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The Alternative to Thinking All the Time

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One evening last week, I was sitting on my front stoop waiting for a friend to come over. I brought a book out with me, but instead of reading I just sat there and let my senses take in the scene.

I didn’t look or listen for anything in particular, I just let the details of this particular moment in the neighborhood come to me: the quality of the air—heavy and warm, the incoming summer storm kind; birds; two couples having a conversation down the sidewalk; the clinking of dishes coming from inside the house to my right; distant hammering from a construction site somewhere in the blocks behind my house.

There was also a scent that I only recently learned has a name: petrichor. It’s the earthy scent of rain having just fallen on soil after a dry spell. You definitely know it. It was a big part of the overall flavor of the scene.

I engage this kind of receptive awareness often, particularly when I’m waiting for someone, and there’s something very satisfying about it. Every scene in our lives—whatever’s unfolding at any given time in a front yard, a living room, a doctor’s office, a grocery store—has its own unique tone and emotional signature, which you can notice if you’re not talking in your head, which we usually are. 

Watching a moment unfold is way more interesting than the repetitive rumination you would otherwise be engaging in. There are a zillion combinations of tones and flavors, and each moment’s ambience is different than any other one. Petrichor alone is worth returning to the present for. It’s such a rich sensation.

Idle mental chatter, on the other hand, seems to come only in a few dull, familiar flavors: worry, rehearsal, explanation, or mindless repetition—of songs, phrases, advertising jingles from the radio. The mind has a habit of ignoring what’s happening in order to describe what has happened or might happen.

Meanwhile, new stuff is happening live, and it’s always fresh and interesting if you stay with it. Often, when I’m watching this live unfolding of sights and scents and sounds, one of those sounds ends up being the footsteps or car door thunk of the person I’m waiting for, which is a pretty neat way for a little “noticing session” to conclude.

Tasting as a hobby

I learned the word petrichor from wine nerds. They’re always scrambling to put words to subtler and subtler qualities they taste in a wine. A wine may give hints of pear, or cedar, or burnt toast. Maybe it tastes of apricot but not quite peach. Oregano but not basil.

Sommeliers—wine-tasting professionals—must learn to detect and identify hundreds of distinct aromas and notes. To train their vocabulary, they sit around tables together, tasting, spitting and comparing adjectives. They’re looking for some kind of linguistic common ground, so that two different people can connect their separate experiences and independently determine whether a wine may or may not be fairly said to contain notes of hazelnut and cilantro.

It sounds like pure pretense, but these descriptors do refer to something real, something that would be experienceable even if we didn’t have words for it. You definitely knew petrichor before you knew it had a name, along with thousands of other rich, present-moment experiences you will never be able to convey to another person.

Wine tasting is nothing but a particularly specific and well-developed way in which human beings have learned to notice their present-moment experience. We can “taste” any present moment in the same way, as long as we make a point of noticing what it’s like. We can’t do it by accident though. When we’re preoccupied by worry and idle thinking, we don’t even recognize that we’re having an experience.

That recognition is the key: to really taste something, to know the experience, you have to remember that you are experiencing something. If you have cup of coffee or tea next to you while you read this, you might not have even noticed you were drinking it, much less how it tasted.

Taste it now, knowing you’re tasting something, and you’ll find much more depth there than any previous sips taken on autopilot.

The Only Thing That’s Real

Usually we fail to give our experience much attention, because our thoughts take it all. We can’t bring the wine-taster’s level of attention to the current experience while we’re fixated—as we usually are—on trying to manage our experiences in the abstract: planning, rehearsing, and reliving stuff happening in other places and at other times. Meanwhile, our precious experiences, which are ostensibly the reason we do all that ruminating, are missed.

When people ask me why I meditate, I often say something about reducing stress and improving mood, because those are the simplest benefits to relate. It does those things, but it might not be clear how. You can think of meditation as time set aside just for tasting the present moment, just for seeing what’s actually being offered, putting aside other projects like planning or analyzing.

Due to our conditioning, rumination barges in constantly on this dedicated tasting session. This is not a problem. You forget why you’re there and fall into thinking, planning, rehearsing. No worries, you just come back whenever you realize you’re lost. That’s the practice. It’s not painful unless you insist you should already be better at it than you are.

Over time, this intention to come back to the present, to see how it tastes, becomes natural. More and more, rich experiences of ordinary things just happen. Without trying, you just start feeling the experience fully, when you’re starting your car, when you’re settling into a lawn chair, when your friend’s voice comes on through the phone. The richness in any ordinary experience, when you’re there for it, can be unbelievable. And it happens more and more.

It’s the 21st century, and mindfulness has entered the pop culture mainstream. Even science, as slow and careful as it is, is continually giving us reasons to investigate it for ourselves, yet the most common reason given for not bothering with it is “I don’t have time.”

Meanwhile, we lose years to aimless, ephemeral thinking. The primary experience of the adult human being continues to be rumination, with real life happening in the background.

Life can disappear on us just like a cup of coffee consumed on autopilot. In other words, to really experience life itself, as opposed to just more thinking about life, we need to remember we’re having an experience.

Isn’t that crazy? Most of your life—decades in all—will be spent not having the experience life is offering, but thinking about other experiences, striving to avoid certain ones and guarantee others, grasping at types of control and certainty we can never have.

The whole time, just in the background, accessible in any moment you feel safe to drop the mental busywork of reactive planning and worrying, is a steady stream of sweet, interesting and complex flavors, fresh ones arising in every moment. That might sound like more pretense, but it’s the opposite: it’s the only thing that’s real.

***

Photo by gfpeck
Abhijeet Kumar July 3, 2017 at 2:10 am

This article reminds me of something, in fact that something has been buzzing in my head — “Is life a dream?” “Yes” “But the dream is real”.

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 9:46 am

That’s one way to think of it, if it helps you to remember to notice what’s happening instead of that abstract layer of what might/should/will happen elsewhere

Abhijeet Kumar July 4, 2017 at 3:57 pm

Setting some time aside for daily meditation practice and reminding ourselves to appreciate life as it is, even for a few minutes always has helped stay more present later on.

About rumination, I think it usually happens when we haven’t processed something. Some sort of fear, need for approval, a bad experience. We are expected to go about our lives putting all of that aside in a bin. Except it will keep coming back. Little time set aside to process it, and it is like a shower that opens us up a little more everytime.

David Cain July 5, 2017 at 2:27 pm

A lot of the time if a subject keeps coming back, I find there’s some related decision I avoiding, or something like that.

But I think it’s important also to realize that a great deal of our thoughts, no matter how intense, are just things we are randomly thinking about for no purpose at all. Our minds are constantly just noticing familiar things and triggering old memories. There isn’t necessarily a reason to think about a past relationship on a given day, but you might simply because you catch a whiff of the perfume your ex-partner wore. The emotional intensity of the thought doesn’t say anything about how useful or important it is to think it.

Abhijeet Kumar July 5, 2017 at 6:54 pm

True. Our minds are constantly making associations. This is what makes us creative, and gives us the capacity to empathize. But yes a lot of times the associations are unnecessary. Usually it just passes through, unless we have an attachment or an unresolved issue.

Ron July 3, 2017 at 2:22 am

“The mind has a habit of ignoring what’s happening in order to describe what has happened or might happen.” Exactly what neuroscience has been demonstrating in recent years. This is a wonderful, insight-filled description of life as so many of us know it so often, that is, as lived in our heads rather than in the moment. And how real life is right there in the background. We just need to switch foreground and background, perhaps.

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 9:47 am

It’s great to see neuroscience corroborate what’s been discovered on the subjective/mind side of our experience for centuries.

You’re exactly right, the foreground and background are reversed. Somehow real life is the background, and comes in to focus only a minority of the time for most adults.

Anita July 3, 2017 at 2:42 am

This daydreaming state is supposed to be really good for us and it’s during these moments that flashes of insight are more likely to come to the fore. The mind is relaxed and free from the rigidity of following the task at hand.

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 9:48 am

Can you elaborate in this, it’s an interesting thought… what do you mean by daydreaming state?

Vilx- July 3, 2017 at 3:23 am

“its own unique tone and emotional signature” – this reminded me of something. Every once in a while – not often, but a couple of times a year – something happens that triggers a childhood memory. I can’t recall these memories on will, but they can be triggered by some external sights and sounds.

And these memories are… odd. They are memories of emotions. But not the emotions we’re familar in our everyday lives – joy, sadness, anger, fear, etc. These emotions describe a scene, a mood, a setting. They generate a picture in the mind, but they rarely come with any visual memories themselves.

They are also passive. Like, anger makes you want to hit someone, sadness makes you want to cry, etc. But these just… are. They’re like pictures, still photographs of a mood. I think that when I was a child, I mostly perceived the world this way – all the experiences jumbling together to create a single mood. Only later, as my brain learned to filter the inputs, did this method of perceiving the world fade.

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 9:52 am

I know what you mean… meditation has shed a lot of light on that phenomenon. I’m no psychologist but here’s what I think is happening:

Our mind is very good at making associations between present-moment sensory experience and memories, and our memories of certain moments can include its emotional signature. Just catching a whiff of a perfume your ex-girlfriend wore will instantly generate the emotional signature of some moment during that time, and your brain fills in the rest: what it felt like to be at her house, what you thought of yourself then, and so on. As we get older and (usually) get more preoccupied and abstract-thought-oriented, we are less aware of sense input and this phenomenon is triggered less. My hypothesis anyway.

John Norris July 3, 2017 at 3:33 am

Thanks David. One of your best yest. Now I can ruminate on why I ruminate too much. Just kidding :)

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 9:53 am

Thanks John. Happy ruminating! Just kidding — no such thing :)

Lola July 3, 2017 at 3:49 am

David that was such a good article so it left me with a couple of questions one of which is as you go through life and we experience things that we don’t even notice when we ruminate on things do we ruminate on things that happened that we did not initially notice and we can enjoy them then or is the experience lost altogether because we did not catch it the first time? The second thing was actually the first thought I had which was something I thought about during your time of not drinking and it came back to me today when you were speaking about pectrichor after my first drink around my second I become very intellectual hahaha but I find that there are words in between words and I can’t explain what I mean words Deeper Than Words that we often say so for instance if I say that was horrific I want there to be a more deeper meaning but maybe it’s lost I’m sorry I’m having such a hard time explaining this I know in different languages words don’t often Translate but to get a meaning and an emotion there should be different levels of words again I only become that intellectual around drink 2

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 10:03 am

do we ruminate on things that happened that we did not initially notice and we can enjoy them then or is the experience lost altogether because we did not catch it the first time?

Experience can only happen now. There is no such thing as experiencing the past, but we can experience memories, which really only amount to present-moment mental activity representing some past event. So I don’t think there’s any way we can experience anything approaching the richness of experience that’s available here and now. I think reminiscing about past pleasures is really overrated. There’s just so little we can recover through memory compared to what we can experience now. People barely even look at their own vacation photos.

after my first drink around my second I become very intellectual hahaha but I find that there are words in between words and I can’t explain what I mean words Deeper Than Words that we often say[.] so for instance if I say that was horrific I want there to be a more deeper meaning but maybe it’s lost

There is definitely meaning beyond what we can represent with words, most of it in fact. Trying to represent even a straightforward taste experience in words is impossible. Can you describe a strawberry? Not at all. So if we’re trying to find meaning through verbal thinking, we’re really limited. Experience is vastly deeper and more detailed than even the most artful description of an experience. But rumination consists primarily of verbal description. It is by nature much much shallower than present-moment experience. If we’re ruminating all the time, we might feel a lack of meaning, because descriptions barely capture anything about life.

Part of the reason alcohol is so popular is that it can calm down rumination. Even though it dulls our senses, it can bring us into the moment (albeit in a somewhat compromised way). Meditation is way more effective, but it’s also more work than stopping by the liquor store :)

Al July 3, 2017 at 4:18 am

This is such a good description/guide. Thank you David, I found this very helpful. Al

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 10:06 am

Thanks Al.

DiscoveredJoys July 3, 2017 at 5:18 am

“Isn’t that crazy? Most of your life—decades in all—will be spent not having the experience life is offering, but thinking about other experiences, striving to avoid certain ones and guarantee others, grasping at types of control and certainty we can never have.”

It’s sad, but not crazy. Evolutionary processes have produced brains that are prediction machines. Noisy data is simplified and compared with what is normally ‘expected’ (and possibly ‘corrected’) through many layers until the appropriate action is identified (fight, flee, feed, fidget or undertake a pleasant romantic interlude).

Even when ‘nothing’ is going on it has been suggested that the Default Mode Network chunters away in the background reviewing and updating our relationships within our social groups.

People don’t so much live in the future as live in anticipation of the future – and it is quite wasteful and stressful but can pay off handsomely in a few cases. To me the wonder of mindfulness is not so much the benefits we gain but that we have the freedom from brute survival to enjoy the experiences of the present.

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 10:13 am

Our brains have evolved a lot of tendencies that serve as survival safety nets (anxiety about status, for example) but also create suffering. We are lucky to have this capacity for mindfulness — among other things it can mitigate some of these brute force tendencies we have that undermine our quality of life.

Nirbhika July 3, 2017 at 5:39 am

Sometimes I have this overwhelming feeling when I am truly in the moment and never know how to describe it. This article describes this so perfectly. How each moment is so unique. Simple yet profound.

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 10:14 am

Each moment really is unique, but our ruminations tend to be extremely repetitive and boring. That occasional feeling of presence can become a very frequent experience with a daily meditation practice.

Kathy July 3, 2017 at 7:19 am

For me, your article reminds me to slow down and take it all in. To smell, taste and enjoy today. Thank you for that reminder!

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 10:16 am

Remembering is the hardest part. Dedicating a bit of time daily just to “tasting” in this way has a way of creating many more occasions when you spontaneously remember to take in the moment.

Douglas Lawson July 3, 2017 at 7:42 am

You describe the exact moments I’ve recently started forcing myself to have in the past couple of weeks. Basically clearing my thoughts and listening, seeing, feeling. Focusing on nothing but the way things are. I’ve recently started this after realizing my entire life has been stressing me out way too much and I need to relax, too appreciate every little bit of it.

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 10:19 am

A tip: don’t worry about clearing your thoughts, just go straight to the listening and feeling. The physical world is always waiting for you to be noticed.

If you want to make a committed step towards reducing the grip of rumination, consider starting a daily meditation practice. Otherwise we’re just kind of counting on these occasional moments of clarity to come along, and without a practice they just won’t come along often enough.

Mrs. Picky Pincher July 3, 2017 at 8:30 am

Very true. Rumination is unhealthy and it can lead to all sorts of anxious lines of thought. And when we’re anxious, we tend to make poorer decisions and buy more stuff. Not good for frugal living. ;)

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 10:21 am

Yes, totally. The secondary effects of rumination are really bad, maybe even worse than the effects of preoccupation and stress. It leads to clinging of all kinds: addictive behavior, bad impulse decisions, particularly overvaluing fleeting pleasures and undervaluing things that serve us in the long term.

Linda Lesperance July 3, 2017 at 9:19 am

This is an awesome piece, David. Your analogies to tasting the moment is really going to help me with my meditation. Thank you.

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 10:22 am

Enjoy!

lenny July 3, 2017 at 9:52 am

I’m starting to think the reason we spend so much time ruminating is because becoming conscientious in our modern day society is probably more stressful than deluding oneself in one’s thoughts. Quite frankly our current day ideals reflect a sentiment that no matter what you do or how much you have, it is not enough. And as ridiculous as it sounds the majority of human beings have assimilated that mindset into the characterization of themselves and their goals. After recently picking up Nietzsche and Hesse I have realized we are so full of shit in terms of the people we think we are, and the things we want in life. And when you come back to the present moment to realize that the world and all its tender beauty is incompatible with the life and ideals this society has convinced you are truly yours, it is very soul shattering. Most people would rather stay in the comfort of their ruminant minds than deal with that kind of upheaval.

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 10:27 am

I think you’re totally right. Rumination is a way of turning away from present-moment experience, and mindfulness requires the courage to turn towards it, and often we don’t like what we find: real limitations in ourselves and others, unpleasant experiences, our own bullshit. We ruminate because all that planning, judging and anticipating feels like it has the power to ward off what we don’t like.

A daily meditation practice entails looking at experience for what it is, including unpleasant experiences and unsettling thoughts. The effect is so liberating — we learn that it is fundamentally okay to experience the moment as it is, and in fact there’s nothing else available. Rumination is the experience that is produced when we refuse to open to our experience.

Dan July 3, 2017 at 9:55 am

I’ve been seeing and listening to this word “mindfulness” all around, and the way I see it is exactly what you describe here. It seems, to me, that millennials have adopted the term to replace “meditation”, which is used by “older” people and, as such, considered inappropriate for the new generation.

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 10:36 am

Oh man, millennials are getting blamed for everything these days :) When something enters pop culture, there’s bound to be some confusion of terms. Millennials just happen to be most of the face of pop culture right now, because they’re a big group that’s sensitive to trends.

Meditation and mindfulness are related. Mindfulness is this quality of openness to experience / nonjudgmental attention. It’s a capacity we all have but most people never develop it much.

Meditation (or at least the kind that’s usually being referred to when you read about it) is the practice of dedicating time solely to practice mindfulness. You take a stretch of time — five minutes, twenty minutes, an hour — and recognize present-moment experience, usually using some kind of technique, and usually in a sitting posture. When you notice you’re forgetting to do that, you simply start again being mindful of this moment, because there’s always a new present moment arising.

The word mindfulness is often thrown around to just mean “stopping to smell the roses” and that kind of thing. But it can actually be highly refined, and the most direct way to refine it is mindfulness meditation.

Jean-Daniel Chablais July 3, 2017 at 10:30 am

I think your posts are very thoughtful and inspiring, and this one in particular is really brilliant! Bravo and thank you!

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 10:37 am

Thank you Jean-Daniel

amanjot July 3, 2017 at 10:41 am

“I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” – Mark Twain

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 2:30 pm

Yes. But not many. Most of our suffering isn’t what happens to us, but the stress, fear and rumination we experience around possible experiences and past experiences.

amanjot palaha July 6, 2017 at 7:35 am

Yes, very true David. Sometimes I wonder if the opposite is true for that quote. Sometimes, It sure does feel like it :)

Edred Didier July 3, 2017 at 11:07 am

I’ve got to say this is one of your best articles. It’s the same meditation practice Tolle teaches to be (and stay) in the present moment. No need to close the eyes and focus on the breathing and stuff like that. Thanks, David.

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 2:33 pm

This is where I actually disagree, and I’m going to write an article specifically about that belief. All of our conditioning drives us to ruminate most of the time. Without a formal meditation practice, we have next to zero conditioning helping us to live in the moment. Without proper meditation we’re training the *opposite* of mindfulness almost every moment of the day. We can’t choose to be with the present moment when it doesn’t occur to us, or when we’re too wrapped up in rumination to feel safe to stop thinking. Sitting with my eyes closed on a daily basis is the reason I’m able to live in a way where my days are permeated by this kind of experience.

Edred Didier July 4, 2017 at 7:20 am

Different methods for different people. The bottomline is really awareness or consciousness. To even try or control to be in the meditative state is the work of the ego. The present moment is all there is. It is ever-occuring. And therefore, we can choose to be in it. We just have to be aware through sense perception. I can’t wait for your article on that. Thanks!

Dennis July 5, 2017 at 3:24 pm

Edred, recommend you be open to the wisdom of Jon Kabat-Zinn, who says the more we exercise the formal mediation muscle, the more deeper and more profound the inhabiting of our moments becomes. He says, “Lotsa luck” to your approach because we need to “cultivate the landscape” to choose to “stop” and not “do” anything.

Linda July 3, 2017 at 2:21 pm

This is so well put. I remember reading once thatv the vast majority of our thoughts fall under rehearsing and rehashing. What a revelation- yes of course, this is so true. Trying to be aware of this. I wish I could find a groove with meditation.

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 2:35 pm

They sure do for me — rehearsing and reliving mostly.

I will do anything to help people find a groove with meditation. It’s just so helpful in every area. It’s become a personal mission of mine to figure out how to help people find their way to a daily practice. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.

Fleur July 3, 2017 at 2:43 pm

I agree that meditation is useful and balances a life of mindless worrying. I’ve read all your posts on the benefits of it. But sometimes it feels so nice to stop blocking my thoughts before going to sleep. I love using my mind to imagine possibilities. And since it’s a tool that I always carry with me, I can afford to be dependent on it. The situation in which my mind won’t be there for me to use it will never exist.
So, in the absolute, what is the problem of not living in the moment (at least sometimes)?

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 6:46 pm

This is a common concern people have, but it’s based on a misunderstanding.

There’s no blocking of thoughts required. Mindfulness is not the blocking of thoughts. It’s a deliberate application of attention to some aspect of your experience, with the intention of knowing the experience itself, without trying to change or evaluate the experience.

At any moment in which it occurs to you, you may choose to be mindful, which is to say, you may choose to apply this kind of nonjudgmental attention to something that is happening in the present. Thoughts will eventually intrude — usually after just a few seconds of this — and you generally will not even notice you’re no longer mindful. If you do notice, you are again presented with a choice, to return mindfulness to the experience, or not. It’s always a choice. Mindfulness is never a duty, but it you develop it it will become a very rewarding option.

However, without a daily meditation practice, we don’t get this choice very often. We will spend our lives thinking haphazardly, only occasionally aware that we’re thinking, and the possibility of becoming aware of the present doesn’t happen often. Meditation trains us to recognize the possibility of mindfulness in this moment, because you spend that meditation time trying to stay with your experience, coming back when you’re lost. The more you meditate, the more often it will occur to you to be mindful in your day to day life, and the easier it will be to stay with your experience.

It’s not actually possible to block your thoughts anyway. They just happen. If I tell you to picture a tomato in front of your screen right now, you are helpless not to picture a tomato. The brain just makes associations and produces thoughts. All day long.

You will always retain the ability to use your thinking mind for specific purposes — active planning, exploring ideas, making decisions, thinking up jokes, whatever you want to do. Mindfulness is not at odds with thinking. It just helps us prevent it from taking over our lives.

caro July 5, 2017 at 11:28 pm

Wow! I utterly LOVE this reply,
SO well explained for clarity.

(&article is superb too!)

Gracias, blessings.

Willy July 3, 2017 at 5:41 pm

“Petrichor” What a beautiful word! Petros’ the stones that form the surface of the earth, ichor’, the “ethereal essence” the Greeks believed flowed through the veins of their gods.
Cheers David, great article.

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 6:48 pm

I’m starting a metal band and calling it Petrichor

Sol July 3, 2017 at 6:36 pm

Petrichor –

1. Thanks for that awesome word. I give you: pronoia
2. For those who just read it, I looked up the enunciation – that’s a hard c, not soft ch!

David Cain July 3, 2017 at 6:49 pm

Hi Sol. I always liked the word Pronoia but I never really looked into it, or read the book. Is it good?

Priyank July 4, 2017 at 12:16 am

It has been always said that all the creatures of our planet live within the two extremities bestowed upon them; the bottom line and the top line. On the other hand, we humans only have a bottom line; there is no top line, the sky is the limit.
Therefore, I think we mindlessly ruminate over silly things because we have the power. We can direct our minds to it. In the same way, we can consciously direct it to mindfulness.

Great post David. And thanks for “Petrichor”

David Cain July 4, 2017 at 9:25 am

I have a different perspective on why we ruminate — it’s the most powerful habit we have. We don’t choose to do it, it just happens reflexively, like swatting flies. That’s why it’s so worthwhile setting aside time to practice mindfulness instead. Slowly the rumination reflex becomes less taut and we grow a fledgling mindfulness reflex.

sai July 4, 2017 at 3:16 am

Thanks David. This is a wonderful description of stillness of mind. Reminded of the core yogasutra – ‘Yogah Chittavritti Nirodah’- yoga is stilling of the mind.
Present moment awareness is something we lose as adults. Rediscovering it is essential for happiness.

David Cain July 4, 2017 at 9:28 am

As far as I’m concerned, it is essential for happiness, yes. If you think about it, all the ways we pursue happiness are attempts to return ourselves to the present, usually in the form of expensive forms of stimulation or entertainment.

Eric July 4, 2017 at 11:10 am

Beautiful. Thank you for this

David Cain July 4, 2017 at 3:11 pm

Thanks Eric

Linda July 4, 2017 at 3:10 pm

I needed this reminder. Camp Calm got me going on daily meditation and I was consistent for several months until a couple of weeks ago when my routine became unsettled. I have backslid into ruminating on my daily walks instead of just enjoying the world around me. It was enlightening to realize how valuable medication has become for me.

David Cain July 4, 2017 at 3:14 pm

Backsliding happens. But that’s fine because you’ve done enough meditation to know how much better it is to have a daily practice, especially now that you’re seeing how rumination comes back when you fall off the wagon. I’m here if you need any help getting back to daily practice (but really it’s just a matter of doing it :)

It was enlightening to realize how valuable medication has become for me

Haha

Randy Hendrix July 5, 2017 at 8:02 am

Great article for reminding us what it’s all about! Thanks David!

David Cain July 5, 2017 at 1:45 pm

Thanks Randy

Rafael Rodrigues July 5, 2017 at 10:03 am

I get what you mean David. Great article by the way. But for me, most of the times it is realy hard to have those experiences. Not because I can not focus in the present moment, but actually because I am focusing. I usually think that these “enjoy the moment” experiences are pleasurable, like enjoying the morning sun on a grass field, and actually they are but on the outside.

When I focus my attention, automatically, it also goes to the inside, to the body, and when this happens I feel pain (cause I have chronic back pain, which I usually forget when I am in the “mind rumination” mode). And I find the mix of pain and pleasure in the present moment very hard to diggest. Just like you said “It’s not painful unless you insist you should already be better at it than you are.” So there is a internal conflict established in my mind, “I should be enjoying this…but I can’t”.

I don’t know… Just wanted to share. Thanks!

David Cain July 5, 2017 at 2:20 pm

Ok, long explanation incoming.

The point of mindfulness is not actually to enjoy the moment more, although that’s likely to happen when it comes to pleasant experiences like nice scents and nice breezes. Mindfulness can do much much more for us when we use it to learn to live in the reality of present-moment experience regardless of whether it is currently pleasant, unpleasant or neither.

You’ve probably noticed that getting lost in thinking distracts you from bodily pain. I used to have indigestion issues and I noticed that whenever I tried to be in the moment, I would immediately become more uncomfortable because I’d notice my upset stomach again. So I’d go back into thinking about something because it took the edge off the physical pain. There’s a huge cost to this though — you miss all kinds of rich present-moment experiences, and you take on the additional liability of stresses and attachments that come from constantly thinking. But most importantly, you never learn to experience the pain without suffering.

Being mindful of something pleasant is easier than being mindful of something unpleasant, because we don’t have to deal with that reflexive wish to somehow not be feeling what we’re feeling. That visceral yearning for the present moment to be different than it is (in this case, to be pain-free) creates an additional layer of difficult experience that is sometimes called suffering or angst. Suffering is the real problem. It’s what makes it so awful. It triggers the emotional side of it, the despair, resentment, fear, the yearning for it to be gone. Without suffering, the pain is still there but there is nothing difficult about experiencing it.

This is why the formal meditation practice aspect is so important. It trains us to be with unpleasant sensations just the same as pleasant ones, without recoiling from them. Even physical pain. When you sit down to meditate for ten or twenty or thirty minutes, it won’t be long before you are experiencing something unpleasant, even if you don’t have chronic pain. Something like boredom, restlessness, neediness, craving, frustration, or uncomfortable bodily feelings. Normally we refuse to experience these feelings. We get up and do something, or distract ourselves, and if we can’t escape it, we ger really upset and resentful and feel just horrible.

Part of the training in mindfulness meditation is to see what happens when you stay with unpleasant experiences as they continue to unfold. We notice the sensation itself — what it’s actually like, how it comes in and out, how it moves and changes, and most importantly, that it is possible to actually allow it to be there. When we get distracted from this practice of being with the sensation, we just come back to it, to see again what it’s like. And at some point you notice the sensation is still there, but there is no suffering — the awfulness, the need to not be feeling it, is gone.

This level of mindfulness is just not going to happen without dedicated meditation time. We can practice informal mindfulness towards any of our experiences out in the world, feeling breezes and neighborhood sounds, but we’re liable to try to escape from it as soon as some part of our experience is unpleasant. Staying with unpleasantness is a part of formal training, and it’s what creates the biggest benefits, because it totally transforms our experience of pain into something tolerable, something we are not so afraid to experience.

Many people with chronic pain find meditation extremely helpful in dealing with it. Here is a good article on the subject:
https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/04/treating-chronic-pain-with-meditation/284182/ and a great talk by Bikkhu Bodhi on how he dealt with severe eye pain with meditation — go to this link and listen to the one called “working with pain” http://audiodharma.org/teacher/19/

caro July 5, 2017 at 11:26 pm

THANKYOU!! So succinct+useful to me. SO glad to stumble upon this article via a post in my fb feed today. Cheers!

Rafael Rodrigues July 7, 2017 at 1:35 pm

Thank you for the reply David. Interesting to notice that the things the monk said – at that audio you referred – I was already experiencing in my meditation practice, but I always thought there was something wrong with what I was doing because the pain never ceased. I guess the recent increase of mindfulness popularity have been causing some misinformation in my head. Living with this problem (chronic pain) for a long time, I usually have the habit of being overshadowed by affirmations like “mindfulness, is the ultimate cure for all your problems” more than any other. xD

Joel Scott July 5, 2017 at 10:41 am

I often find myself taking in the rain before, during, and after it happens. The sight, the smell, and the taste are not to be missed.

The very feelings that overcomes me each time the skies open up are enough to keep me constantly coming back for more.

I find it to be the most relaxing experience the Earth has to offer. So much so that my 2 year old son has taken a liking to sitting next to me during the occurance. This, of course, makes the experience that much more pleasurable.

You are exactly right David. I don’t sit back and reflect on the experience after it happens. It happens, I experience, I relax, and I move on to the next experience.

I do not actively search out experiences such as this as I find if I attempt to find them, I may miss the ones that are trying to happen right in front of me.

Enjoyable, as always.

Joel

David Cain July 5, 2017 at 2:22 pm

I love rain! After my friend arrived, we went for a walk and it started raining, and we just kept walking. Water from the sky, it’s a great thing.

Sherry July 6, 2017 at 5:38 am

Wonderful blog David, thank you for the (always needed) reminder to live more presently. Love the creative wine tasting metaphor! I’m looking forward to the rain in the forecast tomorrow :)

David Cain July 6, 2017 at 9:19 am

Thanks Sherry. We’re in the middle of a sunny heat spell here, and although that’s really nice, I would love some rain too :)

Dennis July 7, 2017 at 5:42 am

Hi to every body, it’s my first visit of this blog; this blog carries amazing and in fact good material in support of
readers.

Ashley Kung July 8, 2017 at 10:38 am

Not having time to do this is no excuse at all, because it can be done any time, anywhere, while you are doing anything. That’s the beauty of it.

Steve July 9, 2017 at 7:16 am

Hi , do you think meditation is the most important thing someone can do?
I remember you saying something like “minute by minute, meditation is the best way you can spend that time”

Kam Ki Bate July 17, 2017 at 2:33 pm

Wow! At last I got a website from where I know how to truly get valuable facts concerning my study and knowledge.

Donna July 17, 2017 at 8:51 pm

It’s like you wrote this just for me. I really need to get out of my own head.

Steve July 22, 2017 at 9:13 pm

I love that smell: petrichor.

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