You may have already realized this, but it turns out that we humans are pretty crappy at paying attention. A study done by two Harvard Psychologists in 2010 (Killingsworth & Gilbert) found that on average, we’re only present 53% of the time. That means we spend a whopping 47% of our time aimlessly wrapped up in our memories of the past or hypotheses of the future. Ever walked head-on into a telephone pole whilst scrolling through your social feed? Yeh, me too.
Now, it’s important to note that not all of our time spent outside of the present moment is harmful. In fact, if we jump back to the concept of sati for a moment - awareness, attention, remembering - it can be very helpful to remember how a past experience impacted us, or to ‘predict’ a possible future occurrence. For instance, if one of our hunter-gatherer ancestors came across a large golden-brown object hiding behind a bush, their natural instinct was to assume ‘the worst’ and run in the other direction from what could have been a saber-tooth tiger. Perhaps they came across one in their youth and were lucky to make a narrow escape from death. The fact that 95% of the time it turned out to be a rock behind the bush is beside the point. Because if they approached the bush assuming it was a rock, well then odds are, whenever that 5% came around, they certainly wouldn’t be around to tell the tale.
However, despite the fact that saber-tooth tigers have been extinct for over 10,000 years (and most of us rarely are threatened by a modern-day equivalent) our brains have evolved to become highly analytical computers, which often convince us that many seemingly harmless life experiences are actually a matter of ‘life or death’. So this once helpful evolutionary trait is now expressed as a wide variety of fear-based anxieties, that are reflected in how we feel, what we think, and the choices we make in our everyday lives.
But hang on, you might be saying…What’s wrong with worrying about the safety of someone you love or judging someone to ensure that interacting with them will only result in a positive outcome? Short answer, nothing! But just like the small amount of salt you should add to complement the exotic flavors of a perfect curry, spending too much time ruminating, worrying, judging and over-thinking will only create unnecessary suffering in your life. And then what do most of us do when life becomes a little too hard to bear? You got it - we choose to numb or escape our reality, even if that decision ends up having negative consequences for us and our loved ones.
Minds that Wander
Let’s jump back to that Harvard study, ‘A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind’; not only did they find that most people were ‘absent’ 47% of the time, but that these were by far their unhappiest moments. I’m sure if you pause for a moment, you’ll agree that the most meaningful experiences of your life occurred when you were fully present to what was happening at that moment. Reflect on this for a second. It could have been the first time you met your partner, and your heart skipped a beat as you saw them across the other side of the room. Or perhaps it was when you first held your child, and time felt like it ceased to exist. Regardless of the event, both the science and our personal experiences suggest that when we are fully present - with our body, mind and spirit - we’re able to enjoy and find greater meaning in our lives.
As I’ve already mentioned, most of us live in a perpetual state of fear-based anxiety (I’m excluding the Dalai Lama, a handful of Buddhist monks, and most likely Hugh Jackman - nothing seems to phase that guy). And let’s face it, anxiety or any other challenge that we face inside our head (like depression or suicidal ideation) certainly isn’t fun; it’s quite the opposite. It’s brutal, debilitating, harsh, and when it ramps up, can eradicate our ability to show up as functional human beings. Trust me- I have been there. Countless times, my social anxiety has left me feeling like Jack Dawson, stranded on a piece of driftwood, desperately trying to piece together a few consecutive breaths. But unlike Jack (who James Cameron stated was a fictitious character), the experience of persistent anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation is real. Far too real.
Ok, let’s pause and take a moment to reflect on all of that.
- A wandering mind is an unhappy mind (and let’s be honest - most of us who struggle with addiction are probably more ‘up in our heads’ than those who don’t).
- Understandably, we live in a state of fear-based anxiety. Not only did our ancestors rely on this to survive, but there exists an infinite amount of ‘other stressors’ in modern-day society that can make life very challenging to handle.
- It makes sense that we’d want to numb or escape these challenging headspaces and difficult life situations. To cut a long story short, they can be bloody uncomfortable! But eventually, our vice no longer serves us, and by that point, it is hard to give up.
And what does this all lead to? A wandering mind + perpetual anxiety + a tendency to numb our feelings = running away from our challenges rather than addressing them. Buddha - arguably the greatest ‘mind expert’ that has ever lived - had this to say about suffering: “The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.” And despite the fact that even the Buddha spent time thinking about the past and future, he wasn’t ‘entangled’ in these moments of mind wandering. He was able to develop a set of ‘lenses’ through which he viewed his experiences that were self-serving rather than sabotaging. And famously, because of a consistent practice of mindfulness and an ability to detach from his perceived suffering, he eventually became enlightened under a Bodhi tree in what is now Northeastern India. Perhaps ‘getting enlightened’ isn’t a short, medium or long-term goal of yours. However, I’m willing to bet that since you’re reading this right now, ‘living an enjoyable and fulfilling life’ is. Or at least some variation of that concept.
So how do we overcome and create a compassionate bird’s eye view (i.e. a more helpful lens to view our daily experiences through) and in doing so, become kinder, more compassionate, and vibrant versions of ourselves? Well, as stated earlier in this introduction, we must first ‘just start’. Start investing part of your day in either a formal or informal practice of mindfulness (both are ideal). Begin observing your thoughts, sensations, emotions and actions that arise in your life. Pay attention to each moment with increasing clarity, perspective and curiosity. And most importantly, hold yourself in a continual space of unconditional love, so that even if you ‘slip up’ from time to time (e.g. relapse or show up in your life in a way that you’re not proud of), you’re forever able to pause, reflect, and evolve in a way that serves your overall health and wellbeing, and the lives of those who cross your path. Because when you are finally able to make a compassionate ‘bait and switch’ (i.e. instead of running away and numbing, you meet each moment with acceptance and curiosity), life starts to take on a whole new meaning. And just like Jon Kabat-Zinn said, “when you pay attention, even boredom becomes unbelievably interesting.”