Let me ask you a question:
When you are driving down the road in your car - say you're driving home from work, or you're headed to pick up the kids from school - on a route that you've traveled a million times and could navigate in your sleep: where are your thoughts and attention?
I never really thought much about this until I had this same conversation THREE times within the span of a few months. My husband, my boss, and my therapist all pointed out the importance of this. I was shocked to discover that each of them actually LOOKS AROUND while they're driving. Dan explained to me how he takes note of the make and model of every other car on the road. He looks at the people driving the cars. He immediately spots anything out of the ordinary. He just pays attention and takes it all in. Can you IMAGINE?!
I can't. Since our conversation I've tried to do the same thing. I've focused intently on the cars around me, the road signs, the scenery, all of it - for about three seconds - and then I forget that I'm supposed to be looking around and I zone out. Most of the time, when I drive I'm not in the moment. I'm in my head. My attention is usually on my thoughts - I'm either brooding over something that happened that day, or daydreaming, or planning what's for dinner, or drafting my next blog post.
I often arrive at my destination and have no recollection whatsoever of how I got there. I couldn't tell you what other kinds of cars were on the road if my life depended on it. There could be neon flashing signs or buildings going up in flames along my route and I would barely notice them. Because I don't really pay attention. I mean, I pay enough attention to operate my vehicle and navigate traffic, but I'm certainly not looking around just to see what else I can notice.
So why am I telling you all of this?
Because the more I think about it, the more I realize what a HUGE, important deal this is, and what an incredible opportunity I am missing out on by spending large portions of my life zoned out in my thoughts and completely out of tune with the world around me. I'd be willing to bet that a few of you are guilty of the same thing.
I realize that not everyone is like me. You may not have any issue with this at all, and that's great! But if you are like me, and you walk around with your head in the clouds most of the time, then maybe you should listen up!
Here's the deal: the reason that this daily commute situation is a problem is because it's just the tip of the iceberg; it's just one manifestation of a must larger theme of "thinking" vs. "being". When I look back over my life, I realize that I have been living mostly in my head, caught up in my own thoughts, for as long as I can remember. I'm not sure about the psychological and sociological explanations for this behavior. I'm sure it has some to do with my personality, my environment, my upbringing and my nature - but it is also simply a habit. And a bad one at that. The more I think about this, and analyze what's going on when I find myself zoning out and retreating into my thought world, the clearer it becomes to me that maybe we're not supposed to live life in a daze. Maybe my tendency to let my thoughts run rampant and completely dominate my attention is keeping me from really engaging with the world around me. And - get this - MAYBE my thoughts about something and the experience of the actual thing itself are two entirely different things. I'm pretty sure that I've been fooling myself into believing that my thoughts were actual experiences and that I have been fully living my life all these years.
I've been awakening to this realization slowly but surely for quite some time. I first heard about the power of mindfulness when I read The Power of Now and A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle in 2008. I remember feeling like I had been struck by lightening the first time it dawned on me how totally and completely unaware I was - unaware of my negative thought patterns, my intentions, my motivations, and my own heart's desires. I can't even explain to you how far I have come since that initial realization, but I'm constantly amazed by how much more there is to learn and understand about this. The one thing I remember from The Power of Now that will stick with me till the day I die is this passage:
"If there were nothing but thought in you, you wouldn't even know you are thinking." "You would be like a dreamer who doesn't know he is dreaming... When you know you are dreaming, you are awake within the dream."
This is the essence of mindfulness: KNOWING that you are caught up in your thoughts, being aware of your thought patterns and your tendencies - whether it be negative self-talk or over-analyzing - and realizing that your thoughts are NOT your true self. This simple distinction allows you to separate yourself from your thoughts and stand back and observe them as an innocent bystander.
I've been reading Get Some Headspace by Andy Puddicombe over the last few months, and he has some incredibly valuable and down-to-earth insight into the power of mindfulness.
He explains mindfulness like this: imagine that your mind is a busy highway, and each of the cars driving by are your thoughts. If you are unaware of your thought processes, you could become completely caught up in trying to control and direct the traffic - you'd be out in the middle of the road trying desperately to create order from the chaos - you would try to stop the negative thoughts, turn them around and send them off in the opposite direction and you might run toward a positive thought or try to chase it after it has passed. But, what it, rather than running around in the traffic trying to control everything, you simply sit still on the side of the road and watch the cars go by. Just observe them as an innocent bystander. Let them come and go as they may, without resistance or striving, and realize that the road is there and always will be, despite the current traffic patterns.
This description helped me grasp mindfulness in a way that I had never been able to before. He also has some amazingly valuable insight into the relationship between meditation and mindfulness, but I'll save that for another time.
Like I said before, I'm constantly amazed by how much more there is to learn about mindfulness. I'm starting to realize that it's really the root of a lot of things in my life. I battle extreme anxiety at times which stems from perfectionism among other things, and it seems that being mindful is the answer to all of this as well. I'm starting to explore that more in depth now, and it's a process. It's hard to make changes, it's hard to re-program years of doing things a certain way. And I'm learning to be gentle with myself. No negative self-talk if I find myself lost in my thoughts, I just simply appreciate that I was able to recognize the thoughts, and then I try again. Over and over and over. Its like facing our fears: just because we've done it a million times before doesn't make it easy this time. A little easier, maybe, but never easy.
What about you? Do you find yourself caught up in your thoughts on a regular basis? How do you make living in and appreciating each precious moment of your life a priority? I'd love to hear from you!
Till next time,
© Haley McManigal 2015
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