Our mind is under ceaseless attack. Constantly, our senses assault it with a gazillion bits of information about the outside world, and the mind itself produces its own fair share of deductions, inferences, and projections on top of that–things we commonly refer to as thoughts. There’s just no way any system anywhere could process all that data in real time, so over eons of evolution, human minds have developed rigorous methods to separate what is considered useful from all the other crap. Only, it turns out, that distinction isn’t always in line with our very own best interest.
A convenient metaphor for one of those tools is the spotlight of attention: Imagine a small lantern shining above a vast, dark theater stage. Only the props inside the tiny illuminated spot make it to the forefront of our conscious awareness, while the rest of the scene is perceived as a grey, blurry background at best, and therefore either stored away in our subconsciousness, or just plainly ignored. On the stage are all the external stimuli we perceive moment by moment: Every sound we hear, every color we see, and every scent we inhale. But only a small portion that can occupy the very center of our attention at one time, hence most of it dances around at the fringes or in complete darkness. But what’s also there on the stage are our own thoughts, our untiring inner monologue. That tiny, sometimes irritating, sometimes exhilarating voice which constantly comments on everything we do, and which Thích Nhất Hạnh so accurately calls Radio NST: Non-Stop-Talking. Just like an overly narcissistic actor, that voice has a tendency to push into the spotlight all the time, regardless if it has anything meaningful to say or not.
The other day, I went for my usual 10k morning run and suddenly found myself deeply entrenched in an endless stream of thoughts. What I was going say at this meeting or that. What I should have said during that conversation last week. How foolish it was of me to have done this thing at at that time. If I’m actually any good at anything I do. Oh, and remember how you screwed up in this totally unrelated instance ten years ago? Why not dwell on that for a good, long time?
I was more than halfway though my lap when it hit me that I had been so immersed in unproductive self-talk that I hadn’t payed the slightest attention to any of the things that make running in nature in the wee hours of dawn such a wonderful experience. I hadn’t noticed the changing colors of the sunrise behind the thin clouds. Neither the smell of the crisp, cool morning air, nor the soft feeling of grass and gravel under my soles. I hadn’t noticed the rustling of the wind in the trees, the rich spectrum of greens and browns of the forest, or the few slivers of golden light falling between the still mostly leafless branches. Instead I was arguing back and forth–with myself!–about a million things that only made me angry and depressed, and that I had absolutely no control over.
The realization arrived suddenly, mid-thought, but it wasn’t totally unexpected. When it hit, I also remembered the metaphor of the spotlight of attention, and how its glow often shines onto all the wrong things. However, the beautiful aspect of it is that we do have some say in that. For the remainder of my run, I managed to tone down my inner dimwit almost completely. Instead, I refocused on the variety of birdsong around me. I know absolutely nothing about birds (except that they’re way smarter than we think they are), so I couldn’t tell the call of a sparrow from that of a magpie or a robin, or even distinguish individual animals from one another. All I could do was revel in the beauty of their cacophonous symphony for almost half an hour.
People sometimes ask me why I meditate. And that’s exactly why. It’s because I want to be the illuminator of the stage of my consciousness, not just sit passively in the auditorium to watch whatever rushes to its front. It’s because when I’m talking with someone, I want to be able to give them my fullest, honest presence. It’s because when I work on something, I want to totally pour myself into the task, without constantly interrupting and distracting myself. It’s because when I’m out and running, I want to ingest the beauty of my surroundings as completely as possible. It’s because, ultimately, our life is just an endless array of fleeting moments. And I want to be present in each one of them.