, shift from doing to being. Sitting without agenda. Just sit and experience the present moment, for the duration of one minute.

Freestyle (2 Minutes):

For the next two minutes, you may practice any one of the three methods above, whichever your favorite is, or you may switch between them at any time.

After doing one or a few rounds of the above exploration, it is useful to decide which method of settling the mind is your favorite. This will be your primary method for settling the mind. Don’t worry about making a “wrong” choice—there is no wrong choice, plus you can change your mind anytime. It is sort of like choosing your favorite flavor of ice cream—there is no wrong choice, and you can change your mind anytime.

I recommend doing the exercise of settling the mind at least once a day, for at least one minute a day. Most teachers I know recommend twenty minutes a day, but you may do it for any duration you want, knowing that no duration is too long. Even seasoned meditators on formal retreats may choose to do this one very basic meditation for ten or more hours a day, so don’t be shy about practicing settling the mind for as long as you want.

“This excerpt has been adapted from Joy On Demand  by Chade-Meng Tan, reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2016.