Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”; but most of the time, the truth is more like “I think, therefore I am not really here.” Unknown
We all sometimes operate on auto-pilot. Our mind can go on and on without us noticing. We take a hike through the woods and never see the trees as we are solving a problem or planning for tomorrow. All of a sudden, we are home and we never stopped for gas. Or we trip, stumble, or burn our meal. It is not until a problem occurs that we realize we were not in the present moment.
Mindfulness is sustained awareness of both the inner and outer worlds, both our inner experience and our environment. However, research finds that we mind wander about 50 percent of our waking moments. Mindfulness is a skill we can develop through practice; we have to train our brain to sustain awareness.
The Pitfalls of Multi-tasking
For many years, I thought I could multi-task. I did not realize it, but multi-tasking means you are not present for any one thing. I thought I could pay attention to a conversation while completing another task. In reality, my mind was jumping back and forth, missing a lot. My mind was wandering between two or more things.
“Several years ago, a high-tech executive coined the phrase continuous partial attention or the new CPA. She observed that most people today pay constant attention to multiple digital connections so as not to miss anything. This means that our focus is on constant high alert and always paying partial attention, knowing that any second something new is coming… The trouble is this always on way of living can fray your nerves and make things even worse.” David Emerald
These habits of multi-tasking and mind wandering are so strong they are very difficult to change. We can’t do it through will power. We need to do it through practice. Research has shown that attention declines under periods of stress, but mindfulness training can protect us against this.
When our mind wanders, we don’t experience the moment to moment unfolding of our lives. Mind wandering can be problematic. We miss important information, we make errors, and we miss out on the present moment.
The problem is, we don’t invite our thoughts, they just come. And if we have not trained our brain to be aware of when we are thinking, we get lost in thought. We train our brain in meditation by focusing our attention on our anchor, whether that be our breath, our hands, our feet, or sounds. By focusing on our anchor, we learn how often our minds wander.
“The key is to know when we’re doing something not as mindfully as it could be, and catch ourselves in the moment to change it. By doing that, we can get that much better at sharpening our awareness, and when we slip into being less mindful, we’ll know it right when it’s happening, and turn it around.” Ora Nadrich
What You Practice Gets Stronger
It takes intention to really focus our minds. Often our meditation practice is too casual. I realized this happens frequently when I am doing eating meditation at breakfast. I think I am doing eating meditation because I am not reading, listening to a podcast, or talking to someone while I eat. But if I pay attention to where my mind is, I find it is lost in thought. As I was not putting forth enough effort, I was not seeing the colors, feeling the textures or tasting the tastes of my food. It is much easier to do eating meditation on a retreat when my mind is settled. By practicing eating meditation more or less mindfully, I am training my brain to be lost in thought. Whatever you practice gets stronger. That does not mean I should beat myself up if my mind wanders while I am eating. The more skillful action is to have the intention to give my full attention to the next bite of food. And to do this again and again, each time I realize that my mind has wandered. The more I practice this, the more stable my mind will become.
The same strategy goes for sitting meditation. Have the intention to really be with the breath for one breath. It is unrealistic to think you can stay with the breath the entire sit. Just follow the breath in the whole way and follow the breath out the whole way. Put in enough effort so that you don’t get lost in thought. So that you are mindful enough to see what is going on within and in the world around you. But not so much effort so that you are pushing thoughts away or clinging to the breath. Instead you are relaxed with a great deal of care, interest and curiosity. Mindfulness grows, not through herculean effort, but through a steady continuity of awareness.
It is not enough to practice meditation. To be mindful, we have to incorporate it into our everyday life. We get so caught up in the minutiae of our everyday life, that we are not aware of what is going on around us. Before I began my practice, I lived in a cocoon and I rarely stick my head out. I focused on my work and my family, but I was so busy planning that I missed years of present moments. I was completely caught up and distracted by the details of my life. What my practice has taught me is to create gaps in my day.
“These gaps, these punctuations, are like poking holes in the clouds, poking holes in the cocoon. And these gaps can extend so that they can permeate your entire life, so that the continuity is no longer the continuity of discursive thought but rather one continual gap.” Pema Chodron
We meditate in order to train our brains to create gaps. Every time we become aware of our thoughts and let them go, we create a gap. Letting your mind quiet helps you to see more clearly. For me, it did not happen right away. For the first couple years of my practice, the only gap in my day was my meditation practice ranging from 5 to 20 minutes a day.
It’s Hard to Start Meditating
Meditation, just like any other skill takes practice. When we start meditating our attention is not stable. We lack the capacity to simply be with our breath. It also doesn’t help that as adults, we have less tolerance for being beginners at much of anything. It’s hard to start meditating. Our brains are wired to constantly scan, assess, judge, and sort. Our attention is untrained. It’s not anybody’s fault.
Start off by meditating regularly for small increments of time. If you try sitting for too long a period of time, meditation will become a burden. Like exercise, for it to work it has to be regular. Start with bite size chunks, whether 3 breaths or 3 minutes a day.
Becoming More Mindful
Meditation by itself does not necessarily make you more mindful. To incorporate more mindfulness off the cushion, I added a 20 second gap of Taking in the Good each day. My Taking in the Good practice was instrumental in my allowing more gaps in the day to really appreciate the present moment. I started to appreciate the trees and the sky as I walked to my car. To create another gap, I started breathing, instead of swearing, at each stop light. With the help of gratitude buddies, I added the gap of a gratitude practice. With each gap I added, I noticed that I was becoming more present throughout the day. I became more aware of when my mind was wandering. After more than a decade of practice, I am no where close to being mindful throughout the day. But I am more aware of when I am not being mindful, of when I am hooked on the movies in my mind.
In becoming more mindful, we are not trying to master the art of controlling our minds. We are training our brains to be more aware of what is happening inside and outside of us in the present moment. We become the guardian of our mind, deciding what we will let in and what we will focus on. It is not enough to just be mindful. We want to use our mindfulness to learn more about ourselves and about reality. We can learn to be with whatever is arising, whether it is pleasurable or painful as we know it will not last forever. We can make wiser choices because we don’t get lost in reactions. To do this we need to practice every day.
“A single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” Henry David Thoreau