Take the Hamster Off the Wheel: A Practice in Mindfulness

“[I]t’s like your mind is a hamster running on a wheel. Same old thoughts, day in and day out. You don’t really get anywhere except maybe an occasional breakthrough. When I [rock] climb, all there’s room for is the concentration on the gear and the next move. The thoughts stop, the wheel stops . . . the hamster is free.” -Critter (in Jump, by Elisa Carbone)

Sometimes a passage from a novel speaks to you so loudly it screams. Critter, a teenager who is wise beyond his years following a near-death experience, captured the essence of mindfulness so well that I’ve been using his image of a hamster on a wheel since I read it two weeks ago. “Take the hamster off the wheel” has morphed into “hamster, off,” which has the added benefit of making me giggle.

The only trouble is that sometimes I get carried away imaging the hamster curled up on a bed of wood shavings, its little nose twitching as it sleeps. My mental hamster is white with light brown spots and has an adorable pink nose. Although my mind is no longer churning on whatever issue is at hand, it is far from from the present moment as I wonder what the hamster is dreaming about. At this point, I simply think “churning” and try to refocus on the moment I am in.

Whether I mentally say “hamster, off” or “churning,” my shoulder and neck muscles release instantly. (Although thinking doesn’t always feel like stressing, my shoulders seem to think it does.) I relax and experience the present. For a few seconds at least, until the hamster starts running again. Then I gently remove it from the wheel and return to the moment. Again. And again. And again. Because the only sure thing about practicing mindfulness is that your mind will wander.