This morning I awoke to prepare breakfast at a retreat center, and was surprised by how many people were up at 6 a.m. As it turns out, one of the smoke alarms was chirping, giving most people in the house an early wake-up call. The alarm became a topic of conversation as retreatants sipped their morning tea and coffee. They were clearly annoyed and disappointed in being robbed of a precious opportunity to sleep in a little before 7 a.m. meditation.
As I listened to the conversations, I had the thought that our minds are a lot like smoke alarms. As humans, we often are consumed by repetitive thoughts, many of which are unproductive and often self-critical, and can become annoyances in our daily lives, slowing us down in our creative processes and self-growth. Yet, many of us keep listening to them, again and again, which is akin to letting a smoke alarm chirp for hours or days upon end.
I think some of it comes down to a belief that our thoughts are out of our control. Meditation, mindfulness practice and self-inquiry teach us there is another way. Being able to identify a thought that doesn’t serve us, and proactively taking steps to quiet it – whether through deep breathing, walking meditation, or other techniques – is like taking the time and effort to change the smoke alarm battery.
Trying to quiet our minds by giving in to cravings, addictions or unconscious habits is like the makeshift solutions we try when the smoke alarm is sounding – jiggling it around, pushing various buttons – which might offer some short-term quietude, but ultimately the noise starts back up. Some of us disconnect the alarm or remove the old batteries to get the sound to stop, but then the alarm doesn’t provide any function. This is likely completely numbing out our mind so that we enter a stupor, unable to tend to our life demands.
When you notice a repetitive thought, let it be a wake up call, a call to action. Find techniques that work, and change the batteries in your mind. If you were to put new batteries in your smoke alarm and it kept chirping, you would assume a battery was bad and try another one. If the same thoughts return, change the battery again, maybe trying another technique that you know has the power to bring you to a calm place.
And just like smoke alarms require maintenance (we’re told to check them every couple months), find routine practices you can do – daily or weekly – that cultivate the same sense of peace in your mind. In the same way you’re unlikely to ever hear the low-battery signal in your smoke alarm if you’ve changed the batteries regularly, a regular meditation or mindfulness practice helps to eliminate the repetitive thought cycles we get caught up in.
Unlike so many things that are beyond our control – traffic, other people’s reactions and so on, thankfully both smoke alarms and our minds can be tamed with ease. Be grateful the ability to quiet your mind is just a breath away – no ladders needed.