In the following excerpt from Ezra Bayda’s book, Zen Heart, he explains how to “map the mind.” Mind-mapping is a powerful practice which can be a wonderful complement to the more everyday practice of thought-labeling (a technique I spoke about during last night’s “Intro to Zen” class, and which I’ve talked about a number of times over the past few months). Mind-mapping is a good tool to add to your toolbox of meditative practices… especially handy when you’re trying to cast the healing light of awareness on especially deep-seated beliefs about the self.
Mapping the Mind (from Zen Heart, pp. 117-118)
Mapping the mind has been around for a long time, and many different versions of it exist. The version presented here is quite simple, yet extremely effective in allowing us to see, from a broader perspective, what runs us. Here’s how it works: If you are stuck in an emotional issue, and unclear about what you’re actually thinking or feeling, first think of a short phrase that best describes the issue. Then write that phrase down in the middle of a piece of paper and circle it. For example, it could say, “money issue,” “relationship difficulty,” “depression,” or “anxiety over health.” Then, over the next few hours or days, whenever a thought, emotion, or strong bodily sensation arises around the issue, write it down on the paper. The entries don’t have to be in any order—you can scatter them all over the page.
Basically, you’re creating a map of the mind, letting all of the debris that keeps floating through the mind be objectified on paper. In a way this practice is an extended form of thought labeling; but here, we write the thoughts down rather than silently repeating them, and emotions and sensations, as well as thoughts, are included.
It’s very important in this exercise to refrain from analyzing the issue. Instead of trying to figure out what’s going on, the practice is to objectively observe the thoughts and feelings, then write them down. Don’t think too hard about what to write, just let whatever is there pour, unhindered, onto the page. If you start to analyze, you’re likely to get even more caught in the spinning mental world—the familiar world of Me-stuff. The point of simply writing the items down is to be able to eventually see with real clarity what you are believing and feeling on both conscious and subconscious levels.
Once you have written down most of the thoughts and feelings (this may take place over the course of a few hours or even days), look at the whole page as if you were looking at a map of your mind. Notice any repeating patterns of thoughts, and also notice the relationship between the thoughts and the emotional and physical feelings. At this point, ask yourself the pivotal practice question: “What is the most believed thought?” There’s a good chance the answer will not be apparent immediately, since often the thoughts we write down are superficial or surface thoughts. Repeat this question again, either right away or some time later; if you are intent on knowing what you’re believing, the chances are strong that sooner or later the answer will present itself with clarity.
Once the most believed thought becomes apparent, add it to the map of the mind. At this point, when you look at the overall map, it almost always becomes clear how the surface thoughts and also the emotional feelings rose directly from that initial belief. Deeply held beliefs such as “I’ll never be appreciated,” “I’ll always be alone,” or “Nothing will ever work out” may sound trite, but their devastating power becomes apparent the more we get to know ourselves.
The point of practicing mind mapping is to be able to see ourselves within a wider container of awareness. When we can see ourselves and our difficult situation with more awareness, we are no longer so identified with the small mind—the mind of I-as-me. The ability to be less identified with our thoughts and emotions is pivotal in being able to live from the more spacious and present place of Being Awareness.