There are certain times in life that we cannot help but feel completely present for. Climbing a sheer rock wall. Jumping into a body of frigid water. Learning to juggle. Exerting ourselves close to our maximum physical capacity. Fighting someone who wants to hurt us. Kissing someone whom we have longed for.
For most of the rest of our lives, however, we are running on autopilot scripts. We have all driven to work, cooked our favorite meals, swept our floors, sat in class listening to a lecture, had the same conversations with the same people, etc. so many times that we no longer really need to think about what we are doing anymore. Those actions we repeat often become carved into our neuro-structure as scripts, easily accessed and repeated. Have you ever arrived at your destination, only to realize that you remember almost nothing of the drive there? That is possible because you allowed your subconscious scripts to take over, while your conscious mind was preoccupied thinking about the argument you had that morning, the project you’re struggling with at work, the date you’re nervous about this weekend, or perhaps the indelible existential darkness of your purposeless existence. Or maybe you were just listening to music or a podcast.
Scripts are great. Our lives would be impossible without them. After forming them with consistent practice, such neuro-scripts allow us to perform incredibly complex and delicate tasks with grace. Just imagine if a gymnast had to consciously micromanage every movement of their body during a complex routine–it would be impossible for the conscious mind to process all the necessary data in the time available. Instead, the gymnast practices religiously and creates “muscle memory” or scripts.
Left unattended, however, our scripts can start to run our lives–and run them in the wrong direction or straight into the ground. You find yourself drawn into the same old arguments again and again with your lover. You’re late to work again because you slapped the snooze button without even thinking about it. You know that you need to get fit and eat better, but you put the potato chips in your shopping cart anyway because you always have. You automatically respond to depression, rejection, or loneliness by drinking, smoking, vegetating in front of the TV, or masturbating to porn, which only leaves you feeling worse about yourself and the direction of your life. You relegate menial tasks to autopilot, performing them at half-capacity while distracting your conscious mind with entertainments, worries, plans, doubts, fantasies.Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, maybe you have something to teach me, because I have struggled with all of these pitfalls as most of us do.
Our minds are constantly “on.” At least until we’re dead. Thoughts, feelings, hopes, regrets, images–everything flows uninterrupted. I like to think of this flow as a river. Mindfulness happens when we’re sitting on the shore observing the flow, but many of us spend much of our time just getting pushed down this river: jostled over the rocks, drowning in the rapids, swept into random distributaries, deposited coughing and sputtering into a destination we did not decide upon. We get angry and we say something we’ll later regret. We hit the snooze button even though we know that means we’ll have to scramble to make it to work on time. We feel overwhelmed by deadlines and responsibilities, so we use porn to feel better and forget for a little while. A few tissues later, we’re abruptly spat up on the shore, feeling empty and regretful. All too often, being on that shore with a clear view of our mistakes feels worse than surrendering control to the porn stream, so we just say “Fuck it” and jump back in.
But there is much to be gained by being able to return to the shore whenever we need to. From the shore, we can allow thoughts and emotions to simply float on by until they’re out of sight around the bend. We can also strategically plan our trip and jump into the river at a point likely to bring us where we want to go. Hell, we can build a raft and sail rather than swim.
How to start? Sit comfortably. Set a timer for five or 10 minutes. Take a deep breath and allow your eyes to close. Notice the rhythm and sensation of your breath: the temperature of the air, the muscles working and relaxing, the rise and fall of your belly. If it helps, you can internally narrate “In, out,” or count your breaths. Before long you’ll probably realize how boring your breath is. Most anything is more stimulating than that. That’s why this is a good exercise. When you’re distracted by a police siren, an itch, a regret, an emotion, a sexual thought, don’t feel the need to punish yourself for it or to push those distractions away. They’re in the river. You don’t need to push them away; they’re already floating away. Just gently step back onto the shore and refocus on your breath. Each time you do this, it’s like a rep in the gym. It takes time and consistent practice, but if you get good at this, then you can breathe through moments and emotions that usually hook you into the river–not just when you’re actively meditating but in every moment.
Make this a daily practice. Some days you can just do it for three to five minutes. Other days, try it for 10 or 20. But make it a habit.
After a couple of weeks of this, I want you to try something I call “active” mindfulness meditation. Remember those autopilot scripts like driving to work, sweeping the floor, or cooking a meal you’ve made a hundred times? Well, instead of distracting yourself with a TV on in the background or thoughts about the upcoming weekend, take some of that time to be completely focused on what you’re doing. It’s just like with your breath, except this time you’re noticing when you get distracted and nudging your focus back to doing whatever you’re doing as excellently as you are capable of. This doesn’t mean that you can never listen to podcasts on a long drive anymore, but take some of that time to turn off the distractions and practice your mindfulness. If you can pull yourself back to the shore when you’re doing something easy, you’ll be better prepared to do so when it really counts, like when giving a speech or facing down an urge to use porn.
Let’s say that trigger does come: a moment or emotion when you would usually go right to porn. But you’ve been training for this, so instead of acting on the trigger you just take a deep breath and sit on the shore. First for 10 seconds, then a minute, then 10 minutes. You realize that no matter how irresistible the trigger or hook felt at first, it too will just float on by if you let it, especially if you then choose to act in a way that really helps and meets your needs, such as making dinner with a friend, going for a run on the beach, or getting some sleep.
If you find meditation boring and painful and you think it’s pointless, you’re not alone. Working out in the gym the first few times can feel the same way. This isn’t about having fun. It’s about building a discipline that will make you stronger and more capable of building the life and future you desire. And just like with physical training at the gym, you shouldn’t be expecting big gains after a week of exercise. Think of this as an addition to your lifestyle and journey well, my friend.