I know this has happened to you. You’re driving down an interstate highway when your mind begins to wander. Maybe you’re thinking about your boss’s rude behavior or how nice it would be to make a career change. You start imagining all the jobs that might fit your skills. Maybe you should open a coffee shop or be a consultant and work from home. The ideas are coming fast and furious, and you start to get excited about all of the possibilities. Then, it hits you. The reality of your situation sinks in. You passed your exit ten miles ago.
How does this happen? How can we be so focused on our thoughts and still stay on the highway? And how can it be that we have no idea how far we’ve gone or how long we’ve been distracted?
Welcome to being human and having a mind that loves to wander. But don’t fret. It’s a problem that affects all of us.
I’m trying to be more mindful this year and I’m convinced that mindfulness is a skill that can make life easier and richer. Ironically, it’s a practice that most of us never learn. Instead, our minds get distracted by even the slightest of random thoughts. Yet the goal of mindfulness, and perhaps even life, is to stay focused on where we are in any given situation rather than being tempted by thoughts that lead us away from that moment.
Here’s an example of how our minds distract us.
Imagine that I’m having a somewhat heated discussion with my wife. Let’s pretend I’ve done something wrong. I say “pretend” because it’s never happened. But just go with me on this one. Suppose she is upset because I didn’t take the dog out and the dog decided to make a “deposit” on the floor. My wife is accusing me of not taking the dog out.
The reality of the situation is that we didn’t take the dog out, and the dog pooped. That’s it. No more, no less. If both of us were being mindful of the situation, we would have recognized this and not given it a second thought. Unfortunately, our minds are not satisfied with that approach and prefer to look for more exciting problems. Our egos like drama and love to stir things up.
So, my wife’s ego may whisper something like this, I was busy working on our tax returns. He knew I was doing something important and could have watched the dog. If he had just been more attentive to what I was doing and taken his turn with the dog, we wouldn’t have to clean up this mess.
Meanwhile, my ego might whisper something like this, I didn’t want this dog in the first place. At my age, I want to relax. I don’t want to worry about a hyperactive, chewing and pooping machine. I don’t need to be potty training a dog. So, since she wanted a pet, she needs to be the one to monitor that doggone dog.
Then an argument ensues which on the surface, appears to be about the dog poop but in reality, is about the crap that our minds are telling us. And none of this is based on the reality of what really happened.
Does this sound familiar?
How many times have we reacted to our bosses, our partners, our children, or even our pets because of something our heads told us that distorted the reality of the situation. This is generally due to a lack of mindfulness. But there is a solution—it just takes a little effort.
Here’s a quick mindfulness test. Wherever you are right now, take a look around the room and see if you can find something you hadn’t previously noticed. If you’re in your home, this might be harder than if you’re in your office or in a public location. Nonetheless, give it a try.
If you found something, why hadn’t you noticed it before now? Most likely it’s because we typically experience our surroundings through the familiarity of assumptions. We expect to see the tree in the yard or the desk in our office but never really experience the colors, shapes. or sensations of those items as we would if it was a new experience. Ironically, every single second of every single day is a new experience since it’s the first time we’ve experienced that particular moment. So we should go into each moment with an openness to the newness of the experience.
To battle the distractions in our heads that steer us away from the present moment, we need to focus our awareness on right now. Here are two ways to work on this.
First, no matter what you are doing, look at it with fresh eyes in order to be surprised by the novelty of the experience. When we’re open to being amazed, we will be amazed.
The other day, I took a walk. It would have been easy to listen to music or a podcast while I was walking in order to make the most of my time. But the truth is, walking makes the most of my time. When I’m fully focused on the activity, the activity becomes fuller. So, during my walk, since I wasn’t listening to music, I heard a noise in the woods. I turned towards the noise and saw ten deer standing just a few feet away. We stared at each other for a couple of seconds. Then one of the deer snorted and they all galloped away. It was extraordinary. And I’m sure I would have missed it if I’d been focused on the music or a podcast.
Second, when you find yourself reacting to something with fear, anxiety, or some other emotion, ask yourself what’s really happening as opposed to what your mind is telling you is happening. Often, you’ll find that your reaction is based on something your mind is telling you rather than the reality of the situation.
Last week, my wife and I were driving to a college basketball game. About halfway there, I started thinking about something I had said during a presentation and began to worry that while the comment was funny, my client might have found it unfunny, or worse yet, offensive. For the next twenty miles, I could feel myself getting more and more worked up as I imagined that my client was angry with me and that she might not want to work with me again. I became tense, was short with my wife, and felt miserable. However, when I realized what I was doing, I refocused on the present moment and enjoyed the basketball game with my wife. The next week, I got an email from my client and she specifically mentioned how funny the comment in question was. So the reality in my car was not real. It was all in my head. And I spent twenty minutes of my life worrying about it. Thankfully, I made an adjustment before wasting my entire day.
Being mindful means being present to the reality of the moment. The present moment is all that matters. For many of us, our reality is not just in the present moment, but in our heads as we think about last week, next Tuesday, or when we were teenagers. That’s probably too much for our feeble minds to handle. Why not, instead, focus simply on now and make it as rich as possible? That’s how we mind our lives.