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April 15th, 2022
It’s a casual marvel that we can drive a car and have a conversation simultaneously. No doubt many will remember that this wasn’t always possible. That first time driving was likely high stress, and laser focus. Don’t distract me! But as time goes on and we learn, we learn exactly what needs attention, and what doesn’t. We start off paying attention to everything on the road, and eventually realize that it’s really only necessary to pay attention to potential dangers, freeing up a lot of cognitive energy that we can then put into a conversation with someone in the passenger seat, or on the speaker phone.
It’s fascinating how this split of attention can fluctuate. Hold on a second, while I get through this crazy intersection.
Now imagine the partner in conversation is a driving instructor, and the task is to talk about your driving as you drive. You need to describe what you are paying attention to, and why. I’m watching the curb because I don’t want to hit it. I’m watching the lights up ahead. I see kids playing close to the street.
Attention is still split, but it’s been folded back on itself, like one side of a coin that can see the other side. This exercise maps on directly to the meditating mind, but instead of driving, it’s your thoughts and the sensations that arrive via your body, be it sound, vision, touch and all the like.
Can you report on the flux of your thoughts in real time?
It may at first seem like a paradox. Wouldn’t a report on a thought constitute as a thought? Yes, certainly, but there’s a crucial event that takes place.
Ordinarily we are on a kind of autopilot, as when we effortlessly drive a car. That mental autopilot is dominated by thoughts about the past and the future at the expense of only paying the slightest fraction of attention to the present. When we take a moment to recognize what sort of thought we are currently engaged in, we are switching from the past or future to the present. It’s merely a question about what is happening right now, as opposed to yesterday or tomorrow. This interrupts the train of thought.
To bring it back to the driving circumstance, it’s possible to get so involved in a conversation with someone on the phone that we lose track of where we are actually trying to go while driving. Where am I going? I missed my turn! This happens all the time, even without a conversation. We can simply be lost in our own thoughts while driving. But imagine this: would it be just as easy to miss your turn if you were constantly talking about your driving experience? No, you’d be doubly focused on what you were doing.
A moment of mindfulness when we realize that we’ve been lost in thought is a lot like realizing you’ve missed your turn. And people who are just beginning to learn how to meditate often see this experience as a failure. Uh! I suck at this! I was having a thought again! But this instance is actually the hallmark of practice. If a person can have enough of these kinds of moments, then they can begin to expand. The time between realizing what thought we were just having and the next stretch of time we are lost in thought grows, and in this space we have the freedom to recognize what’s going on in the moment - how vibrant the visual field is, that tension in the shoulders we’ve been holding and can finally release, the feel and flow of breath.
Strangely, recognizing failure is the first sign of success in meditation. It’s akin to realizing you missed your turn while driving, sooner rather than later. The sooner the mistake is caught, the less distance we need to backtrack, and the more time we save.
For the novice of meditation it’s akin to thinking: wow, imagine if I’d been lost in thought for another decade or two without ever really being present? Could there be any greater success than taking a moment to disconnect from the mind’s incessant jabber to simply be in the present and take some time to appreciate it?