A couple of Sundays ago, I left for a friend’s house to watch the Oscars, and decided to keep from talking in my head the whole way there.
I’ve been doing micro-experiments like this a lot recently, committing to total presence for very short stretches of time. Can I, for example, keep my mind on what’s happening the entire time I’m doing the dishes? After each little exercise I can go back to my normal distracted stupor if I want to.
So for the 30 minutes or so between my door and my friend’s, including a stop at the store, I dared myself to keep my attention on the current real-life scene only, and not get drawn into any mental dialogues. Put another way, I decided to put words aside for a little while, and observe everything else.
It worked. The talkative part of my brain mostly shut up, and I discovered for the 600th time that the world is intrinsically beautiful and peaceful whenever I manage to take a break from thinking and talking about it.
Ideally I’d spend my whole life in this state — when you’re just observing things and it really doesn’t matter what happens, because it’s all very curious and beautiful, and if trouble does show up you’re already in the best headspace to deal with it. You get the specific sense that you don’t need to be anywhere else, which makes you realize how rarely you feel like that.
The most prominent quality of this state of presence is the quiet that comes over the outside world. You can still hear the city noise and traffic, but the loudest thing has gone silent, which is your normal mental commentary.
I’ve had this state happen before, but it always seemed to come randomly. After this most recent experience, I realized something that should have been obvious: if you practice doing it, it happens more.
Putting your words away for a bit
I know a lot of you have experimented with intentionally living in the present. If you’re like me, you’ve done some “spiritual” seeking of your own, had experiences of intense presence, and discovered the incredible benefits of being in that state. You may have read The Power of Now or Wherever You Go There You Are, had an epiphany about the incomparable value of staying present, and felt like things would be different after that.
But somehow it doesn’t stick. Being present stays in your thoughts as something worthwhile, but which you can get to later, like getting into shape or learning the guitar.
This latest experience happened because I made a conscious agreement to stay with the moment as it actually is. That means I simply agreed not to bother engaging with words, internally or externally, unless there was a clear reason to. And wow did my experience change quickly.
Why not make that agreement all the time?
Well, our words defend us against parts of reality we don’t like. You don’t have to open up emotionally to anything if you’re already occupied with dissecting it or labeling it or otherwise evaluating it. So in order to drop the words from a given moment, you have to agree to invite all the details into your experience without judgment, and that isn’t something most of us have a lot of practice at.
So you fall into a comfortable train of thought, maybe about how things should be, or what they would be like with a different party in power, or what you should have said to that guy, or how did bus fare get to be $2.55? — and in seconds the present has become only a faint background to your thoughts. This is a bad habit and we are practicing it all the time.
The loudest thing in the world
We typically spend way more time thinking than we need to — like fifty to a hundred times more — and it creates a default background of stress and preoccupation. It keeps us from enjoying ordinary things, like putting on clothes or crossing parking lots.
These little things constitute the vast majority (like 99+%) of a person’s life, and they can actually be fun and poignant when the mind isn’t constantly talking.
Imagine life getting ninety-some times more enjoyable. That’s what we’re leaving on the table when we leave our attention hanging on an internal dialogue by default. It’s not the world that’s stressful. The outside world is a lot more peaceful than it seems, and this becomes clear whenever you take a break from thinking.
The thinking mind is like a perpetually-running chainsaw that thinks everything is a tree. It will use any excuse to rev up and start shredding something. Its purpose is to solve problems, so it wants everything to be a problem.
Most moments in your life, there’s no real need to do anything but observe. No analysis or figuring is necessary, but the mind really wants to do some anyway.
The thinking mind is a tool, and we can learn to put it down when it’s not needed, which is most of the time. We have an enormous amount to gain by simply thinking less, and that means learning how to put this overused tool down.
How to get better at this
A complete rundown of “Living in the present” skills would be too big for one article, but we have a very clear starting point: the path back to the present moment lies in paying attention to physical, concrete details. Your body, your clothes, the air, the background sounds, the surface you’re standing on.
Physical things only exist in the present. Keep your attention on something physical and that means you’re keeping it on something that is actually happening.
Basically, the mind will run its mouth off whenever it gets a chance, which is virtually all the time, except when:
a) You’re doing something that demands you attend to something physical. This is why people like death sports, because you are forced back into the present (or else you die.) But it’s also why we go see movies — you’re parked facing a fifty-foot screen, everything else is blacked out, and a well-engineered story is blasted at you at pant-shaking volumes.
b) You make a habit of returning your mind to something physical whenever you notice it’s wandered off. The only place it can really wander to is your thoughts, because everything else is part of the present moment.
Your thinking mind is an absolute wizard at drawing your attention away from the present. It can run circles around you. But it can’t stop you from practicing putting your attention where you want it, which is on somewhere in the real world.
Returning your attention to the present is a fairly simple, learnable skill, which can eventually become a reflex. Rather than try to do it everywhere all the time, it’s easiest to pick particular part of your routine to apply it to. Make small commitments and follow through. For example, I started with doing the dishes. Since then, I’ve also added walking and putting on clothes to the short list of activities I’m committed to doing mindfully.
If you ever feel like you don’t know how to do it, just put your attention into some part of your body. When you notice it’s wandered back to some words in your head again, put it back.
And if you’ve never read The Power of Now, I can’t recommend it strongly enough. I’m sure most of this audience already owns it. If you’ve read it already, I urge you to give it another read. You’ve probably grown a lot in the mean time and it will seem like a new book. The audio versions of Eckhart Tolle’s work are even better.
The basic skill of putting your attention somewhere on purpose has a million applications, like defusing cravings, nipping bad moods in the bud, preventing yourself from being offended, and getting more work done, to name a few. I’ll cover some of them in future articles. For now, consider it the most highly transferable skill you’ll ever learn.
If you’re interested in living more in the present
I’ve been writing a lot recently about the habit of living mindfully and its incredible benefits. I’ve been getting a lot of emails and comments from you on the topic, and it’s been my personal focus for the last year. (Some related articles: One | Two | Three | Four | Five )
Exploring mindfulness has truly transformed my life and I want to help other people do the same thing. Over the past few months I’ve put together a full-length guide on making mindfulness a lasting habit. I’ll have a lot more details later, but in the mean time you can learn more here.