A year ago I published a post called How to stop your mind from talking all the time, and it was an unexpected hit. When I linked to it the other day on Facebook, it got five times the normal amount of attention, so evidently a lot of you are going mad from the voices in your head.
I laud mindfulness so often on this blog that I suspect some people are tired of hearing about it. Part of the reason I’m so persistent is because I know I leave questions unanswered every time. Mindfulness is counter-intuitive and resists analogies, and seems to require a lot of words to explain why someone might want to do it, let alone what it actually accomplishes (which is why I wrote a 30,000-word guide about it.)
After my recent posting of How to stop your mind, a reader asked a great question, which I now realize might be a pretty common hangup:
Do you notice that when we travel we don’t think so much? We just observe the present. We are connected with the “now.” But it is easy because the “now” is interesting. Now the problem is: How is it possible to be excited by a “now” you know so well? The mind tries to escape from the present to fight boredom. I don’t know if there is a solution to that. [Edited for clarity]
There are a lot of reasons we keep our mental dialogues going almost perpetually. The main reason might be that we aren’t aware of an alternative to constant thinking, or even that we are thinking at all. (Hint: if you think you’re not thinking most of the time, then you are definitely thinking nearly all the time.)
We also often presume that any thought about something “important” — our health, our finances, our relationship — must itself be important to explore, when it’s probably just more needless worrying that offers no solutions and suggests no actions.
At any given time, your attention is trained either on the physical world, or your internal mental world. Unless you’re experiencing the present with deliberate mindfulness, or you’re currently held rapt by a sunset, conversation, television show, cheesecake, or some other sufficiently intense sensory experience, it’s safe to say you are occupied by your thinking.
Sometimes the reason we keep our mental chatter going is because it is, frankly, more interesting than the world around us a lot of the time. Our mental dialogues and fantasies can actually entertain us, even if they’re accomplishing nothing else. They can make a cross-country Greyhound ride endurable, or shield us from the tedium of our six-hundredth walk to the same subway station.
In this capacity, our minds can work like a built-in iPad, only with more content available. I’ve definitely made use of this feature of the human mind; I initially tried to be mindful as I stocked shelves as part of a supermarket night crew back in 2003, in order to transcend the endless, nihilistic exercise that is refilling and aligning grocery shelves (knowing they will be ruined by customers hours later.)
I decided in the end that those long shifts would be easiest if, instead of opening up to the full sensory experience of shelf-stocking, I just stayed lost in thought. So I fantasized about winning a million dollars and going on an endless road trip, while my arms carried on.
But I wasn’t actually doing what I thought I was doing. I wasn’t thinking about road trips in order to avoid a mindful experience of work; I was thinking about road trips in order to avoid another kind of thinking: about how menial the job was, how long it would take me to save enough to go back to school, and how I wished I could do certain things over. I knew if I didn’t let my mind dwell on something somewhat gratifying, then uncomfortable, big-picture thoughts would eventually find me, and make those eight-dollar hours even more unpleasant than they already were.
Boredom is neediness
I’m not saying that we’re always thinking in order to defend ourselves from more painful thoughts. But I am saying that boredom isn’t some quality we find out there in the physical world once we start paying attention to it. Nothing is itself boring. Boredom is just another kind of thought, just more unmindful inner commentary about what’s coming through your senses.
If you’re walking down the street and see nothing out of the ordinary, just sidewalks, trees, hedges, people, houses, sky, and clouds, any boringness you feel isn’t coming from those things, it’s coming from your mind. We find things boring because we’re so used to having something to occupy or entertain us at all times, so that the world as it is doesn’t have to be enough. If we don’t have a screen or a set of headphones, then we always have our mental chatter.
This chatter acts as a kind of pacifier, and the more we make use of it to occupy us, the more we feel like the outside world, viewed simply as it is, lacks something. It’s similar to how when you’re used to eating salty, seasoned food, normal food seems bland. The blandness isn’t actually there in the food, it’s created by the contrast between what you have and what you’re used to. When we become accustomed to a particular form of gratification, we become needy for it, and when we become needy for what we want, we become ungrateful for what is given.
If you’re not accustomed to walking down the street without talking in your head, you’ll notice two things about it right away when you try: 1) that you need a lot of practice at it, and 2) that not thinking seems boring.
The boredom is just that initial contrast between the comforting, compelling, predictable world of self-banter, and the unpredictable outside world, which has no obligation to entertain you or sympathize with you.
But that homesickness starts to fade, as you spend more time absorbed in the real world, leaving the chew-toy of idle thought alone for longer periods. Mindfulness will never seem so unattractive as it does at first, and beyond a certain point, it becomes much more attractive than spending yet more of your life talking in your head. The world becomes abundantly interesting when you’re able to really put down all the talking, evaluating, comparing, wishing, hoping, and figuring, and do some quiet looking.
Remembering to choose the real world
Past that point, the only problem with mindfulness is remembering to do it, which is still a huge problem, considering how deeply conditioned we are to dwell in our heads and make a security blanket out of our idle thinking.
We spend our moments in the world in a state of either preoccupation (of which the main byproduct is neediness) or mindfulness (of which the main byproduct is gratitude). Essentially, you are, at any given moment of your waking life, training yourself for one or the other. It’s a life-defining choice we’re constantly making.
And this is why I think it’s vital for us human beings to take our pants off with care, instead of absently kicking them off, while our minds continue to comparison-shop for laptops, critique foreign policy, or rehearse possible workplace confrontations. Mindfulness is something we’re not naturally inclined to do; we have to practice. It’s important to be aware that it’s often thoroughly enjoyable to do things mindfully (but if enjoyment becomes a requirement then it defeats the purpose.)
The simplest way to learn is to practice being mindful for certain very small tasks that you already do regularly. If tying your shoes was something you only did with your full attention, mindfulness would be a several-times-daily habit already. If you could take on that small commitment as a real duty to yourself, an act of self-love that you take at least as seriously as brushing your teeth, then you’ve got a small but solid beachhead that’s easy to build on.
Note that these little actions — unplugging a toaster, or opening a door — don’t require your full attention in order to accomplish them, and that is exactly why it’s so important to give it voluntarily: you should pay attention to the experience of putting on your socks precisely because you can instead pay attention to office projects, global politics, and tax obligations while you do it. If you don’t actively put your attention into physical reality, your mind will happily employ it for yet more needless thinking.
All this to say that the boredom mindfulness seems to promise isn’t really there. Each time you walk to the bus stop, if you actually pay attention, it’s different to other trips in nearly every detail; only your thoughts about it are repetitive and tedious. Boredom is just the disparaging story your mind tells you about the outside world, whenever you threaten to leave the house and see it for yourself.