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Where is Your Mind Right Now?

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“Amazing, isn’t it?”

The words caught me off guard, but they were clearly addressed to me, and seemed to match my thoughts exactly. A moment earlier a blond-headed little boy had, in plain view of his parents and a half dozen passers-by, pitched a half-eaten ice cream at the garbage can, missing completely and hitting the retaining wall not far from my seat on the bench. They continued down the boardwalk without a word.

When the stranger spoke I think I nodded or harrumphed or made some other corresponding gesture of disapproval. But when I looked up, I was surprised to see the old man was smiling and gesturing at the ocean, and had either missed or ignored the minor injustice that had me so appalled. The sarcastic tone I heard in his comment belonged entirely to my train of thought. He meant only what he said.

I still don’t know exactly why he bothered to stoop and say that to me — unless my preoccupied state was obvious to him even through my poker face and sunglasses, and he knew exactly what to say to reset my perspective.

After speaking to me, he turned back to the ocean and I followed his gaze. It was too ordinary for a postcard: blue sky, blue ocean, no clouds. But it had me like the dancing plastic bag in American Beauty.

My train of thought had been effectively derailed, and I was able to forget myself for a moment, thanks to that random man who said the right thing at the right time. I had been totally lost, for most of the day. It was like when a noisy fan clicks off, which you never realize was running until the moment it no longer is, leaving the most unexpectedly silent silence.

I believe life with that noisy fan is the normal state of human consciousness. This was my thirtieth day on the coast of Australia. I’d been to the beach every day. It was a sunny one like most of them, and at a casual glance this ocean scene wasn’t especially captivating, particularly for coastal Australians who see it every day. Yet he was completely taken in, and so was I.

Thought-killing moments like that do happen, but often it takes something that’s particularly forceful on one’s attention. A flaming sunset, say, is exclusive and dramatic enough to wrest anyone’s attention away from their preoccupations, at least for the fleeting few minutes when it’s at its loudest, visually.

But just as often, I’ve looked at something much more ordinary at the precise moment my head-chatter cuts out, and found myself captivated in the exact same way. A dog sniffing a curb. A old playing card in a garbage can. A swirl in my coffee. There is an unmistakable significance that can be seen in all of them, but usually we’re not really looking.

This kind of moment has been happening more and more often. The most encouraging part of it is that it doesn’t seem to matter what the content of the scene is, only whether I’m aware enough to absorb it without assessing its implications to my personal interests. When my interests and preferences aren’t informing the picture — when I am not looking at it in terms of what it’s adding or taking away from me — it’s like I can watch it without being there. I am alive and aware without the normal heaviness of being a needy, self-obsessed human being. And that is where beauty is found.

I know now that this captivating quality is always there to be seen, not just in classically picturesque locations like beaches but in parking lots, produce aisles, snowbanks and people’s faces. But it can only be noticed when thinking isn’t the prominent feature of the landscape.

This state is an anomaly for almost everyone, but I think we all know it to some degree, as an occasional acquaintance. Trains of thought seem to be bent on creating new ones constantly. I suspect that for most of us, our thinking is the prominent feature of the landscape, almost all of the time.

Our thinking is such a prominent feature of nearly every scene we witness, it can be hard to imagine that we can still be there to see the world when thought isn’t around. Indeed, most people probably live and die without ever detecting a distinction between their thinking minds and themselves.

Next time you think of it, ask yourself: Where is my mind right now? Where has it been this last hour? Are my thoughts the prominent feature in my current landscape?

I’m convinced that this same, captivating significance is present in every scene, waiting to speak to you whenever you offer it a chance. It’s unbelievably patient. It could wait a lifetime.


Photo by David Cain

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James Riddett November 24, 2010 at 5:07 am

Hi David,

Love this story! So many of us human beings suffer from this endless mind-chatter don’t we? And it robs us of the freedom to choose and from the joy of just “being” in the present moment.

Even when we DO experience one of those “mind-chatter-stopping” moments, our heads can’t wait to slap a label on it… “That’s a beautiful sunset”. Great… now it’s in a box called “beatiful sunset” with all the other beautiful sunsets you’ve seen :-) And the true majesty of the experience is lost.

That’s a great little thing to try actually — to try NOT labeling it in one of those moments. Because it’s a completely different experience without the label. It’s pure, it’s just “being” there, in that moment.

There are many ways to interrupt the mind-chatter but the simplest and easiest is to simply “listen” for the next thought. This creates space between you and your thoughts. Amazingly, this distance is something many people have never experienced. Such is our identification with thought. Thought becomes you unless you watch.

Most of us believe we ARE our thoughts. Meditation — something as simple as just listening for the next thought — can eventually give us a “blank canvas”, so we’re aware of thoughts as they pop up, and thinking can return to its proper place as something we DO, rather than something we ARE.

I highly recommend developing the habit of just “listening” to your thoughts… the thought-stream will begin to break up. This precious space allows us to see that “I am not my thoughts”.

Then we have complete freedom to use our brains as a tool, to help us do whatever we want to do, instead of being a slave to our own thinking.

David November 25, 2010 at 7:34 pm

Hi James, good to hear from you. Yes you have it right there — that labeling impulse happens in that precise moment when we stop really observing the moment and switch into treating it as a symbol for what it means to us. I think we deal mostly in symbols. We match up the form of the present moment to memories in our heads, and believe we’re dealing with the same component experiences we’ve had before. This keeps us locked in thought rather than direct experience.

Christopher November 24, 2010 at 6:40 am

I have been reading ET’s “The Power of Now”… and it is quite literary “blowing away my mind”.

And i keep seeing this truth everywhere i turn to. A BIG thank you.

Gerrit November 24, 2010 at 9:08 am

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”
Shakespeare in Hamlet

michi November 24, 2010 at 9:22 am

A great post! You should explain more/again to your readers how you go about learning to shut the chatter off. (Plus, I need some inspiration to meditate more frequently. :D )

Gerrit November 24, 2010 at 9:33 am

Meditation helps to shut the chatter off. This in turn should be enough inspiration or at least motivation to meditate more frequently ;-)

Gerrit November 24, 2010 at 6:41 pm

P.S. Just remembered this one:
Practice non-judgment!
“When you are constantly judging things as right or wrong, good or bad, you create a lot of turbulence in your internal dialogue. (…) Through the practice of non-judgment, you silence your mind and access your inner stillness.”
Deepak Chopra, “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success”

mike November 24, 2010 at 12:03 pm

…Michael Singer’s book titled “The untethered soul” is excellent and possibly the best…imo

Pieter November 24, 2010 at 10:40 am

Great article… Food for thought.. uh.. I mean.. uh..
Thanks for sharing!

mike November 24, 2010 at 2:17 pm

…This is an excellent post….the subject of focused/unfocused awareness and the thought process(s) is fascinating and of interest to many of us who desire to master our minds which according to some is entirely possible…. i recognize a seeming link between my thoughts and my emotions.. also my mental “demeanor” does flucuate from day to day and therefor influences how i “feel”..personally i’ve noticed how when i first awaken from a nites sleep i immediately in those first few seconds try to “guage” how i will feel for the rest of the day..lol…the intricate workings and networks of the sub-conscious mind may remain the last great and mysterious unchartered world of mankind……

Vanessa November 24, 2010 at 5:42 pm

We seem to spend so much time focused on our thoughts about people and places and things but give little time emmersed in how we feel about them. In that I mean even we feel we are feeling through thinking not thinking through feeling.

David November 25, 2010 at 7:40 pm

I think I’m a bit unclear on what you mean here. I guess it depends on how you define feelings, as distinct from thoughts. I tend to think of feelings as the quality of attraction, aversion or indifference something triggers, on a continuum of intensity. It’s an intuitive kind of sensation, not the same as thought, but they do trigger thoughts.

Brad November 24, 2010 at 7:00 pm

It really is the greatest feeling to be snapped out of your internal monologue. I often find myself trying to think myself out of my problems, or to make progress, as if I could get somewhere by thinking. Then I notice that the thoughts closely correspond to some chronic tension I am holding in my shoulders and neck. It’s almost like the mental screws keep turning just to maintain that tension — without it, the machinery that I am slackens. And as soon as that happens, I realize I don’t need to think anything. Just relax. And relaxation is in the body.

mike November 24, 2010 at 9:03 pm

…”Then I notice that the thoughts closely correspond to some chronic tension I am holding in my shoulders and neck”…..Yeah…its interesting how that happens Brad…sometimes i wonder if the tension is could be ‘reverberating’ down to a cellular level……Engram anyone……:)

David November 25, 2010 at 7:54 pm

That’s a great description of what happens, in my experience. I notice a very tight relationship between compulsive thought and bodily tension. Relaxing the body has an immediate effect on thinking. I remember an article by Osho where he related tension in the tongue to the impulse to think. Here is an excerpt:

The tongue has the center of speech, and thought is speech. What are you doing when you are thinking? Talking within. Can you think anything without talking within? You are alone; you are not talking to anyone, you are thinking. What are you doing while you are thinking? Talking within, talking to yourself. Your tongue is involved. Next time, while you are thinking, be aware: feel your tongue. It is vibrating as if you are talking to someone else. Then feel it again, and you can feel that the vibrations are centered in the middle. They arise from the middle and then they spread all over the tongue. Thinking is talking within. If you can bring your total consciousness, your mind, to the center of the tongue, thinking stops.

I’ve found that watching my body is the perfect remedy for out-of control thoughts. There is always some tension going on, and releasing it always interrupts the internal monologue, in my experience. It’s a really interesting relationship.

G November 28, 2010 at 5:56 am

David, Osho belongs in the same category of guru as David Koresh: a destructive narcissist who co-opted some ancient wisdom in order to promote selfish ends. Don’t take my word for it; look into the outrageous history of his sect. His writings are a dangerous mixture of plagiarised insight and pandering nonsense.

I was a fan at first but once I learned enough I had to swallow my pride and realise that I had wilfully overlooked many troubling inconsistencies, telling myself “they only seem like inconcsistencies because of my limited understanding.” Not good.

If your guru/sect:

1) Has a fleet of 93 Rolls Royces (the followers lived in poverty)
2) Has a pharmacopia of addictive recreational drugs
3) Has a private army
4) Hosts continual orgies; sometimes involving kids
5) Plotted to assassinate the District Attorney
6) Committed the first ever confirmed bio-warfare attacks on US civilians

then it is probably best to look elsewhere for wisdom. Like I said, there’ll be the odd gem in there because of his ransacking of mystical traditions but that tongue-vibration thing, for example, I’d take with a pinch of salt. He was always saying these sorts of things just off the cuff because it awed his enthralled followers with his seeming esoteric knowledge. At least Satya Sai Baba knows some conjuring-tricks.

The best analogy is probably Chinese takeaway in that it is a rag-bag of different culinary traditions thrown together and debased for Westerners, of dubious nutritional value.

David November 28, 2010 at 8:49 am

I’m aware of Osho’s hypocrisy and I’m no fan of his.

It doesn’t matter if the tongue insight came from Bozo the Clown — to me its usefulness is self-evident.

Brad December 1, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Very interesting point about the relationship between thoughts and movement of the tongue. I will have to really sit down and pay attention. I am not a fan of Osho, but I am a fan of making use of things from outside the conventional places. I think that is how a lot of progress is made.

Peter Ryan November 24, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Another great post David.

Being truly conscious of the moment is sometimes the hardest thing to do. And sometimes something many can only achieve sitting on their own in paradise (yep, I’m an Aussie).

Being aware of others in the moment is also something that is too easily forgotten aswell. As we all go about our busy lives, roaming unconsciously, lost in our own busy thoughts. Sometimes we forget to be human, we forget that we are part of a system of society, we forget to see.

Both internal and external radars can serve people well :-)


David November 25, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Good advice. Being aware of others is something that falls by the wayside pretty easily. When I was focused on that other family, I wasn’t really being aware of them, in the sense that they’re human — I was really only aware of my own feelings and how something they did violated something in me. It was all about me, even though I was projecting on them. In my more aware moments I find it fascinating just to watch people and try to get a sense of their motives and interests. There are a thousand stories unfolding around us at any time, but “number one” takes over so easily.

mbee December 3, 2010 at 7:53 pm

I wonder how this conversation would be different if the kid had hit you in the head with the ice cream.

David December 6, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Haha! Great question.

nrhatch November 24, 2010 at 10:51 pm

Meditation is such a power tool to return to a blank canvas and remind ourselves that we are not our thoughts.

Great post and comments.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Mara November 25, 2010 at 2:18 am

Meditation is the most powerful technique that can release ourselves from the control of our mind, our only real suffering.
You use your mind to change your brain to affect your mind and you get the most precious gift in this life: the experience of simply being, looking at the world and yourself in a pure way and unbiased by thoughts. You are born with 3 powerful tools, your mind, body and soul these are the only tools you need to feel love and gratitude, work with them and happiness will never leave you. Even small progress from each attempt brings an enormous joy and affect your overall life positively. :))))))

Yu November 25, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Peace of mind is something that we definitely lack in the busy world that we live in. It helps to take a moment to cool down, and look for the thoughts and examine what they are. I haven’t been doing that recently and it has lead me to deathly consequences.

Thanks for those words, and I hope you keep your mind above the clouds :)

Steve November 26, 2010 at 3:04 pm

How nice that you would take time to share your wonderful escape from time (and thought). I do hope you never stop doing so.

Nea | Self Improvement Saga December 2, 2010 at 7:10 am

Wow David…this is awesome. Life is truly amazing. When we make a conscious decision to live in a state of wonder, to love and accept everything life has to offer without judgment; we awaken. This is where existing ends and living begins. Wonderful post!

David December 2, 2010 at 5:24 pm

Thanks Nea!

Samantha Dermot January 17, 2011 at 3:51 pm

My mind works within me. After one decision is made, I make sure that I reflect on it for me to know if I did the right thing. My thoughts help me see if I missed something.

G November 28, 2010 at 10:08 am

Hmm, I would not operate heavy machinery while fixating on my tongue. Or eat anything crunchy.

mike November 29, 2010 at 3:22 pm

..lol…..this reminds me of something i heard actor Tom Cruise say once..that when he reads he no longer has to ‘say’ the words or pronounce them in his mind as he’s reading…he attributed this feat to being ‘cleared’ (scientology)…I do however ‘say’ them mentally and i notice my tongue moves and is somehow strangely involved…..

G November 29, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Mike, it is easy to see that the tongue does get activated when vividly fantasizing a conversation, but I think less so at other times. Not all thought is verbal anyway. I guess there’s a continuum ranging from talking to oneself out loud to totally nonverbal thought.

The concept of ‘vibrations’ spreading from the centre seems hokey – I think what we’re really experiencing is simple muscular activity same as during speaking; maybe small micro-twitches than might feel like vibrations.

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