Mindful Awareness and the Thinking Mind

There’s a popular idea in the mindfulness traditions that says, “You can only take care of the future by taking care of the present.” It’s a clever turn of phrase designed to remind us that our future is made up of what we do with the series of present moments leading to that future. If we aren’t taking care of this moment right now, then we certainly aren’t in a position to take care of the future either. Conversely, if we are taking care of the present moment, then by default we are also taking care of the parts of our future we can control.

Ripple on Water

Organic Scanners

Most people find it very hard to focus on the present moment. And there are all sorts of reasons for that. One major reason: the human brain is a scanning entity. It spends all of its conscious moments scanning the environment for any relevant data that might be useful to it and to your body. And if there isn’t much to scan in the external world, then it begins to scan internally for things. It starts to review the day’s events, consider conversations, conjure up regrets, or look into the future to assess for potential risks coming down the path.

Now, this scanning process is one of the things that has made humans such a successful species. Our ability to scan the environment, reason about risks and rewards in a given situation, and make (relatively) calculated decisions about what to do next has given us the upper hand on all other species on Earth. Unfortunately, our sophisticated scanning systems also lead us to a great deal of suffering and pain.

Reality That Exists Only in the Mind

Because we have the ability to think about the past, reconstruct memories of earlier experiences, and imagine future scenarios that have not yet come to pass, we can spend a great deal of time buried under troubles wholly concocted in the mind. As an old man once said: “I have known many sorrows, most of which never happened to me.” And the thinking mind is powerful enough that once it gets going, it can actually pull the body along with it. That is, once our thoughts head down a path into stressful memories or worrisome concerns of the future, our body will quickly follow, and we’ll begin responding to our thoughts as though those memories or worries are actually happening to us.

Who hasn’t had the experience of thinking about a future worrisome event, becoming anxious about it, and then feeling one’s pulse quicken and blood pressure increase, despite the fact that the future event has yet to occur? This is the power of the thinking mind to drag the body along for the ride.

The Power of Matter Over Mind

This mind-body connection cuts both ways, though, and that’s good news for us. Because, it also means that we can turn the process around and reverse our results. If our thinking mind is constantly running off into the future, or turning back on the past, we can slow it down and quiet it down by consciously turning our attention to the body as it is experiencing the present moment.

For instance, if you’re sitting in a chair reading this, you can stop and ask your mind to notice what your body feels like in the chair. Are there any stiff spots? Places of pain? Can you feel the weight of your body pressing against the chair and the seat of the chair pressing back against you? Do you notice your breathing – whether shallow or deep? What sounds do you hear? What colors do you see? All of these questions and explorations serve to keep the thinking mind engaged with the present moment, so that it doesn’t “wander off.”

If You Don’t Keep Your Mind on a Leash, It Will Wander

This is one of the key principles of mindful awareness: if you don’t actively focus your thinking mind on your body’s present experience, your mind will inevitably run off into the future or the past and drag your body with it. You will notice that there is much less suffering to be found when the thinking mind stays connected to present experience, and you will notice that suffering increases tremendously when you let the mind run the show and drag your body all over the place.

The next time you find your thinking mind wandering off, force it to come back to the present, and anchor it to the experiences you are feeling in your body right in that moment. The more you practice the skill the easier it becomes, because you’re training your brain to stay put in the present more frequently and more consistently.

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