one of the most obvious yet transformative things a person can ever realize is how our mind is a perpetual thought machine, and how each thought is entirely impermanent.
one thought immediately replaces the next in a never-ending waterfall of words, thoughts, memories, opinions, beliefs, acquired knowledge, judgements, and convoluted emotions. each thought fades almost as soon as it appears, but only until we shine the spotlight of our attention onto them.
when we focus on one particular thought, we immediately bring it into the forefront of minds, making it appear as reality itself — but it's not reality. it's merely a thought.
we’ve become so used to our constant flowing stream of thoughts that we don’t even notice them most of the time. that is, until we try to calm ourselves and be completely still.
but only the most skilled can free themselves completely from the cascading proliferation of their thoughts. only those with the most practice can focus their entire attention onto awareness itself and enjoy its direct ongoing experience of consciousness, as it unfolds within each passing moment.
our thoughts are often filled with nothing more than a constant back and forth bickering with our self, which means that for some odd reason there seems to be two of us inside our heads. there’s our self, the thoughts we identify ourselves by, and then there’s our awareness itself, that voice who sometimes pops up out of nowhere and says, “wait a minute, what the heck am i thinking?"
the endless chattering noise from our over-thinking is never more clear than when we want to fall asleep, or when we attempt to sit in meditation, or when we lay down in a float tank (a sensory deprivation tank). we close our eyes and try to be still, and yet all we hear is a constantly yapping inside our minds, and it’s often about nothing relevant at all.
our thoughts also become impossible to ignore when we’re too tired to fully focus and engage with something, such as paying attention during a meeting, listening to a lecture, reading a book, or even watching a movie that doesn’t quite hold our full interest. the more bored or less-engaged we become, the louder our distracted thinking becomes and overtakes our minds.
this is what happens when you all of a sudden realize that someone is tapping you on the shoulder, asking if you heard what they were saying, and your reply is, "i’m sorry, i must have been lost in thought”.
it often goes something like this:
“i wonder what i should have for lunch? a tomato avocado sandwich sounds good. i wonder if the bread is still fresh. mmm… bread. i wish i had brought home a fresh rustic loaf from that artisanal bakery i drove past the other day. oh wait… do i have an avocado? i don’t think so. ugh. what else could i eat? oh no. i forgot to get groceries yesterday. i’ll have to stop in at the market before my appointment later this afternoon. oh boy. i hope i’m not late. i’m always late. i should leave extra early so i’m on time for once. i’m such an idiot, why do i always leave so late? actually, i wasn’t late last time, i was early. but, the traffic is always so unpredictable. remember that time when... oh oh. i’m supposed to be meditating. ok — don’t think. there… i’m not thinking. see, that wasn’t so hard, was it? see? i can do it! i really can. i don’t know why i’m so hard on myself. oh oh. i’m thinking again. aww, man. i’m an idiot. why can’t i do this? ok… breathe….."
sound familiar? that’s because this is how it is for every for all of us, in virtually every moment of every day. so don’t worry, it’s not just you, and no you’re not going crazy — this is simply what it’s like to have the mind of a human.
what i’ve illustrated is what’s called the proliferation of thought — it’s where one thought continually feeds into the next. it’s like a domino effect, where one thought soon falls over to cause the impact of the next, which then falls over to cause another thought, and so on. we start off with our intention in one spot, with one simple little thought such as, “i wonder what i should have for lunch”, and a few moments later we’re swept away in a different direction altogether, ending up thinking, “why am i so hard myself?”. the two thoughts are completely unrelated and have nothing to do with your original intention, and yet all of a sudden you’re chastising yourself and are consumed by worry.
our mind just keeps throwing words at every single thing it perceives, constantly trying to reason with, solve, label, or define everything it encounters. it's never able to just be quiet and peacefully enjoy the view — it always needs to add some type of play-by-play commentary onto absolutely everything it encounters.
it’s this type of thinking that causes us to be stressed.
in fact, it’s responsible for all of the suffering and dissatisfaction we experience — our thoughts create the quality of our lives. this is exactly why a practice of meditation and mindfulness is so important in cultivating peace of mind and well-being. it takes practice to calm our minds — it doesn't happen on its own.
through a practice of mindfulness we learn we don’t have to listen to, or even respond, to every thought. we come to understand the passing impermanence of all our thoughts, through the act of watching them rise and fall, and through observing how quickly one thought is replaced by the next. we learn through the direct experience of witnessing the nature of our mind how meaningless, harmful, and untrue much of our thinking actually is. we learn we don’t have to be a victim to our negative thinking, we don’t have to be a prisoner to all of those thoughts that always seem to obsessively focus on dwelling, worrying, over-analyzing or criticizing.
we must learn to tame our wild minds.
and this is exactly the common theme that unites all of the many different styles and techniques of meditation and mindfulness. it’s only when we’ve properly tamed our minds, when our minds are still and in their natural state of pure emptiness, that we're able to truly experience the fullness and abundance of absolute awareness.
we’ve all experienced glimpses of this state of mind before, most likely without even noticing it. it’s happened when our entire attention was mindfully focussed on a certain task you were fully engaged with, and the proliferation of all your thinking waned. it’s when the chatter stopped as you tapped into the flow of whatever it was you were doing. it’s when you were so lost in your sport, art or hobby that time no longer mattered, only the ongoing blissful action of your present moment.
this is why the flow-state is such a revered place for artists, athletes and creatives to aspire to — it’s the place where your mind is no longer getting in your way and distracting you. it’s when you become so immersed in the present moment and all thoughts are swept away — all that remains is the doing of the action itself.
this is a meditation of sorts, one that requires great practice and concentration. it's a state of mind where we all do our best work — when it comes from a place of absolute, untainted purity.
this is what it means to be Zen — to be unencumbered by obtrusive thinking — to see things as they truly are, free. it’s when you experience what is, and nothing else.
begin a practice of mindfulness to tame your wild mind — train yourself to go beyond mere thought to a place of pure, undistracted, whole-hearted well-being.