Have you ever noticed how self-absorbed many people are? I know this is a general statement, but I am reminded constantly not of people being bad per se, but of having no energy or attention left over for conscious participation in their own daily life. An example: sitting at a stop light waiting for the person at the head of the line to take that left turn so the rest of you can go, You watch as chance after chance goes by. As the light turns yellow, that person gets to go and the rest of you are just screwed. Is that driver a bad person? Maybe, but probably not. They just don’t have enough free attention to notice that there are other people involved in their life. They are likely either talking on the phone or lost in thought.
What do I mean by free attention? Well, we all know what attention is, it’s a tool that helps us focus on a particular detail in our awareness field. We certainly notice the growing trend toward attention deficit, that lack of discipline that is often treated by drugs. I would imagine the arising of so much deficit is a result of the influence of television, we can only pay attention in the time allotment of “between commercials” to which we have been conditioned. And of course the over-stimulation of the brain from the onslaught of imagery on TV and in movies and video games doesn’t help.
What we end up with is a brain in a constant state of fight-or-flight response, which is of course at the very bottom of the list of reponses available to us as incarnated spirits. It’s tough to relax when our brain is in constant need of a dopamine fix. The range of reponses available to us will be discussed in future articles.
Most of us are not educated in the mechanics of attention, we simply learn to use it to respond to stimuli, and we learn to feed our brains with whatever stimulates it the most. This leads to a kind of addictive tendency, we love what we find interesting, and we generally adapt to the hyper-stimulation of modern advertising and edited-for-impact imagery we are subjected to. So we have a lack of attention power, and we have all the events and traumas and stuffed feelings that we are holding in the body.
What are these holdings? Briefly described, we as humans are here to experience life in all its vivid and visceral glory, but having surrendered control to our minds, inadvertantly, we tend to lose touch with experience directly, and build an elaborate gate system to keep most experience manageable. In other words, if we really allow the world of sensory input in, we would be, and often are, stunned to silence by the sheer overwhelm of input. This is difficult when you are driving or trying to pay attention to the teacher or your parents, so we learn to dissallow much of the input, and focus on a small portion. This tendency is easy to learn, but difficult to un-learn.
The discretionary part of the brain learns to develop an editorial distance from the world, so that even when we are directly forced to experience something intense, like a car accident or the word “love,” we immediately launch into thoughts about that experience. “Wow, did you see that?” we say to ourselves. Then we judge the experience, file it in the Acceptance or Rejectance folder, and never notice that we have completely stepped out of presence as we do all this activity.
Here’s the kicker: we also have an amazing ability to store up every single event in our subconscious, and those unresolved events and experiences all come back to haunt our thought patterns. Even seemingly miniscule events that we hardly noticed at the time will pop up again when given a chance, like when our brain gets bored, say, while sitting at a stop light.
So, what happens? The second we get a chance to relax and be completely present and aware, we launch into the Thought Field, where we flit from event to event, trying in vain to equalize our feeling states. When the events we are thinking about happened, we were already busy thinking about the previous events, so we don’t get a chance to be present with the current events. It’s like we are constantly trapped in the past. We do this all the time, but we are so used to it that we don’t notice things like our presence, or other people, or God.
C’mon, fess up, aren’t we all lost in thought a lot of the time? I know I am often guilty of over-thinking, editing the past, dwelling on minor offenses, trying to interpret events, and all the other signs of lack of free attention. I know I am often also trying to “catch up,” to resolve into the present so that I can be more aware of what is here and now. After all, the thought of love is never as good as the love itself.
Meditation is one tool to increase our attention span, and I for one feel strongly that it should be taught in schools as a direct counter to TV and all the forms of attention-enslavement which take us away from presence. Unless you are an experienced meditator, you are likely to find it difficult to get to that zone of silence we believe is the goal of meditation. It’s the same problem as standing in line or sitting at a stoplight. The body wants to finish experiences, and since we don’t let it do so in general, what with all that living in the past, as soon as it gets a moment to relax Boom! here comes yesterday’s news. I mean, what happens when you can’t sleep? Does your mind sit quietly while you wait for the slumber fairies to take you down the river of ease? Even when we have abolutely nothing to do, lying in bed in the dark with eight hours stretching in front of us, we are not present, we are re-thinking the days events or making up stories of tomorrow.
Similarly, when we sit to meditate, all the feeelings we are holding unresolved come to be felt. Try and try and try, we want to put them off and get deep, but they form a tension in the body, which is the root of all that compulsive and annoying thinking, you know, the thinking that makes you screw everybody behind you at the stop light. After all, when we are lost in thought, we barely notice our own immediate surroundings, let alone a line of cars stuck behind us.
So, what can we do to stop thinking? Perhaps the proper question is: can we stop thinking at all? One thing I have noticed is that the stuck places in the body and the avoided and delayed processing are the root of compulsive thinking. Since there is a habit of remaining in fight-or-flight reactivity, then there is a surplus of tension chemicals and hormones coursing throught the bloodstream, which cause the alertness centers of the brain to be over-active, which leads to lots of thinking and accounting, planning and remembering, and distraction in general. As you can guess, it remains difficult to relax into the present moment when you are busy thinking about the past, planning the future and generally avoiding the feelings that are in the queu, waiting to be felt.
Why we have this talent for storing feelings for later unravelling, and why we can even hold things for years and years is a bit of a mystery, and I will write about it in future blogs, suffice to say that when we become aware of these mechanisms, we can begin to understand why people are the way they are, and consequently, we can feel how they are the same as us, which is the source of compassion.
There is a principle that Carlos Casteneda wrote about in The Teachings of Don Juan series, called having to believe. This is the idea that in the absence of more information, we have to believe that, for instance, people are basically good. In our example of the driver at the stop light, we have to believe that he or she is unaware of his or her actions, and is therefore not intentionally being obstructive. The alternative, besides simply not caring, is the thought that they are just being a prick and purposely keeping you from getting to where you are going. There are actually many examples of this behavior, for instance, in New Mexico, I have seen the behavior of drivers who, seeing that you want to change lanes, will race up to block you. Not very neighborly. Be that as it may, in the absence of knowing the actual state of mind of the driver at the stop light, we have to believe he is simply lost in thought or distracted and is unaware of being a jerk.
In this way we reclaim power over our thought patterns, I mean, if we go around simply thinking the worst of people, we are the ones who bear the cost of so much negativity. And we give ourselves a chance to practice forgiveness, oneness, and compassion to the one who could be us on another day, after all, we have all spaced out at the light and needed a beep to wake us up.
In the short run, every day brings us opportunities to practice awareness. One form is of course, mindfulness, being aware of thinking when we are thinking, breathing when we are breathing, etc. But try this next time you are stuck at the proverbial light: Feel everything around you, above and below, in as many vibration levels as you can. It’s a form of alertness that is actually relaxing, this becoming resonant with all the people, places and things around you, feeling the activity and the energy all at once. You may find that you become more aware of the people who are waiting for you to act, and the natural result is a kind of community feeling, with courtesy for those behind and forgiveness for those in front.
So, on a practical note, there are things to do as an antidote to what we usually do. I have mentioned mindfulness, and the operative method is to stop and breathe, saying to yourself “I am breathing and I know I am breathing.” I have mentioned awareness, feeling your surroundings as fully as possible, right down to the most sensitive energies. There is also the trick of using intentional thought to counterract unintentional thought.
For instance, you are stuck behind the guy who won’t go through the light, and you immediately think:”That guy is a jerk!” What is the counter thought? Surprisingly, it is not “That guy is not a jerk,” but “I have already arrived.” The reason we even notice when our way is blocked is that we are in an uncounscious hurry all the time. We may or may not actually be late, but we often put ourselves under pressure to get there asap. But where is “there?” If the whole world were to end right now, would there be better than here? And we all know that the main thing is to be here, wherever it is at the time.
Now, we might say that there is better because our lover is there, or the money is there or the food is there, but what happens when we obey the impulse to hurry along? We get there and can’t enjoy being there (as here) because the unconscious urge to move is still running. So, we can use our brain to counter our brain. We can, in any moment, stop and say “I am here.” Right now, you can do it. It helps if you take a conscious breath as you think this thought, or even better, say it out loud. Try it and see.
As we take a moment to be HERE, we can notice the tendency in our lives to be heading to Happiness, doing something to get happy, and not being Happy, or Present…….Now.
Let me know in the comment space how this works for you, this trick of using intentional thought to stop or counter thought. And feel free to share this post with your friends, especially the ones that are impatient drivers.
And remember to enjoy being here, no matter what happens to be passing through your field of awareness. Even the things we call bad or negative are opportunities to feel alive, so…….give yourself the gift of feeling alive. Ask yourself spontaneously throughout the day “Where am I now?” And when you are getting pissed at that driver in front of you, remember that you are here, now.
Doug Webb Santa Fe, 2011