I don’t write much for this blog anymore because most of my energies are tied up in a different writing project. But sometimes, when I’ve had other things rattling around inside my head for a while, the only way to let them out and give myself some peace is to write them down. Besides, I particularly wanted to write about these latest endeavors because I feel very optimistic that they’ve begun to have a significant positive impact on my own mental health. Maybe someone else can adapt an idea or two and tweak them into something that they’ll be able to use.
Anyway, I’ve lately been doing a lot of experimentation with mindfulness and meditation techniques. I’ve discovered that, to do it effectively, you can’t really follow anyone else’s experience exactly, like bullet points in a list; but if you follow their wisdom in your own way, you can find a personal way to get to the states of consciousness that your own mind personally needs more of.
A note at the beginning to allay suspicions: although this sort of meditation has a history all bound up with eastern philosophy and Buddhism, I’ve discovered that it has a lot of concrete scientific truth that’s compatible with any religion. In Christianity (my own background), for instance, I’m pretty sure that a fellow called Brother Lawrence found the peace and beauty that I’ll try to describe here in what he termed the practice of the presence of God. My younger self found Brother Lawrence a frustrating read, because I wanted what he had and so I’d strive very hard to emulate it, not understanding that to do so, by the very nature of the thing, could only have the opposite effect.
So let me think… I guess what I’ve discovered can be wrapped up into three basic ideas, which all work together to strengthen and train the mind to learn the art of happiness. The first is learning to be detached from yourself; the second is learning to observe yourself impartially while you’re in that state of detachment; and the third is to experience the entire flow of reality in the present, of which you are no more and no less an important part than any other part. Everything’s indivisible. All reality is inextricably woven together like threads, so trying to pick out one element (such as yourself) and focus on it only makes the rest of it unravel and works against happiness.
The first of these three steps: I had to teach my mind the trick of getting outside of itself. This isn’t easy to do at all. At first I tried a step-by-step approach to self-hypnosis and basic meditation without too much success. I was supposed to still all my thoughts and just exist – but the more you try to still your thoughts, the more thoughts you’re using to still the others, and it just gets noisier! So I figured out the trick is to just watch your thoughts go by like you’d watch a bird flying away.
The way I found to be able to do this was to close my eyes when I was in a still, silent, peaceful place, and imagine an infinitely vast and still lake all around me. Not necessarily a lake of water, but more like a field of energy. It was completely still except for what was entering my mind. I saw the things in my mind as patterns spreading out, like the ripples that spread in water when you throw in a stone. The patterns of two different stimuli (say the random tweet of a bird combined with a sudden random awareness I had of a spot on my left knee) would eventually meet and interact with each other to create more intricate patterns. But normally, the patterns of my own thoughts were the noisiest. These I saw sort of like a steady stream of bubbles rising up above me. (The stream of bubbles would look something like this: is-this-going-to-work-i-wonder-where-i’m-working-today-that-salad-at-lunch-was-good…..) But I found that if I just watched them without judgment for a while they would thin out so I could explore the other parts of my consciousness without all that mental chatter to distract me.
Well, I had to discover how to get myself into this state of detachment from my own mental stream within a normal busy day of responsibilities. For that, I discovered that a trick I read about in a book by Sam Harris worked for me. In his book Waking Up, he describes the experience of pretending that you’re headless. After all, you never see your own head – so as a mind trick, just pretend that it doesn’t exist for a moment and “watch” your body doing whatever it does as though you’re just a neutral observer. Don’t stop whatever you’re doing, just let your body keep going and watch it. The point is to try to get away from the sensation that “I” am a tiny little pilot sitting in a place in my mind just behind my eyes, running this whole complex operation that is my body in motion. If I do it right, now “I” can just be a relaxed observer sitting on my own shoulder instead of in my head, just watching my mind and body do what they always do. When you first “get it” it sort of feels like when you first see one of those magic eye pictures – you know, the kind where you look at it just right and a hidden 3d image pops out? After you practice, you can get to where you sort of “flip a switch” in your brain and put yourself in “detached observer” mode (or “headless” mode, as I think of it to myself).
When you’re in that state, then you can do the next step: observe yourself in any situation and learn about who you are, how you work, what you need. The trick here is to be entirely free from any sort of judgment about what you’re seeing. It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just the patterns flowing from your mind, like watching ripples flowing on a stream. You’re just observing, there’s no thought of changing or fixing anything. Wanting to change something negates the third-person-observer status and makes the whole discipline more or less impossible.
A couple tricks I’ve learned for this step: the most basic approach is just to observe the stream of patterns coming from your mind as a third party observer on your own shoulder. I have a visual imagination, so imagining patterns is natural for me, but it will probably take a different form for you. Take anxiety. So I’m in the middle of a shift, up to my elbows in some task I can’t get away from, and in the meantime there are six call lights going off, nurses calling on the radio, family members waiting outside the room to talk to me – GAHHH!!! – I can’t be in ten places at once! What do I do?!! You know the kind of agitated mental state I’m talking about. Well, of course I can’t be in two places at once, so worrying about everywhere I’m not doesn’t help me do my job better. The opposite in fact. So now, when I feel that pattern arising, I flip into “headless” mode, and while I watch my mind and body do its thing – the thing it’s trained to do by years of on-the-job practice – I focus on the pattern of anxiety coming from my mind. It’s a sharp, angular, chaotic pattern, like shattering glass exploding into a room from a broken window. Peaceful patterns look more like gently swirling water. But the trick is, I’m not watching that pattern so I can change it. I’m just observing it, like you would observe patterns of frost on the window. Anxiety-patterns and peace-patterns are neither better nor worse than any other kind. My only job is to observe.
Something about doing this breaks the cycle which feeds that pattern. Now, the energy is already there and has to continue bleeding off in its own way, according to its own pattern – so it’s not like I magically change the state of my mind in an instant. But I’m no longer feeding energy to the pattern when I observe it; and after experimenting, I know just about how long it will take for that pattern to fade away and give room for other patterns to arise. But one thing that does change instantly when I do this, is that I no longer worry about where to go or what to do next. It reminds me that this present moment is not a time to plan for the future. I know my job well, so when the future arrives I’ll already know what to do with it. Instead, the present is the time to do the only job I’m supposed to do in the present. There’s always only one job. There simply is no kind of time that’s inherently more stressful than another time – that’s all a matter of my own perspective. So that makes me free to relax and go about my business without worrying about what’s coming up.
That brings me to my third point, experiencing the flow of reality in the present. In a way, when you’re doing the first two, it implies the third. If you get the trick to doing them right, it’s easy to see that your own mind patterns are just one thread of a very complicated but amazingly beautiful pattern of energy happening all around you. When you’re just part of that universal energy pattern, there’s no pressure on you to perform, to make yourself stand out, to be better than anyone or anything else. In fact, the irony is that the more you do self-consciously strive for all those things, the harder it is to accomplish them. My mental term for this is following the patterns. I constantly remind myself, “just follow the patterns!” When my energies are just flowing naturally into the energies around me, it’s like I’m playing my own part in a symphony and the whole world is making beautiful music together. But the counterintuitive trick is to not focus on my own part that I have to play, as though I’m “other,” but rather just to let the patterns move me along to what I should do and feel and think in any given moment. It’s all by instinct, it doesn’t take effort – which frees you just to enjoy the beauty of it all and not worry about it.
I’ve discovered that pursuing art is incredibly important for training your mind to live in the enjoyment of the present. I’m a writer; and I’ve learned the hard lesson that, if my story is going to be good art, I can’t plan it in intricate detail at one time and then just live in those past times of planning when I’m actually doing the writing. The one non-negotiable in making good art is being fully engaged in it. That’s why it’s good mind training for living in the present. Think of a musician trying to play a piece, but while his fingers are playing one thing his mind is worried about what’s coming up a few bars later. It’s harder to create art that way – the best art comes when you so fully trust your mind with what it will do in its futures that you can be fully immersed in the present. That’s what happens when a musician gets “lost” in performing his art. One thing I tell myself when I start to get overwhelmed and anxious at a busy time in work is, “those notes sound awful together!” Can you imagine if a musician was playing the notes for where he was at in a song, but at the same time he was also playing random notes from the song’s future? Wouldn’t there be a lot of discord? But that’s what it’s like trying to live in the present and the future at the same time. It’s horrible music.
I think everyone has an artistic side of one kind or another. I can’t make music, that’s not my skill. But one thing I’ve learned is that you can get the same benefits from fulling enjoying someone else’s art. If it’s good art, they created it all from the present moment – and if it was good enough to bring them fully into the present, then you should be able to follow them in and find your own present completely taken up with it. It’s what happens when you get lost in a novel or go for a beautiful walk (God’s art!) or, as I do, put yourself in the calmest and most comfortable state possible, put on your headphones, crank up the volume, and lose yourself completely in the music.
It’s even more powerful to be lost in the same present with others – which is the point of going to concerts and so on together with others. But to get the best mental energy out of something like a concert, you have to train your mind to fully enter the present that the musicians are creating for you. I think that’s why cell phones are viewed as discourteous in such places. The artists are working very hard to create a beautiful present moment that’s big enough for everyone to get into and tune their own individual rhythms to the rhythm of the beautiful art, and when people are on their phones sending out all these energies of their own personal little worlds, it’s an energy drain on the artists, who have a harder time creating enough energy to bring everyone in.
Well, I’ve gotten to the point where I’m rambling, so I’ll quit. Just two quick concluding thoughts: first, if it seems overwhelming to you and you’re like, “I’ll never be able to do THAT!” then you’re thinking about it wrong. I know I was thinking about it like that for a long time and it was the biggest hurdle to get past. The whole point is, you don’t pursue it, you don’t stress or sweat, you just give yourself the time and freedom to experiment and just sort of let it happen. There is no wrong way. There is no way it will hurt you. Yes, it takes work and practice to get good – but it’s sort of like the work of learning a really fun new video game. Just enjoy it and your mind will follow along and wire itself the right way. If you tried to learn how to play a video game by setting the game aside and concentrating on wiring the neurons for muscle memory in your thumbs you won’t get too far. So too, if you try to get good at mindfulness by focusing on teaching your mind how to be mindful, it’s backwards. You just do it and follow the parts you find enjoyable, and your mind comes right along behind you.
Second, I received the feedback this week that, “if I learn to live in the present, won’t I be missing out on most of my life? All the good things of the future, the pleasant memories of the past?” I said, “no, because there are present moments that are meant for planning for the future or enjoying memories. When it’s time for those things, do them fully. Let them use up your whole present moment – you’ll enjoy the planning or anticipating or reminiscing more that way anyway, because you’ll be fully engaged with it. Just don’t try to plan for the future when the present is about doing something entirely different.
Lots more I’m still trying to figure out, but I’ll end there for now. I hope this finds you all well, my friends. 🙂