Lifelong learners spend the days between birth and death working through what they know, what they don’t know, what they want to know, and — to quote the great philosopher Satchel Paige — what they know that just ain’t so.
Mindfulness falls somewhere within that mix for me.
Several family members and friends practice meditation. I admire their ability to focus mind and breath into a deeper calmness, but for me it doesn’t come easily.
Each day I include yoga as part of a morning practice, but I am easily distracted. At the one meditation retreat I attended, I fell asleep, which I am pretty sure was not the teacher’s goal. When awake, my mind has a constant observer firmly in place. I may be doing one thing, but chances are very good that I have one or more additional activities taking place in my head.
As a historian and planner by training and inclination, I want to understand the past and consider the future, often at the same time. Unfortunately, that sometimes happens while I’m involved in some third activity where I should be fully present. Such as washing the dishes. (Did I really just chip that crystal glass?)
Living fully in the moment is a difficult practice for me in part because I find value in mind-wandering.
Mindfulness is often promoted as the preferred state of being in today’s focused, driven world. Daydreaming, on the other hand, has a less-than-stellar reputation. My meager attempt to change that dynamic — I was trying to daydream but my mind kept wandering — asserts that not all daydreaming is bad. Cognitive scientists suggest that like it or not, we are programmed to alternate between mind-wandering and paying attention. The late scientist and author Michael C. Corballis argues that mind-wandering is both constructive and necessary.
It includes mental time travel — the wandering back and forth through time, not only to plan our futures based on past experience, but also to generate a continuous sense of who we are. Mind-wandering allows us to inhabit the minds of others, increasing empathy and understanding. Through mind-wandering we invent, tell stories, expand our mental horizons. Mind-wandering underwrites creativity, whether as a Wordsworth wandering lonely as a cloud, or an Einstein imagining himself travelling on a beam of light.
E.B. White once wrote, “The curse of flight is speed. Or, rather, the curse of flight is that no opportunity exists for dawdling.”
I do some of my best dawdling and daydreaming — wandering and wondering — while I walk, a practice that in my eyes is mindful. Yet the traditional view of mindful walking involves “not thinking about the future, not thinking of the past, just enjoying the present moment.” There is certainly value in that type of meditation. I have walks where I am very focused, but my default is to let my mind wander.
Kathryn Schulz has written that our world is not either/or. In considering mindfulness and mind-wandering, I feel the need to shed my carefully constructed conceptions, as one writer phrased it, “like so many old snakeskins.” I’m seeking to understand when it is important to live completely in the moment, when I need to wander, and when those two things can take place at the same time — which may be much more frequently than I currently comprehend. I don’t know. To help, I recently turned to a book on the mindful life from a renowned spiritual leader.
Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (1991) by Thich Nhat Hanh shows us how to make positive use of the situations that usually pressure and antagonize us. This series of meditations, reflections, and stories from Nhat Hanh’s experiences as a peace activist, teacher, and community leader begins with simple techniques around basic human actions such as breathing, smiling, and walking. “The source of a true smile is an awakened mind,” he writes. Forming a smile on our face can relax hundreds of muscles in our body — Nhat Hanh calls it “mouth yoga” — and it has a peaceful effect.
Nhat Hanh brings the essence of these ancient Buddhist meditations forward so they can be applied to the challenges of our times. But beyond these basic tasks, Nhat Hanh asks us to consider how to use mindfulness for transformation, reorienting ourselves to the relationships around us.
In working to differentiate between the mindless, the mindful, and the mind-wandering in my life, I see my decisions around relationships are too often made out of mindlessness. The destruction that can arise from that choice is clear. However, that still leaves me pondering the relative value of mindfulness and mind-wandering.
Alan Watts, a twentieth-century philosopher of Eastern religions, writes that belief clings, but faith let’s go. Our job is not to try and figure it all out, but to move out of the certainty of our boxes and into what author Debie Thomas terms “holy bewilderment.” Out of familiar territory, we move “into a lifetime of pondering, wondering, questioning, and wrestling.”
I’ve moved the mindfulness versus mind-wandering construct into the “What I know that just ain’t so” category. And I’m letting it go in order to consider the life-enriching connections and contradictions of mindfulness and mind-wandering.
Think I’ll ponder that on this morning’s walk.
More to come…
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