If you’re like me, you have a lot going on upstairs. This is not bragging. This is not at all about intelligence; it’s about the moment-to-moment swarm of thoughts that churn through the mind during all waking (and probably most sleeping) hours.
The thoughts that swarm about my head like so many bees are both positive and negative in nature – a seemingly endless array of to-do lists, hopes, fears, aspirations, and neuroses that are sometimes only marginally related to what is actually going on in my life at that time. Like drinking used to do, these obsessive thoughts distract me from the present moment and take away from my experience of what is really happening.
During moments of uncertainty – and let’s face it, life is a series of moments of uncertainty – I gravitate toward negative thoughts.
I can admit that I am generally very uncomfortable with uncertainty. Rather than tolerate it and, in an effort to make my life more predictable, I’ve developed a rather pesky habit of imagining the worst-case scenario (WCS). This is not your garden-variety pessimism; there is a method to my madness: if I can imagine and accept the WCS, then I will (a) be prepared when it in fact happens or (b) be pleasantly surprised when it does not.
That my WCS rarely if ever comes true seems beside the point; rather than being pleasantly surprised by this development, I instead move on to crafting the next WCS. And so on.
Occasionally, I joke that I should write fiction. The negative story lines I craft can be so ornate, so rife with realistic details, they might actually make for some interesting reading. However, the only people who would read this depressing drivel would eventually throw themselves off a bridge, costing me my loyal readership and making this an even less profitable pursuit than it already is.
This is exactly why I started to meditate.
Meditation is all about practicing gentleness and awareness. We learn to place light awareness on the breath and when thoughts inevitably distract us, we label them ‘thinking,’ and gently return awareness to the breath.
When I started to practice, it was very hard to quiet my mind. An endless stream of thoughts distracted me from the breath, but with the encouragement of my instructor, I took each distraction as an opportunity to begin again. Even after 10 months of fairly regular practice, at times my ability to maintain awareness of the breath and my need to label my thoughts as thinking are at about a 1:1 ratio. To illustrate:
What to wear?…(thinking)
Drinking coffee with Javier Bardem…(thinking)
While this can be frustrating, it has paid off to keep returning awareness to the breath. Eventually, I have noticed small gaps in my thoughts during which I feel utterly present in the moment…NOW! And, with time (and practice and discipline and gentleness), the gaps have started to widen. This is what brings me back to the cushion each day.
Even when I am not practicing, I have started to notice small gaps in the swarms of obsessive thoughts I experience every day. Occasionally, when I start going down the spiral of a WCS, something happens…I notice a shift, a slight opening…and I realize I don’t have to take the same old route. I come back to the present.
I still have my moments (like all the time), when I become wrapped up in my latest fiction. But more and more, I can step back, notice what’s happening, and mind the gap.