If you are anything like me, it is a continual effort to remain present. I have a brain that is constantly looking for the next thing, continually thinking about doing something else, continually worrying about what might go wrong, continually planning, evaluating and judging. My brain is a control freak. It wants to figure everything out. It wants to take care of everything. It wants to think about things that will most likely never happen. My brain seems to only really rest when I watch a movie, stare off into my iPhone, listen to music, meditate or engage in other activities that engage my attention and focus.
My brain is a brain that resists the security, fulfillment and clarity of the present moment.
For whatever reason, my brain is always on duty. Always getting ahead of me. Always judging and resisting. Always pushing away and reacting. Always projecting itself into the future. In psychological terminology this is referred to as hyperactivity or chronic hyperarousal (normally the result of trauma). The diagnosis for this is Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a condition that is all too common in our modern world.
My brain always wants to accomplish things. It wants to figure things out. “Go, go, go!!,” it says. After a cup of coffee it really gets going. It judges, it projects, it worries, it imagines. It is fascinating watching my brain do what it does. I don’t need to watch films or television- the activity of my brain is entertaining enough. I don’t want to imagine what it was like for me when I was not able to observe the workings of my brain but instead was just helplessly going along with wherever it took me. It got so bad in my twenties that I needed Paxil, weed and booze to cope. Can not imagine the road I would of gone down without running into mindfulness practice.
Michael Brown, a meditation teacher and author, calls this kind of brain the conditioned, unconscious brain. What is meant by unconscious is that the individual is not aware of how their thoughts are creating their subjective experience. This is often what is meant by “you do it to yourself.” He refers to this unconsciousness factor as the fundamental and all pervasive human illness. It is responsible for more stress related physical illnesses, broken marriages, violent behaviors, accidents, dysfunctional relationships, addictive behaviors, mental health issues and general life dissatisfaction levels than we are even close to being aware of. It is the cause of so many undesirable effects.
In my psychotherapy practice, I see proof of this all day, everyday. The root of the vast majority of mental duress that I see people suffering from (and medicating for) is a brain that is running out of control. The speed at which a person’s out of control thoughts are moving is exhausting their body, causing uncomfortable and sometimes serious physical and psychological symptoms. Their brain is worn down by all the rapid-fire thinking and as a result they feel anxious, depressed, tired and chronically worried. They are often totally unconscious about how their thoughts are creating their subjective experience. The moment these individuals are able to slow things down, to become more conscious and focused in the present moment- it is amazing to watch the uncomfortable mental and physical symptoms that tormented them melt away. The hard part is getting them to come back to this more conscious space when not in my office! How easy it is to be taken over by an out of control brain without any technique in place to slow it down.
For me, mindfulness practice is not about abolishing my ego and becoming an all-loving-enlightened-being. It is not about attaining some spiritual or religious realizations that allow me to live in a space of bliss, love, peace and truth. Not interested in that. I like my ego too much to hand it over. I value the wide range of human emotions I experience and the various creations of the ego such as literature, art, music, film, design and ideas. I use mindfulness as a way to continually bring myself back to the present moment. For me, mindfulness practice is like using a bookmark while reading. I am continually moving forward in my life, experiencing a wide range of emotions, feelings and thoughts- mindfulness practice just allows me to mark the space I am at. To remember the place I am in right now.
I am continually bookmarking myself. This is my mindfulness practice. Bookmarking here, bookmarking there. Bookmarking when I get angry, irritated, anxious, excited, depressed, judgmental, worried, nervous. Bookmarking when I notice that I am in a hurry and when I am in a difficult situation. Bookmarking when I notice that I am worrying about the future or resisting what is happening in the present. I am continually bookmarking myself, again and again and again. It is like I am a reader with ADD, continually starting and then stopping, starting and stopping. As a result of this practice, I am continually coming back to solid ground. I experience more peace and wellbeing. More clarity and calm. A deep sense of confidence, contentment and creativity. I don’t need medications or magical elixirs to calm things down. I can take care of that by using the mindfulness bookmark throughout my day. In whatever situation I am in. Again and again and again, continually bringing myself back to the place that I am in right now. Remembering to pay attention in this moment, to this breath- the only place real sanity can be found.