Day 10: Lost in Thought

Several years ago it occurred to me that I was a lost in a non-stop flow of thought that was akin to a narrative just rolling in the background of my mind. The narrative was about me and my life, but it wasn’t a direct reflection of the actual physical world I was experiencing.

Let me give you an example.

Say I was doing the dishes. In that moment the actual sensory input consisted of something like this:

  • Warm water,
  • The smell of soap,
  • The feel of dishes and a cloth or sponge,
  • The pressure of my feet on the floor,
  • The coldness of my bare feet,
  • The slight discomfort in my upper back from reaching down into the sink,
  • The sight of dirty dishes to my right, clean dishes to my left, and a sinkful of work-in-progress right in front of me, and
  • So forth.

While this was my actual experience, the narrative in my mind was something altogether different. What I was actually thinking went something like this.

  • Ugh, I have to be up for work in just 7 hours and I still haven’t even taken a shower yet,
  • (Whine) Also, I still have those emails I have to reply to tonight,
  • Oh right, and I can’t believe I did {whatever} 10 years ago, how mortifying,
  • Water’s getting cold, that’s ok, almost done,
  • I wonder what I’ll have for lunch tomorrow, and
  • So forth.

What I came to realize perhaps 10 years ago is that the narrative running non-stop in my head was quite often not an accurate reflection of the actual sensory input being provided to me by the physical reality I was inhabiting.

Further, what stood out to me is that this non-stop flow of thought in many ways was more influential in how I behaved and thought about my life than the actual physical reality I encountered.

The narrative flow could ruin an otherwise lovely day. The sensory input could be warm, pleasurable, and comfortable, but if the narrative was negative, my day could be ruined.

This narrative dictated my mood and how I thought about the people around me. It dictated how I thought about myself. It did so regardless of the characteristics of the physical reality around me. And quite often, the narrative was not tethered to my physical experience of reality.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

This realization that my actual physical experience of reality and my self-conscious narrative were not very well aligned, at least not by default, lead me to a second realization: it was quite possible that the stories I was telling myself about my life weren’t true.

You see, this narrative flow wasn’t completely random. It’s not as-if there was no relationship between my worldview and this narrative. Quite often this narrative seemed to be something like a subconscious correlation of my life experiences with my worldview. That is, one function of this narrative seemed to be to categorize my life experiences within the broader context of my worldview.

The problem, as I realized it then, was that when I stopped and looked the narrative square in the face, I realized that this subconscious narrative–this story I was telling about myself to myself–was not always an accurate reflection of my actual physical experience of reality.

A Tale of Two Levels of Existence

I came to think of this duality as two different levels of existence running on parallel tracks in one brain.

  • The first level of existence was the story in my head. It was the story that assigned meaning and value to certain beliefs and positions.
  • The second level of existence was the actual sensory input. It was the grass beneath my feet, the sky above my head, the air in my lungs, all of the sensory input provided by my body occupying a spot in space and time.

If you’ve never considered this duality it might be a bit hard to wrap your mind around it, so let me give you an example.

Let’s imagine you’re going for a run. So you lace up your shoes and head out the door. Here’s what might be happening on each level of existence:

  • Left to its own devices, the first level will go something like this. First, you might think that once you’re in good enough shape you’ll run a 5k. Also, once you lose 10 pounds you’ll be more attractive and turn some heads at work, not that you’d do anything about that, of course, but the attention would be nice. Oh, and in another year or two maybe you’ll run a marathon, and start a blog, and the blog will become popular, and you’ll write a book, and start a podcast, and then the advertisers will start rolling in, and before you know it you’ll be able to quit your job, but eventually you’ll get too old and your body will start to slow down and disagree with your life choices, so you’ll refocus your media empire on wellness, and go on a speaking tour, and save up your money, and retire early, but keep speaking occasionally, and write a book every few years, and travel a lot, and give back, yes, you’ll give back, to your community, maybe you’ll mentor a child in need or work Tuesdays at a soup kitchen, and… Level one seems to run on autopilot by default and it just keeps right on going in this same way forever unless you hit the brakes.
  • The second level is just a flow of sensory input. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. Left, right, left right. Heart rate increasing, muscles fatiguing, pace slowing, heart rate decreasing, muscles recovering, pace increasing.

Once I realized there were these two levels running on parallel tracks I began to evaluate what was happening on level one–the story in my head–by focusing intentionally on what was coming in on level two–a flow of sensory input, my actual physical experience of reality.

Experience as a Lens

This realization flipped the relationship between my experience and the narrative. Rather than using my narrative to categorize my experience, I began comparing the narrative to my experience. In other words, I made a concerted effort to use my experience as a lens through which to evaluate my worldview rather than the other way around.

While this realization wasn’t the only contributing factor in the process–there was also a lot of mulling, reading, and conversations with thoughtful individuals–it contributed greatly to my poking and prodding at my core beliefs and assumptions–i.e. my worldview. It contributed to a reforming of the fundamental ideas that dictate how I think about and approach the world.

It also lead to a tremendous amount of uncertainty.

If we limit our worldview to that which we can make sense of via the lens our actual experience, the expansiveness and completeness of our worldview contracts greatly and our ability to hold to a position with a high degree of certainty becomes much more limited.

As a result of this realization and subsequent winnowing process–one which took several years to play out and continues to this day–the story that I tell myself today about the world is much more flexible and much less grandiose. It is just the suggestion of the direction the story might take, rather than a predetermined destination. And it’s a story that I regularly stop in its tracks and check against my actual experience.

Accidental Mindfulness

What I’ve realized over the ensuing years is that I uncovered the underlying principle of mindfulness by accident.

When I first heard of mindfulness, and understood what it was, it made sense to me immediately. The fact that my actual physical experience of reality and the default cacophony in head are not one-and-the-same, and that it’s possible to hold them both at arm’s length and look at them, was one I had seen several years before and one I had dwelt on quite often.

While I hadn’t practice mindfulness via any formally trained methodology, I had practiced mindfulness at various points and times without realizing that I was practicing mindfulness or meditation.

Intentional Mindfulness

That leads us up to the present time. Over the last year or two I’ve started practicing mindfulness intentionally. Admittedly, I haven’t been very consistent, but it’s been a start.

Why do I practice mindfulness?

I practice mindfulness because I want to be rooted in reality and I want to understand how consciousness works, as best I can. At its core, mindfulness, as I understand it, is about watching your own mind by connecting with your physical experience of reality at a specific moment in time, and then looking square at all of the noise in your head with fresh eyes.

In the last few months this has lead me to work on developing a mindfulness practice as well as to learn more about mindfulness. I’ve read Waking Up by Sam Harris and recently subscribed to the app of the same name.

I recommend the practice, the app, and the book if this post and this way of approaching reality resonate with you.

Featured image by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash

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