There’s something about yourself that you might not know. Most of your waking life isn’t spent fully conscious and aware. This is because nearly everyone raised in our society is constantly plagued by a subtle but persistent voice in their head.
This voice may not actually sound like a person. It’s often just thought patterns that arise sporadically and disappear just as quickly. Sometimes it may take the form of a song being stuck in your head.
All of these point to the same issue – your brain has background noise, and it’s distracting. It may not seem distracting, but that’s because you’ve spent your whole life with this nagging noise in your head and probably consider it to be “the norm.” When you get your first taste of consciousness without that background noise, you’ll wonder how you ever lived with it.
What noise? All I can hear is my music or my friends chatting
That’s the problem. These thoughts are fleeting and can come and go without you realizing. Have you ever seen someone who looks deep in thought and asked them what they were thinking about, only to have them look surprised and say “nothing”?
Unless they’re Zen Buddhists or they practice mindfulness regularly, it’s much more likely that they were unconsciously following this elusive train of thought. Calling attention to it is usually enough to make it to disappear, which is both a blessing and a curse. Unconsciousness is easy enough to shoo away when you catch it, but it’s also really hard to recognize it in the first place. Many people decry mindfulness as spiritual mumbo-jumbo merely because they’ve grown so accustomed to their unconscious thoughts that they can’t see past them.
In his book The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle asks his readers to consider for a moment a fairly common sight – a person, perhaps disheveled, with messy hair, walking down the street by themselves, mumbling about this and that with no apparent connection between their thoughts and ideas. Usually when we see someone like that, we’re quick to call them crazy.
What he points out is that the average running dialogue in a person’s mind is hardly any different – the only difference is that this so-called “crazy person” is speaking out loud. We, too, would seem crazy if we vocalized the unconscious thoughts that are always racing through our minds!
“Can’t forget to get cat food later.” “John sure was mad.” “I hope that test isn’t too hard.” “I can’t believe I forgot my keys.” You’d sound nuts! These thoughts have a time and a place, but they deserve your full attention and focus, not a spot on the back burner of your brain. This is often a turning point for people – realizing that their own internal dialogue is hardly any different from the words of the “crazy” lady at the subway station.
These thoughts aren’t inherently bad. The problem is that most people spend all their time with these thoughts occupying the majority of their consciousness. Consistently thinking about the past or the future, what you should have done or what you’re going to do, how you felt about things … this gets in the way.
Worse, these unconscious thoughts don’t get you anywhere. Once in a while, an unconscious thought might trigger a realization that you need to figure something out. Now, with your full attention focused on the thought you have to deal with, you can make productive use of your mind. After that, though, your unconscious mind will wrap its tendrils around you again.
Like your friend caught staring into space, pulling yourself back to attention usually dissolves the unconscious thoughts. This makes it hard to be sure that they were even there. Next time you catch yourself zoning out, don’t snap to attention – observe your thoughts for a moment. You’ll probably find that they have nothing to do with your current task, and that’s why getting rid of the noise is important for focus.
Imagine if you’d been listening to the same song for your entire life. After a while, you’d tune it out, and you wouldn’t even be able to recognize that it was playing any more. It would be the most basic sound of your existence. If that song were to suddenly stop, though, you would be shocked by the mere sound of silence. This is how many people feel the first time they intentionally enter a state of mindfulness.
How to be mindful
As we mentioned in our article on using mindfulness for anxiety, Eckhart Tolle provided my personal favorite exercise for quietening the noise – if only for a second.
Try this. Right now. It’ll only take a second. Ask yourself: “What will my next thought be?”
Do it. Don’t read any further. Ask yourself what your next thought will be, then wait for a moment to hear the answer.
Do it again, just in case. Note the pause in between asking the question and receiving an answer.
Done? You’re sure? Great.
OK, so your next thought doesn’t matter. Forget about it. The point of this exercise is to allow you to experience the gap in between the two thoughts – this is the no-mind, the mindful awareness. Asking yourself what you think your next thought will be shows that you have intention. The moment in between is pure conscious awareness. This is the essence of mindfulness, of Buddhist enlightenment, of “the Light of the Christian God.” During those couple of seconds, you’re completely focused, waiting for your next thought to manifest.
This is the ideal state for living – uninhibited consciousness. You must recreate this calm, conscious, noise-free mindstate as often as possible to get the most out of your life.
The best ways to practice mindfulness are simple.
- Observe the present moment. The best way to quieten the noise in your mind is to be fully aware of what’s going on around you at any given time. Don’t worry about the future or the past or what’s for dinner or who’s being dumb. Fully engage your senses and feel the state of calm that emerges when your mind quietens itself by focusing on your surroundings.
- Thoughts will arise. Don’t try to block them out; simply observe them and let them float away like bubbles. Awareness also involves being aware of your thoughts – but you can’t let yourself get carried away by them. Nor can you try to deflect them – this takes your focus away from being mindful.
- You can bring awareness into your life at any moment. Feel the wind on your face as you walk, and enjoy it. If it’s cold out, embrace the cold – don’t let your mind wander off entertaining fantasies of putting a jacket on or getting inside. You’ll get there eventually, so focus on enjoying the moment in the meantime.
- Always watch your breath. If you feel yourself losing focus or catch those unconscious thoughts, counting deep breaths is one of the best ways to bring yourself back to mindful awareness.
Continually making a conscious decision to be mindful and quieten the background noise will do you a lifetime of good. The more often you’re mindful and focused, the easier it will be to fall back into that state. Soon enough, mindfulness will be your base state of mind, as opposed to being led astray by a wandering mind.