I get lost.
Sometimes I feel like I’m in a new city and I’ve got an old-school paper map that doesn’t seem to reconcile with any street names, and I’m not sure where I should be focusing my attention — one the map, on the streets, on these cool ass buildings, on forgetting about it and just being here — except that instead of a city, this is my real life.
I get stuck in my head. I internalize. I pull back, disengage, I meander, I drift off.
We mentally wander
We agonize over the future, we relive the past, we wade around and get tangled up in the thoughts inside our own heads, and we’re not present.
We get consumed with our thoughts and then our thoughts, left to their devices, become little gremlin thoughts and feelings, the shadows of things that maybe once were, or someday might be, or, most importantly, actually could be (but aren’t) right now. They are phantoms of things that aren’t present and they pull us willy-nilly into places that we physically aren’t. And this happens to most all of us, at least sometimes. Like, during the course of reading just this post your mind will probably spark more side-notes that you’ll even count. (And that’s even assuming you like it.)
Mindfulness is something I’m working on. Being present; engaged.
God, it’s so easy to wander off.
I do it without even realizing I’m doing it, then catch myself, call myself back and sit myself down, only to feel myself get up and wander off again the minute I’m not paying attention. Again and again, I sit myself back at the table, and two seconds later I look over and I’m slowly sliding down the front of my chair and onto the floor, then rolling across it toward the door, or just laying there, sprawled out, staring at the ceiling.
And maybe you think it’s not a big deal — we all daydream; who cares? — but not being mindful has serious, day to day side effects.
I misplace my phone. I drop my keys. I lose awareness of my body in space, running into things or forgetting how my own appendages work. I zone out in conversations. I read whole pages without actually reading. I haven’t been drinking alcohol since the start of the year, but as recently as three weeks ago, I’d open a beer without even thinking — and not even to get drunk, which frankly almost makes it worse, because, like, why then?
You may wonder: where am I when I do this? In my head. Not in the past, per se, and not even in the future — just wandering around up there. I am, I’m sure, doing lots of “Very Important Work” — maybe sometimes; at least that’s what I tell myself each time I ask. But mostly it’d be really nice not to run into the door jam — again.
It has, as you can see, gotten out of control. And, furthermore, it’s annoying.
You’d think it’d be as easy as “well, just pay attention.” And, like, thanks bud. But either something’s really wrong with me medically or it’s not that easy — because like I said, sometimes I’ll focus really hard on focusing really hard and still see myself slipping away in real time. Like sometimes I tell myself “don’t you dare spill this coffee,” and then watch myself, as though in slow-mo, knocking it over before I’ve even finished the sentence.
Because I may be “paying attention,” but I’m not fully present.
Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote,
“Most people are forgetful; they are not really there a lot of the time. Their mind is caught.”
The opposite of forgetfulness is mindfulness.
“Mindfulness is when you are truly there, mind and body together… When your mind is there with your body, you are established in the present moment.”
And as though all the recovered cost savings in spilled coffee isn’t enough, the bigger, added benefit of being mindful is,
“You can recognize the many conditions of happiness that are in you and around you, and happiness just comes naturally.”
Mindfulness is a quieting of the mind. (And it’s important that it’s not just a quieting of the mouth. An acquaintance of mine recently mentioned she’d started meditating in the morning and said, “I just love to use that time to think about everything I have to do that day.” And I was like “oh, sweetie…”)
“During the time you are practicing mindfulness, you stop talking — not only the talking outside, but the talking inside. The talking inside is the thinking, the mental discourse that goes on and on and on inside…This is not the kind of silence that oppresses us. It is a very elegant kind of silence, a very powerful kind of silence. It is the silence that heals and nourishes us.”
But it’s not emptiness like a vacuum. Mindfulness is always mindful of something. When you drink your tea mindfully, it’s called mindfulness of drinking. When you walk mindfully, it’s called mindfulness of walking. And when you breathe mindfully, that is mindfulness of breathing.
Here are three ways to practice being more mindful:
Simply identify your inhalation as an inhalation, and your exhalation as your exhalation: “Breathing in, this is my in-breath. Breathing out, this is my out-breath.”
An inhalation may take three, four, five seconds. You don’t have to interfere with or force it. “The practice is simple recognition of the in-breath and the out-breath. That is good enough. It will have a powerful effect.”
Building on breathing, concentrate on your in-breaths and out-breaths completely. Whether long or short, shallow or deep, it doesn’t matter. Simply concentrate on and follow your in-breath from the beginning to the end without interruption.
“Suppose you are breathing in, and then you think, ‘Oh, I forgot to turn off the light in my room.’ There is an interruption. Just stick to your in-breath all the way through. Then you cultivate your mindfulness and your concentration. You become your in-breath. You become your out-breath. If you continue like that, your breathing will naturally become deeper and slower, more harmonious and peaceful. You don’t have to make any effort — it happens naturally.”
Awareness of Your Body
You now extend this awareness beyond your breath,
“‘Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I am aware of my body. I know my body is there.’ This brings the mind wholly back to the body. Mind and body become one reality. When your mind is with your body, you are well-established in the here and the now. You are fully alive. You can be in touch with the wonders of life that are available in yourself and around you.”
And once you’re aware of self and your body, you are present. And mindful.
And ideally you are eventually happier. But if nothing else, hopefully you are also slightly more aware of your person — and possessions — and enjoy fewer instances of misplacing your phone and spilling your coffee.
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