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How Thinking Blocks Us From Being Present

Boots-on-the-ground mindfulness: removing the obstacles to being here, now.

Val Toch/Unsplash
Source: Val Toch/Unsplash

If just one word were to go in a time capsule to represent our society right now, the word would have to be “mindfulness.” Mindfulness is in every book title, workshop, conversation, idea, and everything else we now encounter. We’re a society obsessed with mindfulness. So what is this thing we’re all talking about and presumably trying to create? And how do we do it—be mindful?

Mindfulness means paying attention to the present moment, on purpose, and without judgment, according to Jon Kabat Zinn, a leader and teacher in the mindfulness movement. While we can easily define it, it seems that being it is not so easy. Despite all our talk of mindfulness, studies indicate that most people are only here, paying attention in the present moment, 50 percent of the time. That said, we miss out on half our life, with our attention somewhere other than where we are.

Rather than take the usual, culturally-accepted model and suggest another thing to go out and become, get, do, study, buy, or otherwise accomplish in order to attain mindfulness, perhaps it’s wiser to turn our attention into ourselves and investigate what gets in the way of our being present. What are the obstacles to being here, now?

The first and most obvious obstacle to being present is distraction. We’re in a constant state of motion, busyness, and getting to somewhere else—using our devices, substances, entertainment, chatter, and anything else we can find to avoid here, now. Doing is our first line of defense against being present.

The most treacherous impediment to mindful attention however, even more than busyness and activity, is thought. The mind, maker of thoughts, is forever chattering, distracting us, telling us stories, beckoning us to not be where we are, but rather get involved in the tickertape of plot twists it's creating.

When it comes to avoiding the present moment, we tend to employ a handful of habitual thinking patterns. First, we separate ourselves from now by narrating our experience as it’s happening. We essentially follow ourselves around, incessantly commenting on our own experience. “Oh look, I’m having a good time here, this is going well, they seem to like me” and so it goes, the voice over of now—soundtrack to our life. All day and night we tell ourselves the story of ourselves, story of our life. Sadly, we live the voice over but not the life itself.

Similarly, we continually package our experience as it’s happening, preparing the story that will later tell the tale that is our life. As the present moment is unfolding we’re preoccupied with transcribing the now into a summary or narrative, ever-readying the present moment for some future explanation or presentation for others, or perhaps just ourselves.

And then come the big three: the thought programs that are always running in the background of mind, subtly or actively pulling our attention away from here.

—Why is this present moment happening?

—What does this now say about me and my life?

—What do I need to do about this now?

Our tendency is to experience the present moment through at least one and usually more than one of these thoughts. Rather than being where we are, we're busily attending to the who, what, where, when and why of where we are.

So too, thoughts are a way the mind tries to manage its fear of and lack of trust in the present moment. Rather than risk diving into now, into the river of life, we stay on the shore, using our mind to manage, control and make linear sense of our present experience, in the hopes of steering now in a direction we design. The mind doesn’t believe that we can relax into the unknown of the present moment, show up fully where we are, take care of our now without controlling where it’s headed. It doesn’t trust life to take care of us, but instead imagines that it must make life happen, and direct our path with tight reins.

In reality, the present moment doesn't need the mind to make it happen; now is unfolding without the mind’s help. When we live the present moment without thinking it, the mind is left without a task, without something to do, figure out, or make happen. It has no bone to chew on. For this reason, the mind vehemently rejects the now, using this moment to generate ideas and issues that will require their own attention and input.

Furthermore, the mind subsists on the past and future; it alternates between turning now into a projection into the future and a narrative on the past. The now, however, is a space poised between the two locations or concepts, past and future. The present moment is a gap between the two. In truth, it’s always now; now is forever inviting us into a vertical eternity. When we dive fully into the present moment, we step out of the linear timeline altogether. We're liberated from the shackles of time. In response and rebellion, the mind grabs hold of now, through thought, and places us back into a timeline, thereby re-orienting itself in a way it can understand.

It’s often said that we avoid the present moment to avoid ourselves. But in fact, when we dive fully into the present moment, are fully engaged in our experience, as in the flow state, what we discover, paradoxically, is that we lose ourselves. We disappear, and that’s precisely what makes it so delicious and makes us want to return again and again. In full presence or flow state, we don’t experience ourselves as separate, as the one living the experience; there is only the experience of which we are a part.

We’re always running from the present moment, not to escape ourselves, but to escape the absence of ourselves. The battle with the present moment is an existential battle for the mind; the flight from now is its fight to exist.

Being in the now, without a narrative, requires a death or at least temporary letting go of mind. When the mind stops talking to us, there’s nothing there to remind us of our own existence, we’re left unaware of ourselves, in a state of void. That said, the mind abhors the present moment just as nature abhors a vacuum.

But in fact, when we have the courage to drop out of mind and into the present moment, what we find is the opposite of a void. We find wholeness, an experience without an experiencer. We encounter ourselves as presence inseparable from life, rather than a person who is living, directing, managing, and controlling this thing called life. In the process, we discover liberation and something as close as I’ve ever found to the end of suffering.

To begin practicing this paradigm shift, start small. Every now and again, glance around your surroundings and just look, see what’s there without going to thought or language to understand or name what you’re seeing. Experience your environment without using mind to translate what your senses are taking in. Simply allow your awareness to be aware without interpretation. So too, if you ever meditate or spend time focusing on your breath, try paying attention to the spaces between breaths as well. Feel the sensations occurring in the gaps between the inhalation and the exhalation. This simple practice can offer a direct taste of the present moment without the interruption of thought. And finally, every now and again, invite yourself to stop and drop. Deliberately unhook from the storyline going on in your head and shift your attention down below your neck into the silence and presence in your own body. Experience being as its own place, without thought.

These and other simple pointers can escort us into a radically new experience of living; they can be used as portals to a serenity that the mind, no matter how much it wants to be involved, cannot figure out or create. When we’re fully present, living now directly rather than the mind’s interpretation of it, a palpable peace unfolds—a peace that surpasses all the mind’s understanding.

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