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What happens when we truly quiet the mind and let stillness guide us?
I recently took part in an experiment to do with self-awareness.
Part of this experiment was to become increasingly aware of how often one is thinking (be it pondering, day-dreaming, stressing or obsessing), and to what extent that thinking was constructive.
Thought itself enjoys a greatly elevated status in our civilisation, amongst many others, going right back to ancient times. We tend to always view the process of thinking in a positive light, implying that those who do not think are somehow “less than”, and bowing down to “the great thinkers” of past and present alike.
Having now taken part in this experiment, I place awareness and presence much higher on my personal scale of values than I do thinking, as I have found that one’s awareness of themselves and their present situation is far more useful than one’s somewhat arbitrary ability to think.
The truth is, that for most people, thinking is constant. I discovered that from the moment I woke in the morning until the time I went to sleep at night, my mind was relentlessly asking questions, pondering situations, both past and future (very rarely present) and casting judgements, such as how I could have handled a situation better, what my life would be like if this were different or that were different and other equally pointless ruminations.
Anyone that’s tried to meditate (or even does so on a regular basis) already knows this. Try to quieten the mind and listen to it protest! Most of us recognise the value of meditation, how such a practice gradually allows the mind to settle and allows one to find that inner stillness and peace, despite (or perhaps because of) our cultural obsession with thought.
When we speak of someone being “thoughtless”, we usually mean that someone has not taken others’ wellbeing into account, or have acted rashly or selfishly. This strikes me as more of a lack of awareness rather than a lack of thought, because that person might well have been wrapped up in thoughts about what they were going to eat for dinner, how they were going to make more money, when they’d get time to wash the car, etc… and simply had no awareness of what was going on in the present moment.
It is a worthwhile exercise to spend some time staying aware of your thoughts. In the car or on the bus, in the shower, over breakfast, in a waiting room, sitting at your desk at work, whilst cooking or cleaning, and so forth. How productive are your thoughts at these times?
Thought absolutely has its place. This article wouldn’t have been written today without some thought going into it. Most peoples’ jobs require them to think, as do many of our activities. Yet when you catch your thoughts out throughout the day, you may well find that most of your thoughts are in no way connected to the activity you’re engaged in.
Recently (and not so recently) there has been some discussion around the notion of “multi-tasking”, with arguments being put forth to say that there is actually no such thing as “multi-tasking”, there is only attention-switching. The more things you try to do at the same time, the less focus you are able to put on any one of them.
There is a Zen saying that simply says “When walking, walk. When eating, eat.” Yet how often do we do this?
These are not habits that can be changed overnight. Even after this experiment I still catch myself in the shower thinking about how I want a meeting to go, or even just what I’m going to wear that day. When walking, I still like to listen to my music and drift off into little daydreams that don’t involve the pavement under my feet or the trees I’m passing or the birds chattering away in them.
But it’s a start. And a valuable one at that.
In those moments where I do catch myself now, I find it much easier to still my mind, if only for the shortest time, and tune into whatever situation I am in – I experience heightened awareness and presence which allows me to better respond to a situation, rather than simply reacting to it.
My decisions have started to become more inspired because I am learning to get out of my own way. When I do find myself in situations requiring thought, I enjoy greater clarity and less fragmentation and clutter. My thoughts are driven by purpose and presence, rather than getting lost in fruitless chases into the past or future.
I am moving gently towards a state of compassionate thoughtlessness. Care to join me?
About the article
First printed in Inner Self magazine, East/West Edition 23, page 7
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