I’ve been away for awhile and I have so many things to tell you, but I guess I’ll just start here, right where I am, right now. The afterglow of the holidays is beginning to dim, and as I am sorely feeling the empty space where the jolliness and eggnog should be, I find myself looking for what’s next, taking inventory of all that is unfinished. Starting the new year with gusto is fine, but it’s also good to have a look at this restlessness, this continuous need to pursue, to be somewhere other than here. I know that the way to true freedom is to be with the discomfort in full acceptance in order to discover whatever gift it holds for me.
This has me thinking about what I know about the way the mind works, and how it is always looking for the next problem, can’t relax unless it’s “doing” something, like a dog with a bone. We no sooner finish one project than to have ten others surface, clamoring for attention. Why is this?
It’s totally innocent. Our brains know how to tune out the ordinary, the predictable, and filter for novel stimuli. It’s pure survival. The brain automatically tunes out common stimuli so we can attend to new things – this is called “attenuation”. If we couldn’t do this, we would spend all day trying to figure out what’s dangerous, how to dress ourselves, and what is edible or not, as though we had encountered these things for the first time. It allows us to tune out annoying noises, and the other distractions from our intended tasks. Imagine trying to go through every day as though it were the first time! It’s pretty easy to see the evolutionary benefit of attenuation, but there’s also a downside.
Errors can occur when our brains generalize in this way, thinking something is insignificant when it might not be true. We don’t notice the nuances, assuming we know other people and everything else we’ve previously experienced. This is the seat of prejudice, of stagnant relationships, and of errors in judgement. We tune out, avoid, become bored with, or don’t pay that much attention to anything we deem predictable. Even the beautiful and the enjoyable can become commonplace, and we then begin to look for the next thing to give us the surprise, the joy, the rush of newness. We can find ourselves ignoring very important things, like:
- loved ones speaking to us
- the scenery along well-traveled routes
- taste of our food
- our possessions
- routines at work or home
- even miraculous things like sunsets and wildlife, if we see them often enough
- physical or emotional pain
Attending to these stimuli then, can require some effort. At first. Then it becomes easier all the time to develop the habit of fully attending to whatever we’re doing right now, as we discover the newness, the aliveness, of it. There’s a dynamism and a vitality to the moment when we are actually looking at it, and we become aware more and more of the time when our attention is going to some bright, shiny object in the past or future instead of being here in the glorious nowness of life.
Mindfulness practice is the way to come back to our experience, rather than dismissing it and automatically going for the far-off flash and ignoring the substance right under our noses. And “practice” is just that, practice which requires effort. I and many others can say from personal experience, though, that the payoff is undeniably worth the effort.
Knowing this tendency of our brains can help us to lovingly and compassionately bring ourselves back, over and over again, to the moment. We can be patient with our own impatience, knowing this fact of our humanness. This retraining of our brains through mindfulness practice promises the reward of lasting joy, happiness, and freedom. In the end we discover that the thing that we spend so much time chasing is actually right here!