“To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, I am listening to this music, you are not listening.” –Alan Watts
Many years ago I was walking on the jagged rocks along the Northern California coast when I noticed this sign:
CAUTION: Occasional and Sudden Rising Waves
Of course the inner rebel in me discarded the signs warning and five minutes or so after walking past it, I was engulfed by a massive wave that came out of nowhere! Fortunately I had enough time to brace myself for the coming fight between man and nature. After being dragged under and pulled dozens of feet out into the sea, I was able to use every ounce of my youthful vigor to swim back on to the rocks (never before or since have I experienced such joy upon touching a rock). I was filled with salt water, exhaustion and could already see the beginnings of large bruises that would swell up on my skin for weeks. I got really lucky since a young man is no match for the sea. As I limped back to my car that afternoon I remember thinking, “I should of paid more attention to that sign.”
When it comes to our own inner oceans, emotions are the waves and thoughts are the sign. If we are paying attention and notice a continual stream of negative, unpleasant thoughts- we have a chance of not getting swept up by our more difficult emotions. But if we choose not to pay attention, discard the signs and stay absorbed in our inner environments, chances are we will get swept out to sea.
It’s not easy to pay attention. Not easy at all, especially when we are down, perturbed, angry, sad or discouraged. Usually when we are in these states we want to attach to our thoughts like glue. We pick our nails, pull our hair, itch our skin, drink alcohol, watch TV, read, work, focus intensely on other people, ruminate, eat, mess around on our phones (mini computers) and think too much all to avoid paying attention. We prefer to just walk along the coast, thinking about our experience rather than being aware of the experience we are having. Who can blame us? After all we think it’s easier and more comfortable to just walk along without paying attention to the signs. Until we get swept out to sea.
Mindfulness is a continual process of paying attention to the signs. The thoughts in our mind can tell us a lot about where our bodies are at. Daniel Siegel, who is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute, along with several other neurobiologists were able to agree on a single definition of what the mind is:
The mind is a process that regulates the flow of energy and information …it’s embodied and relational…where is the mind? It’s in your body and in your relationships.
The mind tells us everything about where our bodies and are relationships are at. Everything. Depending upon how our minds are regulating the flow of information and energy (which is continually moving through us) determines the degree to which we experience mental, physical and relational or interpersonal health. If the flow of information and energy is poorly regulated, it is our bodies and relationships that pay the price. We (and those who are close to us) end up tired and with emotional and physical bruises that only seem to grow larger as time goes on.
The remarkable thing about our minds is that it is interactive and plastic. Unlike waves in an ocean, a rainstorm or our livers or colons we can actually use and change our minds to work towards our advantage if we choose. We may not be able to control the kind of thoughts that come careening their way through our consciousness, but we do have the capacity to tap into our minds ability to self-regulate. By self-regulate I mean paying attention or being aware. We can be aware of the energy (emotions) and information (thoughts) that is continually flowing through our body and mind and chose to not get caught up in it (staying aware of the bigger picture rather than getting caught up in the story of I).
It’s through mindfulness practice that we can develop the capacity to utilize our minds innate ability to self-regulate. If you are someone who is always getting swept up by the waves this is crucial to understand: you have a mind that is not paying attention to the sign. What I mean by this is that your mind is not effectively regulating the flow of information and energy moving through it and as a result it is causing your body, your spirit and your relationships a lot of unnecessary pain.
This weekend I returned to that coastline where I was swept out to sea. The sign was still there even though now it has more rust and seagull droppings on it. I read the sign a few times even though I already knew what it said. I even thanked the sign for letting me know of potential dangers ahead. I then continued to walk across the large rocks that made up the coastline. As I walked I paid attention to my in-breath and out-breath. I was aware of the sensations in my feet as I carefully stepped from rock to rock. I was aware of the sounds that I was hearing (waves, seagulls, fog horn, seals). I was also aware that a large amount of anxious thoughts were racing through my mind. Here is a glimpse of the information that was moving through my mind: caution!, caution!, watch out, be careful, turn back, the waves are going to get you, you are going to get dragged out to sea and never return, it’s going to happen again, it’s about to happen at any second!, run, retreat!
In my body I felt all of the uncomfortable symptoms of fear (constriction, shallow breathing, raised heart rate, sweaty palms). I was aware of my nervous systems automatic need to flee. But I continued to walk along the coast aware and regulating the flow of information and energy moving within me. I was able to stay present with what is- a man walking a long the sea. It was not easy but I’m happy to report that that afternoon I did not get swept out to sea. I was paying attention to the sign and was even able to dodge a few large waves. I saw them coming.
After an hour or so of hanging out on the coastline and watching the waves, birds, boats, seals, sounds, breath, thoughts and sensations all come and go, I walked back to my car and took myself out for lunch.