Last winter, I was walking to the gym with a close friend and (at the time) roommate, Francis. As one may glean after reading this essay’s title, the weather was inclement: cold winds, slush, and snow. Earlier that week, Francis and I were having a reflective conversation, a habit we found ourselves engaging in a few times a week. This particular conversation centered on the concept of having a “busy mind.” In short, a busy mind is one in which a person can find his or her perceived homunculus overbearing. In this state, it becomes difficult to progress in thought — as you are consumed by a myriad of niggling ones, ranging from something you said on a first date you had some days ago to whether you are on “the right track” in life. With Francis categorically suffering from a busy mind, I sought to better understand it, and perhaps offer ways to reduce its nuisance.
Though it’s admittedly an indistinct claim, most can agree, if only through first-hand experience, that our minds seem capable of sustaining only a finite number of thoughts. And while the number of thoughts almost certainly varies from one person to the next, the overwhelming majority of people are likely in the same ballpark. Given the limited number of consciousness steams at our disposal, I argue that there’s purpose in critiquing any one steam at any given moment — and benefit in prioritizing and willfully abandoning those which are ineffectual.
To unpack this claim, let’s go back to winter, walking to the gym with Francis. It was merely an hour after our discussion on busy minds when Francis started to bemoan a particular aspect of his clothing. He was wearing sweatpants that, as it turned out, did a poor job of dealing with the outside elements. He began by noting how much snow had accumulated on his pants since we’d begun our trip. Soon thereafter, he was on to speculating how his now-damp pants would affect his workout. It was around that time — before he switched to contemplating the durability of his pants and how they might or might not recover after a wash — I began to see a link between this behavior and our discussions around busy minds. This was a model instance of failing to prioritize streams of consciousness, a demonstration of a subpar level of self-awareness. I cannot understand the advantage in concerning oneself with something for which the details have no meaningful effect on life. If Francis had simply noted the fact that his pants were accumulating snow and then proceeded to push it away from the forefront of his thoughts due to its lack of impact, his life would proceed with slightly less bother. He would have had one fewer thought to nurture in his self-identified busy mind.
This finding can be generalized: Many of the thoughts we allow to percolate and perpetuate in our heads, though perhaps valid in some way(s), fall short. They do not meet the price of admission to be part of our consciousness. If we hone our self-awareness to notice when thoughts we allow to enter our consciousness are without proper merit, we just may find ourselves in a position to improve the quality of our world.
Relax, it’s only snow.