|Publisher:||New World Library|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Using the Practicing Mind in Daily Life
By Thomas M. Sterner
New World LibraryCopyright © 2016 Thomas M. Sterner
All rights reserved.
Thought Awareness Training
The First Step
To be fully engaged in an activity means to be present in this moment and in what you are doing right now. It also means to be completely content in that experience. There is no anxiousness about or sense of longing for the future, and there is no regret about the past. In our culture, living in this manner has become very foreign to us. Having an overactive mind, a mind that strongly resists being absorbed in this moment, a mind that can sometimes feel out of control, feels normal to us. Because of this we need to train ourselves to be aware of the thoughts our mind is producing at any moment, and we also need to learn what it feels like to experience a quieter mind. "How do I accomplish this?" is usually the first question asked of me in interviews. We are surrounded by so many distractions, so many temptations, all pulling us away from where we are and what we are doing. Some cultures are much more grounded in the here and now. However, as the pace of life has increased for us globally, and as much of the world has become more westernized, that perspective has dissolved in many cases and surrendered to a mind-set that is always reaching, always connected to a point in time other than the present. As for myself, I didn't need to be taught that mindset; I was predisposed to having a butterfly brain when I was growing up. My mind was always generating thoughts, flitting around and changing directions, with me running after it.
As a child I had a vivid imagination and was very creative. Though that could be considered an asset, it can also have a distinct downside. When left unbridled, such a mind is very unfocused. It is always running off in different directions, exploring new adventures. Growing up, I could imagine anything, and anything I imagined I wanted to try. My mind was always in fifth gear, and a mind that operates like this is easily distracted and also very tiring, if its energy is not harnessed. This was the reason that I became so intense about each new endeavor and fairly quickly would burn up my initial enthusiasm to accomplish the new goal. At the same time that this mental fast-burn was going on, my mind would be offering up more ideas to explore, and those options would very quickly begin tugging at my attention. As a result, a silent competition would begin. I would expend enormous amounts of energy but complete very few goals.
In the end I would learn a little about many things, but I would feel like a failure. I might not have noticed this cycle at all, except that there was always this silent observerin me watching my behavior, listening to the promises I made to myself, watching me become distracted, hearing me make up excuses and repeat the same cycle over and over again. It was as if I were watching someone else. The "I," or at least who I thought "I" was, would feel disappointed and annoyed with me. The part of me I identified myself with had no self-confidence and felt like a failure. The observer, however, loved the part of me that it saw as possessing incredible amounts of creativity, a voracious appetite to learn new things, and an untapped potential to achieve any goal I could imagine, if I could only harness and focus my physical and mental energy.
My awareness of this observer who was separate from what I'll call the little me was what gradually propelled me out of this self-defeating cycle. It provided me with a sense that I could change how I was, how I processed life — if I could only figure out how. As time passed and my perspective became more biased toward the observer, I began to notice that my ability to achieve my goals, and perhaps more important, my experience both emotionally and mentally in each moment of achieving them, drastically changed from one of impatience and frustration into a relaxed peaceful sense of personal power. Ironically, my pursuit of the answer to that question may have been the first goal that I really completed. In reality, even when I thought I was a failure I was only in the process of learning what worked and what didn't. I was developing a practicing mind way before I chose to call it that, and self-awareness or "thought awareness training" is what made it all possible.
The key to becoming immersed in what I call "Present Moment Functioning," or PMF, is growing your connection to the observer within you, and you do this by what I'm calling "thought awareness training." You must learn to operate from the perspective that you are not your thoughts; you are the one who experiences your thoughts. Some thoughts you create intentionally, but most of us most of the time are the victims of the thoughts our mind creates without our permission. Without thought awareness you can't accomplish any real personal growth, and you have no authentic power. People often ask me, "How do I become more patient?" The first thing you have to do is become aware of when you are being impatient. That may sound obvious, but the fact is that most of the time when we are feeling impatient we are immersed in our impatience, not separate from it. When you experience an impatient thought as something separate that you can choose not to participate in instead of as something you are the puppet of, you have achieved the power of a conscious choice maker.
Here is a simple exercise that can open up a whole new world for you. I have used it many times with both large groups and individuals. Set a timer for two minutes. Sit comfortably in a chair, close your eyes, and stop thinking. After the timer goes off, open your eyes and take note of your experience.
When I ask people about their experience doing this, the answer is always the same. They couldn't quiet their mind. Random thoughts just kept popping up out of nowhere. For many people this is an "aha" moment because it has never occurred to them that their mind would think without their permission, even if they were applying their will, telling it to stop. They also begin to realize that how they are feeling in any moment of the day has quite a lot to do with what their mind is thinking. Thought is the vehicle for stress, happiness, sadness, anger, and everything else we perceive as an experience. All these emotional experiences begin with a thought. We have a thought, and then our body reacts to our interpretation of that thought. In fact, I have often asked people at lectures I give, "If you didn't think, could you feel stress?" That's one for you to ponder. When we develop thought awareness, we give ourselves the gift of freedom of choice, of being a conscious choice maker. Virtually everything discussed in this book requires that you develop a strong connection to the observer within you, that you grow in your awareness of what your mind is doing behind the scenes all day long.
So how do we accomplish this? How do we become more aware of the thoughts our mind is producing all day long? We do this through only one exercise. That exercise, and I'm going to use a label here, is meditation. The practice of meditation teaches us to be an observer of and not a participant in our thoughts. It teaches us to notice what our mind is doing, to be more of a watcher of our thoughts. Through our practice we develop the ability to choose the thoughts that are productive and to lessen the ones that are not. Our thinking slows down and is much more purposeful. Our clarity increases, and our anxiety diminishes considerably.
I routinely hear many questions and comments about meditation: "How does one meditate?" "There are different forms of meditation; which should I use?" "How long do I need to meditate for it to be effective?" "I've tried to meditate, and I'm not very good at it. I can't stop my mind from thinking." So let's talk about what meditation is and what it isn't.
The first thing to understand is that, as I commented, the word meditation is a label for a process that accomplishes a number of things. If you're uncomfortable with that label for any reason, then call it "thought awareness training" because that is the crux of what we are accomplishing in becoming fully engaged. We are cultivating a connection with the observer, which is who we really are, not with the fear-based power-hungry ego with whom we often unconsciously identify ourselves. As we become more connected with this observer, we are growing our thought awareness, our ability to watch our thoughts instead of simply being immersed in them and reacting to whatever emotion or sensation they elicit.
Our mind tends to run around all day long, either visiting circumstances that have already happened or anticipating circumstances that may or may not happen in the future, even if that future is only moments away. It also operates in a constant state of judgment (which of course is a thought), and we experience the emotional content, which is the result of those judgments. This constant processing of internal dialogue, even though for most of us it happens without our awareness, is, to say the least, extremely draining.
It even affects our ability to sleep at night. I'm sure you have woken up in the middle of the night and experienced a brief period of mental stillness, of peacefulness, since your mind was not engaged in thinking. If you fall back asleep immediately, everything is fine. But if your mind gets just a little bit of traction and is able to reengage itself into its judgment process, all of a sudden the gears of internal dialogue start turning and that comforting pull back into slumber dissolves into restlessness: you begin worrying about something you wish you hadn't said, something you need to do, or something that is coming up in a day or two that you don't want to deal with.
The mind doesn't like the present moment — or at least it doesn't like being instructed to be in the present moment. It thinks there's nothing for it to do there. It loves to problem solve. And if you don't give it a problem to solve, it will go looking for one. That is its nature, and it's not always a bad thing. In fact, it's why we live in heated homes instead of in caves, shivering. We just need to be aware of what our mind is up to, and more important, to be in charge of what it is up to. A self-propelled riding lawn mower is a great tool and certainly makes cutting the front lawn easier than it would be with a pair of scissors. However, its usefulness becomes questionable if we are not guiding it but are instead sitting on our front step talking on our cell phone while it is running through our flower bed and chasing the neighbor's cat. In that case, instead of serving us, it is creating problems for us.
A daily practice of meditation, of thought awareness training, grows our innate ability to be aware of what our mind is doing, and through strengthening our will, it grows our ability to use our mind's energy to serve us in ways we can't even imagine. What's interesting about this process is that you don't have to try to grow your thought awareness. It happens on its own. In fact, you cannot stop it from happening. It's really quite subtle. At first, you don't realize that your awareness is growing. But gradually you begin to notice that life doesn't bother you as much anymore. Circumstances that used to push your buttons begin to lose their effect on you. You see them coming and either effortlessly deflect them or just step aside and let them go past. This happens because you are no longer a puppet of your thoughts but instead are an objective observer of them.
At the same time, your productivity begins to increase drastically because all your energy is going into whatever you are doing right now, from washing the dishes to supporting a loved one through a difficult situation. The reason for this is that you have access to your full consciousness. You have clarity of thought and focus. Your ability to make decisions is significantly enhanced, and it could even be said that your life feels more inspired. Difficult situations are also much less fatiguing because you aren't in a constant state of judging.
One time I was asked to do an evening lecture in a town I was unfamiliar with, about fifty miles from my home. It was during the winter so I wouldn't have the advantage of daylight in finding the location. I had a general idea of how to get there using the interstate, but once I got off the interstate, everything would be unfamiliar. I had GPS, but as we know, they're not infallible, and this happened to be one of those times when the device completely let me down. I found myself lost in the dark, running late, with a GPS that kept trying to take me to a small diner instead of to where the event was being held. Because it was cold and dark, there was no one walking around that I could ask. I knew I was keeping people waiting. I also had the normal anxiousness that comes from having to do a presentation in front of an unfamiliar group. The one phone number that I had was the office number of a liaison that I had worked with in setting the whole thing up, but that person was already at the event.
This could have been a panic situation. However, because of my daily meditation practice, I found that I was connected to my inner observer, and that observer was calmly looking at my options. The thoughts of panic were there just waiting for a chance to be expressed, but they had very little influence over me. I was aware of their presence, but they stayed in the background. I reminded myself just to remain present in the situation and to let each moment unfold however it did. This is one of the key benefits of a daily meditation practice. As it teaches you to notice your thoughts, it also gives you the mental strength to shut off or at least hold at bay the thoughts that are not serving you in a particular situation. Feeling calm and inwardly quiet allowed me to intuitively notice a feeling that I should try traveling down a particular street, even though it was so dark I couldn't read any of the signs. I had turned the GPS off at this point because it was useless. After traveling down the street for about a block, off to the left I saw the building where the event was being held. From then on it was an effortless evening. My training had transformed a situation that could have been filled with anxiety into one in which I felt in control the entire time.
There is another vital reason for undertaking a thought awareness practice. Adapting to the hyper pace of life in our culture is stealing away our ability to focus, to pay attention for any length of time. As discussed, our lives are all moving at a faster and faster pace. Is there anyone who feels there's enough time in the day to get everything done? I think most of us will agree that the demands on our time and energy are unreasonable, yet we all participate in a lifestyle that is burning us out. This is true not just for adults but for children, too. We keep trying to squeeze a little more performance, a little more achievement, a little more productivity into each day. What studies have shown is that in order to accomplish this, our brains have had to adapt. Basically, we are asking our brains to evolve to handle this high pace of living, and they are obliging us. Our lifestyle effectively increases our mind's activity. It ramps up our internal dialogue considerably as our mind struggles to solve all the situations it is faced with in a day. Meditation, or thought awareness, counters this process by slowing our mind down, pulling it into the present, and thinning out thoughts that are not relevant to this moment. In short, a meditative thought awareness practice slows your mind down, which gives you focused clarity of thought. Over time the focused clarity of thought gained from meditating becomes an on-demand skill you possess, and you gain back so much energy lost on redundant and unproductive thinking.
This is not the first time in history that our brains have had to shift up a gear to keep pace. Think back to when the printing press was first invented. Up until that point very few people could read, mostly because there was nothing for them to read. When books became more available, literacy became more widespread. But how would our brains have handled that? We take it for granted when we read a sentence in a book that our mind interprets all the letters and words. We also take it for granted that when those words are strung together they create a sentence that creates a picture in our mind when we read it. But it wasn't always so simple. Our brains had to evolve and learn to do that to help us keep pace with the major paradigm shift that came as a result of the printing press.
Because our brains are marvelous instruments, they are, in fact, evolving to work at higher speeds. The downside is that, as studies show, we are losing our ability to slow our mind down, to focus it on one thing at a time. Like a muscle that is no longer being used, this faculty of our brain is atrophying. This is not because our brains cannot continue to do this; it's because we are not asking them to. One of my daughters teaches early childhood education, and we have had numerous discussions about the short attention span and impatience being documented in children today. Many educators and psychologists feel that meditation should be part of the school curriculum, and I couldn't agree more.
Excerpted from Fully Engaged by Thomas M. Sterner. Copyright © 2016 Thomas M. Sterner. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. Thought Awareness Training: The First Step,
2. Defining This Moment: Interpretation Creates Experience,
3. Set Your Goals Using Accurate Data: Stop Sabotaging Your Confidence,
4. Premeditated Procedures: Escape the Drama,
5. And Then What?: A Mantra for Inner Peace,
6. The "Perfect" Life: Embracing the Experience of Constant Change,
7. You Have to Be There: Seeing Opportunity in Moments of Struggle,
About the Author,