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One Choice We’re Constantly Making

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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.

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Photo by Joe del Tufo
George March 16, 2015 at 2:17 am

Great. It’s the concepts we use to describe everyday life that are dull, rather than the actual experience. “Waiting for a bus” is boring, actually being aware at a bus stop with things going on around you, quite less so.

David Cain March 16, 2015 at 8:37 am

I invite people to test this. Only our judgments and thoughts are repetitive and boring, never the thing we are seeing. I am convinced tedium is just a thought about our thoughts.

Sebastian Miele March 16, 2015 at 3:12 am

Thank you for refreshing the topic. Me and my mind are so stupid and I am so grateful. Thank you!

Sandra Pawula March 16, 2015 at 3:46 am

Love this discussion of boredom! I think boredom can be a wonderful sign that you’re mind is momentarily experiencing space – unusual and uncomfortable territory at first. Boredom comes in to trigger us back into mind chatter and business. I think boredom can actually be a good sign and the trick, as you suggest, is to simply recognize it and not be swayed by it.

David Cain March 16, 2015 at 8:39 am

Yes… The appearance of boredom is a helpful clue. It’s like the mind announcing to itself that it wants to be entertained. We usually blame our surroundings for boredom, but it has much more to do with what we’re doing with our attention than what there is to be seen around us.

Kenoryn March 18, 2015 at 12:01 pm

I saw a book at a used bookstore the other day called “Boredom: a lively history”, about how people’s boredom has affected the development of the world. I haven’t read it but I gathered it was arguing that people being bored spurred them to discover and invent and similar. Of course this is the opposite of what you’re suggesting – it is saying that being bored is good incentive to think and that thinking accomplishes great things.

Paul Belfiglio March 16, 2015 at 5:32 am

A western, Zen saying: “It is what it is and it ain’t any is-er.” Now, we just have to be ever mindful of the ‘it’ that ain’t any ‘is-er’.

I’m trying more and more to practice mindful eating. I have a book w/ CD about it. I even did it for a whole week at a silent retreat a few years ago. Mindfulness takes practice, especially when it comes to eating when your stomach says it’s hungry! I think our minds are hungry all the time, too.

Good article!

David Cain March 16, 2015 at 8:41 am

Mindful eating is really fascinating and I want to do an experiment with it someday. I’ve found that eating is a really intense, intimate experience if you invest your full attention in it. Strangely, I feel satisfied with less food when I eat it mindfully, which makes me thing that satiation has as much to do with the mind’s wants as the body’s.

Esa March 16, 2015 at 5:56 am

As always, an interesting post. However, I’d like to recommend this piece on Wait But Why; it made the concept of being mindful concrete, approachable and easy to follow like nothing else:
http://waitbutwhy.com/2014/10/religion-for-the-nonreligious.html

David Cain March 16, 2015 at 8:42 am

Wait But Why is excellent. I’ll check it out; thanks Esa.

BrownVagabonder March 16, 2015 at 6:06 am

I recently moved into a new neighbourhood – I have always wanted to live Downtown Toronto and now I do. Every morning for the past two months, I have walked downstairs and been in awe of the fact that I can walk downstairs and be in the middle of everything! I am walking among the commuters, walking towards a subway station, but I can’t help look around and notice everything around me. For the first time, I am extremely mindful of what is around me.
I know as soon as my surroundings get common place to me, I will have to force myself to be mindful. I will have to be careful not to discard every moment in this beautiful new neighbourhood as ‘just another moment’.
I have never really tried the technique of paying attention to the little things, like opening a door or typing. But, I am going to try that – try paying attention to every step I take, or everything I do to see how that affects my mindfulness.
I heard somewhere that we can only take in 134 bits per second of information – beyond that we filter everything out. This post reminds me of that fact, and that we cannot be constantly stimulating ourselves – most of that stimulation is filtered out anyway.

David Cain March 16, 2015 at 8:46 am

I think the act of opening and passing through doors is absolutely the best place to start practicing daily mindfulness. There is just so much going on — the change in background sound, the “feel” of the new space you’re entering, the weight of the door, subtle changes in yourself — and you can sense it all if you dedicate your attention to it.

Don’t think of it as forcing yourself. There’s no force necessary, or even possible. It’s a voluntary decision to stay with some small action or event from beginning to middle to end. It’s something you’re free to do, not something you need to force yourself to do.

Mrs. Frugalwoods March 16, 2015 at 6:27 am

I am definitely guilty of maintaining a constant internal dialogue. I’m always multi-tasking or thinking about multi-tasking. I realize that it’s exhausting to go through a day like this, but I have a hard time turning off my thoughts.

I do find that I’m often able to pause my thoughts while I’m doing physical work or exercise. Something about moving my body lets my mind rest for awhile. But in stillness, my thinking mind is in full force!

David Cain March 16, 2015 at 8:55 am

You don’t have to do anything to your thoughts, you just have to pay attention to the non-thought part of life, which is the physical world — how things look, sound, and feel physically. We’re so accustomed to constant thinking that thoughts will intrude again almost immediately, which is why I’m so big on practicing this with very small events — things that take three to five seconds.

RP March 16, 2015 at 6:33 am

Thanks David. I find it more difficult to be mindful in indoor environments than while outside, or at least being able to see outside. (Also artistic buildings can promote mindfulness.) I find “mindfulness” a strange word, because it almost feels like forgetting your mind for a few moments – in the absorption of something else, such as something in nature.

David Cain March 16, 2015 at 9:00 am

Certain aspects of the physical world are so compelling to our senses that they demand our attention, and beautiful architecture is one of them. Temples and cathedrals in particular are meant to instill awe and humility, and they do. When you walk into a Cathedral it just seems wrong to keep bantering in your head.

Other things demand our attention too, and we’re attracted to them (consciously or not) because they give us relief from our thoughts. Television and movies are the most common way to tear our attention away from thinking, but we also do other things: eating, sports, travel, etc.

thejuntotimes March 16, 2015 at 6:47 am

Very strange, I was talking to a friend about a similar thing just this weekend.

We all have an empty space in all of us, a space for peace and clarity. But if we let our insecurities creep into this space, then we end up wanting to try and fill it with something, to take something in, whether it be fast food, fast media, or fast relationships. There’s nothing wrong with having that empty space, it’s always been there! Don’t enjoy the peace, or not enjoy it, it doesn’t matter! Experience the world directly! As you can tell from the paragraph above I’m not as good at writing about mindfulness as you, which is why I read your stuff.

Thanks for the post.

David Cain March 16, 2015 at 9:05 am

There is a lot more to say about what’s going on with our compulsive thinking, but I wanted to keep it fairly short.

In future articles I’ll expand on the relationship between compulsive thinking and neediness. The more we think, the more we are judging the world around us — finding its faults and its inadequacies. So the more we think, the more desires (which feel like true needs) we create for ourselves. When we train the opposite habit, which is mindful acceptance of the present moment, we have the opposite feeling. We have gratitude instead of neediness. It sounds like you understand that already. But there’s always more to discuss on the subject, and I’ll be at it forever :)

Erin Kath March 18, 2015 at 10:58 pm

I greatly enjoy your blog and posts. Currently diving into understanding the ‘three principals’ of mind, thought and consciousness, which is very much along these lines of conversation that thoughts create a cloud blocking us from hearing and seeing the wonder and beauty around us every moment. Tip of the iceberg. I think you’ll find the Three Principals interesting David, if you haven’t already begun to read about this understanding of the human experience…but your blogging suggests you are understanding already… Cheers.

Karen J March 18, 2015 at 1:09 pm

You did a very good job of adding-to David’s points, Junto! Thank you.

Free to Pursue March 16, 2015 at 9:23 am

“Every time the mind goes blank, having hit on a difficult idea, the flow of my consciousness is assisted by the possibility of looking out of the window, locking on to an object and following it for a few seconds, until a new coil of thought is ready to form and can unravel without the pressure.” p. 59, The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton

Mindfulness seems to offer me the same release as de Botton describes above. By cleansing the palate with a little mindfulness, I seem to be able to silence the chatter and return to constructive, creative thought.

David Cain March 17, 2015 at 9:04 am

I do a version of this often in public spaces. I will observe a stranger as if I’m watching the opening scene of a movie. I’m not speculating or evaluating, just watching a little bit of this person’s life as if it’s worthwhile to do so, and it always is.

Terri Lynn March 16, 2015 at 10:56 am

Always be curious and notice what is different instead of what is the same.

David Cain March 17, 2015 at 9:06 am

I would even say nothing is strictly the same as we’ve ever seen it. We can never have the same experience twice, but we imagine we do. Even the same walk down the same path always varies in the mood, timing, lighting, ambiance. It’s a different experience every time, and every experience we have is unique and gone forever once it happens.

Curtis Smale March 16, 2015 at 11:34 am

Hi David,

I have two more thoughts to add to your thinking and writing about not thinking. (Reminds me of a super-long book by D.T. Suzuki I read about Zen and not thinking!)

First, isn’t it possible to think mindfully? To be aware that you are thinking? To watch the thinker? Is watching your thoughts inferior to watching store shelves?

Second, there is another reality, experienced by millions that you may not know that you do not know about. A lightbulb needs to go on before you can even experience it: the Spirit of God in your live (switched on), spirit.

From your point of view, on the chance that what I say might actually be an experienceable reality, will you allow me to promote my website on yours? (I just printed out the above article and have recommnded your blog among only three others–many times.)

Thanks,

Curtis Smale
http://www.graceinsightandart.wordpress.com

David Cain March 17, 2015 at 9:16 am

Hi Curtis. Yes, it is possible to be mindful of thinking. But it can be tricky — without a significant amount of formal meditation experience it is unlikely a person can be mindful of thinking without being identified with the thoughts. Most likely what will happen is you will simply be thinking about being mindful of thoughts. I really don’t see any way a person could stumble across the subtle attentional skill of being mindful of thought if they have not spent some serious time in dedicated meditation. Without this kind of training human beings are just too prone to thinking about their thoughts rather being mindful of them. Being truly, sustainably mindful of thought is an experience most people would find quite foreign and exceptional.

As for your other point, an experience of God means a thousand different things to different people. In my opinion God is a way of explaining certain sublime or transcendent human experiences. In other words, nonreligious people have access to the same experiences, but they do not attribute them to supernatural explanations.

Matt March 16, 2015 at 2:12 pm

I’m confused now. I’ll admit that I haven’t read You are Here, yet, so I apologize if my question is addressed in there. I have read most of your blog posts, but I always have trouble remembering them for some reason.

I can think of three kinds of thought patterns.

Most often I find myself in the mind-talking inner dialog pattern. I’m thinking, but I don’t know what I’m thinking about, and it’s certainly not anything productive. I guess I’ll work on doing that less.

I think the second one is mindfulness. When I’m backpacking, I’m not really thinking about anything. There’s not much inner dialog, and I’m just walking and taking in my surroundings. It’s rarely boring, but it’s not always interesting.

The third one is what confuses me. I look forward to times when I can be deep in though without anything to distract me. The best environments are riding in a car (not driving) with no one talking and no music playing, just staring out the window. Or riding in an airplane, or sometimes sitting in an empty corner of an airport. I can’t do it in most familiar environments because there are too many small, meaningless distractions. If I’m using part of my brain to do anything like walk or bike or drive, it doesn’t seem to work either. Nor does it work when I feel like I have something better that I should be doing, like chores that I’m putting off. But when the conditions are right to be deep in thought, it’s really satisfying. I can think through big picture stuff for a long time if I don’t get distracted. During this time my mind is talking, but it’s much more interesting than meaningless daily stuff, like “How can I get this speck of dust out from between the keys of my keyboard”, or “I wonder if there’s anything new on the blogs/forums”. I usually think through my goals, or plan out something I want to design or create. Is this mindfulness? Based on this article, it kind of sounds like the opposite.

David Cain March 17, 2015 at 9:55 am

The third mode you describe sounds like a kind of low-stress thinking. I want to be clear here that I’m not maligning thought as some kind of enemy to eliminate. The problem is that we’re engaged in some kind of thought nearly 100% of the time, and we seldom apply our attention to the physical (non-mental) world voluntarily. The idea isn’t to attempt to be mindful of the physical/experiential world 100% of the time — in fact, we will almost certainly all be spending most of our time thinking. But even creating a small, regular part of the day in which we practice mindfulness can make a huge improvement in quality of life, by lowering stress levels and increasing gratitide. In YAH I say that being voluntarily mindful even 1% of the day would represent a significant change to someone’s typical mode of being and quality of life.

So if there are kinds of idle thinking that feel healthy to you, or in which you actually accomplish some planning or other practical goals, then don’t worry that there’s something wrong or bad about it. But still look at establishing mindful habits in other places (perhaps such as during the act of getting into the car), and try inserting mindfulness where you’re usually not accustomed to it, such as when you’re walking to the store, or pulling on a pair of pants.

Matt March 17, 2015 at 4:58 pm

Thanks!

Christine March 16, 2015 at 3:16 pm

May I ask a question regarding this?:
“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.”

I have had this exact experience come up when I’m walking my dogs on the same walk every day (for the six-hundredth time), but I don’t quite understand how achieving mindfulness alleviates the boredom.

I’ve put mindfulness into practice during the walks, but I’m still aware of a feeling of boredom. What if I’m being mindful about seeing the same things (“sidewalks, trees, hedges, people, houses, sky, and clouds”), and I’m able to actively notice new things on each walk so that “it’s different to other trips in nearly every detail”…but there is still a feeling of boredom?

Being mindful and noticing what’s different doesn’t seem to be enough to alleviate all the boredom. I mean, it definitely helps…but it doesn’t make it completely go away.

Thanks for any further insight & for another great article, David.

David Cain March 17, 2015 at 10:02 am

Don’t worry about eliminating boredom (or other kinds of involuntary thinking for that matter) just note it as a sign that the mind is also there vying for your attention. Even during a walk spent mostly being actively mindful, thought will be appearing constantly, and that’s fine. This becomes really clear in formal sitting meditation, where you are completely dedicated to noticing your experience — thoughts are happening very frequently, but they’re not a sign of failure, they’re just part of the landscape, and a convenient reminder to return your attention to the breath, or in the case of walking your dog, to the physical world around you.

So boredom can be there too, but it is different to notice it during a mindful walk than it is to indulge in internal dialogues just because they seem to stave off boredom. Don’t worry that it doesn’t completely go away. Mindfulness cannot block out thought, it’s just a place to return to when you notice your attention has become absorbed by thought again.

Christine March 18, 2015 at 2:18 pm

Thanks a lot for the reply, David. That all makes sense. Being mindful that you’re bored is a much better choice than being bored and letting your mind indulge on its endless merry-go-round of dialogues. :)
And while I’m here writing this, I like to say a big thank you in general for your website and posts. I’ve found they really resonate with me better than any other mindful resources I’ve found. Many thanks!

neal March 16, 2015 at 4:27 pm

I think the baseline for what is called boredom is different for everyone.
I think the art of management, like most things, is to attempt to allow just enough of the other thing to keep the steady state interesting, without becoming overly terrifying. Of course, the other end is another baseline.

For some, that is a smiling fat god. For others, fire tornados, and such.
The mind rebels. The body rebels. Being up in the air is some parlay between time and space.

Probably being lost is easier with practice.

StephInIndy March 17, 2015 at 9:07 am

i admit. i was one of those who wasn’t all about reading the next mindfulness post. but i know your articles are usually worth the read whether the topic excites my at first glance or not. and today’s was certainly worth it. thanks David.

juana March 17, 2015 at 11:37 am

As my grandmother used to say, “You’re only bored if you’re boring.”

David A March 17, 2015 at 2:55 pm

Thanks David, a great read as always.

I find that my commute to and from work is the best place to practice mindfulness. I’m surrounded by stimuli that could easily annoy me (people shoving, hurrying etc.) and it’s a likely situation to be bored in, so I’ve made a point of allowing myself to just *be* there without constantly thinking of the things I’d rather be doing.

David Cain March 19, 2015 at 5:24 pm

A huge part of mindfulness, which I guess I didn’t mention here (but have elsewhere) is allowing things to be as they are. Quite often we don’t want to open up to the present not because it’s boring, but because it’s offensive, or painful in some way. It’s essential to practice letting discomfort exist in the present, otherwise you’ll flee from the present at the first sight of adversity.

Ian March 17, 2015 at 4:04 pm

“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.”

That is a fantastic closing line. Thanks, David. :)

For someone with anxiety, the status quo isn’t an interesting train of thoughts so much as a steady stream of worry tinged with dread. Far from a security blanket, it’s more a pattern that you fall into, and then flail around until you can snap out of it again. And in that sense, mindfulness can really help to prevent you from falling into it in the first place.

But even with that aside, I think things only seem boring if you’re not really paying attention. If your mind dismisses every lawn, garden, and field as “plants” rather than actually seeing the clover with its sweet nectar for bumble bees, the milkweed with its broccoli-like buds and butterfly-beloved flowers, the wild rhubarb growing rampant along the roadside, then of course it’ll seem boring.

Same with everything else you list: Are the sidewalks cracked and crumbling or freshly poured and painted with children’s chalk? Have they taken down the nearby ash tree and replaced it with a wintergreen-smelling sweet birch? Do you see the neighbours trimming that hedge or is it growing wild as its leaves fill in and cover the fence hidden underneath? When you see the kid playing on the swingset did you ever imagine that the guy walking by when you were at recess in grade 3 was right where you are now?

You can do that for anything. You don’t have to name or label everything (“Behold the cirrus clouds!”), but there’s actually a lot there for you to observe. And if the alternative is getting stuck in the paradox of choice worrying about features you didn’t know existed before you read the advertisements (comparison-shop for laptops), practicing improving your ignorance by buying into oversimplified narratives presented in the media (critique foreign policy), or incrementally reducing your trust and confidence in your own abilities to handle conflict that may or may not arise (rehearse possible workplace confrontations), then you might be pleasantly surprised how relaxed you start to feel in general after the first couple weeks of occasional mindfulness.

David Cain March 19, 2015 at 5:28 pm

I think you’re totally right — we think things are boring because we reduce them to symbols and words. As soon as we have ourselves convinced “If you’ve seen one lawn, you’ve seen them all” then we’ll only ever be interacting with the mental symbol for “lawn” instead of the present-moment sense phenomena that make up the thing we call a lawn. Language is really useful but to use it we need to reduce things down to static nouns.

That’s why it’s so helpful to practice non-labeling like you say. In You Are Here I introduce something called a Wordless Walk, where you take a short walk in which you refrain from using words even internally. Look, instead of label.

Imaginary Friend March 17, 2015 at 4:27 pm

I love all the images that you paint with your words! ^_^

You know, I started learning about mindfulness because my therapist told me that’s my next step in order to do better (I have social anxiety and a li’l bit of ADHD).

What surprised me the hardest was simply learning about the concept of mindfulness! I realized that most of us really never ever give a thought to what we’re doing, instead we’re thinking about the future or the past or the possibilities…

The world would be in so much better shape if we did.

Karen J March 18, 2015 at 3:55 pm

Indeed -“[t]he world would be in so much better shape…”!

Mass media “news” has become a no-go for me, because the so-called reporting seldom adds any real knowledge to my world; just lots of grouchy, noisy people’s opinions of what other folks are doing ‘wrong’: so much fodder for “thinking about the future or the past or the possibilities…” ~ the antithesis of mindfulness.

Mindfulness may be less ‘comfortable’, but it’s far better than the mess that constant fretting is!

David Cain March 19, 2015 at 5:30 pm

We are constantly being drawn into the past and future, or at least it seems like it — it’s really just present-moment thinking. We can’t escape the present.

Kenoryn March 18, 2015 at 12:12 pm

I have to admit I’m still not sold on the mindfulness idea – I can see how it is nice to appreciate the world around you, but going to great lengths to avoid thinking seems silly. There is so much thinking that needs to be done in the world! I feel like many of our problems are in fact caused by a scarcity of thinking. If people thought, for example, about their lifestyles, about the kind of people they want to be and about how they spend their time, they’d probably do a much better job of it. Instead people usually give these things hardly any thought and just barrel through life flailing madly and hoping to make it to the end in one piece. I think times when you’re stocking supermarket shelves or doing other tasks that don’t require your concentration are great opportunities to spend time on these problems and to really work through things. It’s time you can spend discovering, coming to big realizations, inventing new things, solving problems, making decisions, planning the future… Why would you waste these opportunities? We only have so much time in a day for our own thought, particularly if you’re working for someone else and are forced to spend a large part of your day thinking about things that are of no benefit to anyone but your employer. I feel like I never have enough time for thinking, and then I have to rush important decisions because I haven’t had time to think them through, I have to take positions without being sure of where I really stand… In future I plan to change the world (or my little piece of it) and I want to make sure I have a solid plan that will really maximize the benefit I can offer and that I have thought through all the angles. Plus – thinking is exciting and inspiring as well as being entertaining! Also, I recall reading somewhere that people who spend time visualizing their goals are more likely to achieve them.

David Cain March 19, 2015 at 5:44 pm

Sometimes I may not make it clear enough that I’m not maligning thinking in general. We need to think. It’s not a bad thing. But you are talking about thinking for specific purposes — solving problems, inventing things et cetera. I have always been a huge advocate of rational thinking to solve problems.

Intentional, rational problem-solving and reflection represent only a small percentage of our thinking. The vast majority of our thinking is purely habitual, involuntary, repetitive, stress-inducing and distracting. It gives us no answers about anything and solves no problems. If we don’t step away from it on a regular basis our lives become too abstract, and we become preoccupied with imagined past and future events.

This kind of idle thinking impedes problem-solving and creative thinking. It helps a great deal to return our attention frequently to the physical world around us. Then when we do think we are able to do it with clearer ends in mind. The mind is a problem-solving tool, to be picked up when there is a problem, and put down when it’s not needed. If we don’t consciously put it down, it looks for problems, in our future and past if there isn’t one in the present. This does little but create stress.

Randy Hendrix March 18, 2015 at 5:35 pm

I have come to realize that boredom doesn’t have to be a negative thing as described by some of the comments here. For me, a few bored moments are a good time to let my mind rest from so much activity.

“Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and It’s All Small Stuff”, Richard Carlson, Chapter 18…Allow Yourself to Be Bored…”much of our anxiety and inner struggle stems from our busy, overactive minds always needing something to entertain them, something to focus on, and always wondering “What’s next?”

So sometimes if I pull my thoughts to the present and it seems boring…I just think, “GREAT!”…gonna enjoy it while I can.

Thank you David for another awesome post!

David Cain March 19, 2015 at 5:46 pm

Yes… boredom, as we describe it here, isn’t a problem unless we need to be entertained. If we let go of that need, then a state of normalness, of being not-entertained, is no longer a problem. I wouldn’t call it boring at all :)

Joe March 19, 2015 at 1:53 pm

David, I can’t tell you how happy I am to have discovered your writing. I don’t know that there is anyone writing about mindfulness as clearly as you. If your not familiar with Jan Frazier and Joan Tollifson, I would recommend their blogs to you. I have a question. I find that even when I’m trying to focus on the immediate scene, the voice in my head still narrates the scene. So, for example, if I’m trying to be present while washing my hands, the voice will say “now, I’m soaping my hands, now I feel the warm water”, etc. How do I get the narration to stop? Thanks again for your wonderful blog posts.

David Cain March 19, 2015 at 5:52 pm

Hi Joe. The narration is just a habit, but it’s so highly conditioned that it’s hard to see what it’s like without it. I think the best place to explore that is in sitting meditation.

In vipassana meditation you sit down to look directly at your present moment experience — what phenomena are happening, including thoughts, physical sensations, feelings… everything that makes up the present. Doing this gives us a much clearer picture of the distinctions between the different phenomena, namely between what’s happening physically, and your mental narration of it. In a few weeks I’m releasing a short guide on meditation that talks about how to do this.

Allison Evans March 23, 2015 at 6:53 pm

I love this post, David. It is so clear about why mindfulness is hard and how to overcome that. Thinking as a chew toy is a fantastic, apt image.

I gave birth (without any drugs) for the first time 12 years ago and have been obsessed with it ever since. I write, coach and teach about birth and motherhood now. I’ve often wondered why — besides the obvious pay-off of beloved children — I loved giving birth so much. I believe now that my births were the longest sustained periods of mindfulness that I have ever experienced. They were hard and ecstatic at the same time.

After birth, babies are wonderful teachers of mindfulness because they do not think. For them, everything is novel. But young mothers often overlook that opportunity because the tasks of motherhood can seem endless and so mundane! I missed my first child’s babyhood lost in my own thoughts — I was physically there, but my mind was back in my old life, comparing and despairing. When my second child was born, I did not make the same mistake. It was bliss, the happiest 6 months of my whole life.

You’ve inspired me to write about this experience in my blog. Thank you!

Akhil Sikri March 31, 2015 at 1:27 pm

Love your work. I wish I could meet you in person or skype. Please do let me know if you hangout/skype with your fans.

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