When I get lost in thought, I’m always lost in one of two places: the past or the future.
Of the two, the future tends to be the bigger drain on my attention. Lately, I’ve been planning to follow up with a couple of major influencers in the ancestral health field. I know when I need to follow up (in a few days). And I know what I need to say (not much). There’s nothing left to do.
Nevertheless, I’ve spent many minutes thinking about it.
Perhaps I should focus on happier, less stressful thoughts? That might sound like a good idea, but it comes at a cost.
“If my happiness at this moment consists largely in reviewing happy memories and expectations, I am but dimly aware of the present,” writes the philosopher Alan Watts. “I shall still be dimly aware of the present when the good things that I have been expecting come to pass.”
In other words: if we’re always thinking happy thoughts, then we’re never experiencing the happy time itself. We miss the actual event.
The mind is always wandering. And if our mind is always wandering, much of life—conversations, dinner, nature, and more—will go unnoticed. A distracted mind is not a happy mind.
So how do we stop missing the present? We pay attention. How? By practicing meditation.
“There is no rule but ‘look!'” ~ Alan Watts
Meditation may be simple enough to express, but it’s not easy. Minding the present means bucking some deeply ingrained mental habits.
For those who need more convincing, there are piles of research showing the benefits of meditation. For instance, mindfulness meditation—a popular form of Buddhist meditation—has been shown to reduce stress, improve attention, and even lower inflammation in the body. (In case you were wondering, mindfulness is the form of meditation I practice and recommend.)
At its core, mindfulness trains the mind to adapt to the present. It’s a program designed to uproot our usual patterns of attention. When we’re mindful, instead of getting lost in thought, we focus on sensations like the breath, a chirping bird, or the sunlight on our skin.
But we don’t need the birds, sun, or trees to be mindful. Even in the midst of an urban sprawl, there are plenty of scents and subtle sounds to notice. Even the bark of a dog is a suitable object of meditation.
“Most people still don’t know the essence of meditation practice,” writes master Ajahn Chah. “They think that walking meditation, sitting meditation, and listening to Dhamma talks are the practice. That’s true too, but these are only outer forms of practice. The real practice takes place when the mind encounters a sense object.”
We simply notice sensations. There’s nothing fancy about it. When we use our attention in this way, the mind begins to settle down. Thoughts are recognized as mere appearances in consciousness. Emotions are understood as transient. It’s all part of the flow. The mind, having been trained, keeps returning to the present experience.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. The world, however, is always ready to squash our hard-earned mindfulness. It’s distracting out there! Without some kind of meditation practice, formal or otherwise, we revert to old habits.
The more we meditate, of course, the more we decondition the wandering mind. But we’ll never achieve a clean break from these wanderings—that’s just not realistic.
Yet this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep honing our minds, training our attention, and sharpening our senses. There’s always something to notice, even if it’s only to notice that we’re lost in thought.
And the difference between being lost and being mindful is simply a matter of attention. Again, there is no rule but “look!”
Author: Brian Stanton
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron