At the age of 28 I find I’ve lived the majority of my life trapped inside a head that never shuts up. I think and think, analyze and overanalyze. I create fifty different possibilities any hypothetical situation may or may not turn out like. My mind is habitually seeking. Seeking a distraction, a fairy tale, a source of inspiration, a radio station not playing commercials… anything really. I sought solace in the belief this overflow of thoughts meant I was intelligent, a thinker, an intellectual, even.
One day as I was going about my business lost in thought a rather interesting and new idea floated by; I wasn’t particularly in charge of which direction any of my thoughts were going. They came and went, jumping from one place to another like a monkey swinging from tree to tree. At a dinner party, my mind was on work. At work, on men. While talking to friends, I was making a list of bills to pay. While paying bills at my desk, my mind was on vacation. I could drive from point A to point B and upon parking realize that I had absolutely no recollection of the drive. Where the hell was I ?
As it turns out, sometimes I was simply living in the past. Rehashing an altercation, maybe reminiscing on a nice moment, wishing I would have done something differently or could experience a particularly lovely moment over again. Other times I’d slipped into a time machine and sped off into the future, which isn’t as great an adventure as one might imagine. Excitement, worry, impatience and dread… all my old companions waited patiently for me in my imagined future. My ‘thoughts’ were actually a compulsion to live almost exclusively through memory and anticipation. When I really dug deep I realized not only was I habitually thinking but also habitually recycling old thoughts. Rarely was there a new one! I felt betrayed.
One night, thinking little of it, I expressed to a close friend how incredibly active my mind was. He looked confused, paused, cocked his head to the side and with a slight look of pity inquired, “So your mind is never quiet? Never still? Never?” My first reaction was to think he was faking. Possibly just trying to be difficult and make me feel bad about myself. But quickly I recognized the look in his eyes as compassion, not judgment. He actually felt sorry for me. This only made it worse.
My friend went on to explain whenever he experienced an overflow of thoughts he simply visualized each one and then chose which thought, if any, was worthy of attention. He then gave his energy only to this particular thought.
The idea my unruly monkey mind could be tamed combined with the hope I wouldn’t spend my life racing around in a state of hyper productivity, detached from my surroundings, constantly projecting myself into the past or future, was beyond intriguing. I had absolutely no idea how to implement the idea of ‘mind control’ but in that moment I believed it was possible. I went to bed visualizing myself as a lion tamer, whip in hand swatting away the bad thoughts, pulling the good ones closer, and drifted off into dreamland… a place where from now on I would make a conscious effort to only go to when actually sleeping.
I’ll spare you the details of the hours spent in the Self-improvement, New Age and Inspiration sections of Barnes and Noble. You will also be spared the details of guided meditation classes, countless hours of yoga, internet scouring, solo road tripping and deep soul searching… all of which for the record produced insight, provided valuable information, and pointed the compass of my life in the right direction. I’ll dive directly into the things I now know and put into practice on a daily basis. And when I say practice I do mean practice. If I spend 20% of my day applying the things I’ve learned, being ‘aware’ and living in the present moment, it’s a good day. But every day it gets a little better.
“Be Here Now.” – Ram Dass
“Be Somewhere Else Later.” – Bumper Sticker Wisdom
What’s so good about focus, attention and being in the moment? Consider this: “Nothing ever happened in the past; it happened in the Now. Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the Now.” (Eckhart Tolle, ‘The Power of Now’) So what I’m really saying is Now is all we’ve got, which really narrows things down.
Winifred Gallagher says in her insightful book, ‘Rapt,’ “If you could look backward at your years thus far, you’d see that your life—what you’ve confidently called “reality”—has been fashioned from what you’ve paid attention to. You’d also be struck by the fact that if you had paid attention to other things, your reality and your life would be very different. Attention has created the experience and the self stored in your memory; looking ahead, what you focus on will create the life and person yet to be. Psychology has mostly examined our pasts to explain and improve our lives. If you think in terms of the present and future instead, you might encounter an intuition lurking in your mind, as it was in mine: If you could just stay focused on the right things, your life would stop feeling like a reaction to stuff that happens to you and become something that you create—not a series of accidents, but a work of art.”
I consider myself a relatively optimistic person, but sometimes the future can be a pretty daunting place. It’s full of uncontrollable factors and unknowns. Sure it might turn out great. But what if it doesn’t? What if I end up alone and miserable? What if all my choices were wrong? Am I going to end up homeless, living in a box? I cannot cope with something that is only a mind projection. I cannot cope with the future. But I can always cope with the present moment. I will keep my attention in the Now because the past is nothing but a story and the future is simply a figment of my imagination. My apologies if I’m starting to sound a bit like The Matrix but there is no spoon, Neo. (Kidding… sort of.)
There is something incredibly reassuring in the fact that in the present moment, real problems rarely exist. You are breathing. You are alive. You were given another day to live, and in doing so given the chance to be the person you have always wanted to be, say the things you’ve been wanting to say, and live the life you’ve been wanting to live. Can you find any gratefulness, any peace, any joy in this simple fact?
Psychologist and philosopher William James describes attention as “taking possession of the mind, in a clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. It implies withdrawing from some things in order to deal effectively with others.” This makes perfect sense to me. Where is your attention most useful right now? Put it there, all of it! If you find it’s wandered astray, lovingly coax it back in the right direction.
Yet another affliction of the monkey mind is the great Delayed Happiness Disorder. It goes something like this, ‘I’ll be happy when I have this job, that relationship, X amount of money in the bank, when I’m on vacation, more successful, less pressured, accomplish fill-in-the-blank-goals.’ There are a million scenarios in which I could potentially find happiness, but if I can’t find the joy in this simple moment I won’t find any lasting joy in my perfect storm of happiness. Furthermore if I allow an external thing to ‘make me happy’ said thing also has the potential to make me sad. We gotta dig deep, people. We gotta go inside.
I began with this practice; anytime I notice my thoughts have wandered, that my attention has gone elsewhere, I shut my eyes and take in everything around me. Whether it’s the rustling trees or the sounds of traffic, raindrops or sunshine, gas fumes or salt air, I take it with total acceptance. Then I take a moment as they say in yoga, to ‘check in with myself’. It’s kind of amazing, but when I shut my eyes it makes it easier to feel what’s going on inside my body. Have you ever noticed when a doctor listens to your heart with their stethoscope, they tend to shut their eyes? I think it’s the same idea. With your eyes shut and your awareness spreads between your insides and you surroundings, you quickly realize you’re still here, breathing, in one piece, meaning you have everything you need in this moment. “The way to know if you’re fully aware of the moment is by the degree of peace you feel within.” – (Eckhart Tolle, ‘A New Earth’) You cannot always be happy, but you can almost always be focused, which is the next best thing. It’s all about baby steps.
The important thing, as stated in ‘Rapt’ is, “We must resist the temptation to drift along, reacting to whatever happens to us next, and deliberately select targets, from activities to relationships, that are worthy of our finite supplies of time and attention. It’s all too easy to spend much of your life in an unfocused, mixed-up condition, rushing toward the chimera of a better time and place to tune in and, well, be alive.”
We’re all aware good things takes practice, and practice makes perfect. Like a guitarist practicing scales or a basketball player doing layouts, giving your attention to the present moment requires discipline and training. Let’s choose our targets with care, whether making a sandwich or fighting a sickness, having a phone conversation with a friend or folding the laundry. Realize that today is the day to be fully alive, to embrace each joy and disappointment with equal openness. Give everything, take in everything and hold nothing back. Be aware of each passing moment. If all the big things seem to be going wrong focus on the little things gone right. The delicacy of a passing cloud, the enthusiastic greeting of your furry companion, finding a few onion rings mixed in with your fries… these are all pretty awesome things we can find potential joy in experiencing at any given moment. Be open to the mysterious, the unexpected, the subtle.
Realize that whatever you’re doing in this moment is your life’s work, whether curing cancer or sitting by the window. Choose to do it with attention, openness and a bit of grace and dignity… and choose to do it in this present moment.