December 8, 2015

Freeing the Mind from Itself: Am I Ruled by my Thoughts?

meditation sit practice

Did I really just lose the past five minutes of my life?

I was running on a gravel path under bright gold aspen and cottonwood trees. The breath leaving my lips became a visible fog in the crisp air. Each footfall announced itself with a pleasant “crunch” and my dog bounced along happily beside me. So perfect and memorable it could have been a movie scene…

Except, only my body was there to enjoy it. I had hitched my awareness to a passing thought and become nothing more than the caboose on a brain train to distraction. Hypothetical situations. Conversations I’ve yet to actually have. Half-formed ideas, or wishes. No clear start or end to any of them, just a sea of blurry-edged mental maelstroms.

Suddenly I jerked back into the present, realizing that I’d completely missed the previous five minutes of my run.

Enough of me was there to keep my feet moving and my lungs working, my eyes avoiding obstacles on the trail, but I’d been so completely disengaged I had to rack my mind for any memory of it all.

It wasn’t my first experience of major distraction—I’m a repeat offender—but this one shook me. I felt I’d robbed myself of those five minutes of life. And for what? I’ll share the embarrassing thoughts, as penance: Five minutes engrossed by a friend’s sleek, muscular arms I envied. A lifestyle I coveted. Proclamations of diet plans. And at least two minutes—on mental repeat—of the hook to “Fergalicious.”

We act like cats who haven’t realized the spot of light from a laser pointer is only a projection. Thoughts hook us with ease. So when those circus monkeys begin to play my mind like cymbals, I rely on wisdom from Pema Chödrön. As we notice ourselves caught in a thought or emotion, she instructs to label it “thinking.” Neither a good nor bad thought, without self-judgement, just “thinking.” Usually, a reminder that it’s just a thought pulls me out of the sticky, gooey mental mess, and back to being present.

I wonder how many likes that Instagram post got. “Thinking,” I say to myself, as I hear the sound a zipper makes on a little boy’s jacket.

What did my friend mean in the subtle phrasing of her text message? Maybe she’s mad at me. Maybe I did something I should be apologizing for, if only I could remember it. “Thinking,” I say to myself, as I breathe in the smell of that bowl of hot soup.

When we just chase passing diversions, our thoughts might be free but our minds are not. Distraction removes the productivity of true mental exploration. Instead of following that unhelpful thought, how much better might it feel to notice our surroundings, giving all our attention to this footfall, this view, this conversation? To do less, we withhold from ourselves the delicate grandeur of our own experiences.

Three reminders help me when I’m hooked by thinking:

#1 We are not our thoughts! We are the consciousness behind them.

Awareness is the soul, self, being. Thoughts are usually half-formed and easily influenced, coming and going like weather. Jon Kabat-Zinn says we can “view thinking itself as a waterfall, a cascading of thought. In cultivating mindfulness, we are going beyond or behind our thinking, much the way you might find a vantage point in a cave or depression in the rock behind a waterfall. We still see and hear the water, but we are out of the torrent.” This guides us away from those unhelpful, frenetic brain trains with some calm and dignity.

#2 Practice makes progress.

Every time we notice ourselves in distraction, we can (literally) breathe into those anxious spaces. Thoughts running wild? After catching it, take a breath and just notice the “thinking.” Every time we notice and then move on, the process next time becomes a little easier.

#3 Know thy motivation.

What’s the importance of staying present? Decreasing stress and anxiety? Enriching our experiences? For me, it’s knowing that my distracted self isn’t a good listener, friend, teacher, lover. I’m only the best-me in relationships when I’m present. Knowing the big “why” behind the want acts like an unspoken mantra, a reminder in the midst of busy thoughts to breathe and let go.

“Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.” ~ Anne Lamott

Each run—each moment—will be different. Distraction might rule Tuesday, awareness may stretch its legs unhindered on Wednesday. But when our thoughts are quiet, the experiences get so much richer. Maybe we can start to let those distractions rest in peace.


Relephant Read:

The Benefits of Meditating in Public Places.


Author: Lauren Erickson-Viereck

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Hernan Pinera/Flickr


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