A human being is endowed with two essential capacities. One is attention, which is about direct encounter, attuned to the sensation and movement of the immediate scene. The other innate gift is mental processing, in which the mind engages with what the senses have perceived. It does something with reality: names, interprets, judges. Perhaps it generates a story, which may stir a (mind-made) emotion.
In addition to processing ongoing life moments, the mind also engages in remembering. Recollected bits of experience (always subject to prior conditioning) shape themselves into an identity, into belief. Hope and other future projections, like fear and the wish for stability or change, are set in motion. The content of the mind, the collective body of memory and all it has brought into being, thus takes on a “life” of its own, assuming the appearance of reality. Mental content becomes a lens through which new experience is interpreted. All of which assembles a compelling sense of the person you appear to be.
A person aching for freedom, or simply for a reduction in suffering, would do well to focus on discovering the living difference between these two capacities: being-with and thinking.
The entire sense of “you” is created and maintained by the mind. Contrary to the lifelong impression, that self has no independent reality. When awareness is fully with the immediate reality – the body and the immediate scene – all that feels real is this, here. Not “you.” The familiar sense of self is fleetingly at a distance, because the mind (its inventor) is at rest just then. It isn’t necessary to remember who you are (your history, plans, concerns, even your name or gender) in order to really be here, this now.
If electrodes could be attached to a scalp, tracking for a whole day a person’s episodes of attention to the now, unmediated by the mind, and also the episodes of mental engagement, what would become vivid is this: both modes of being naturally occur many times throughout each ordinary day, with mental activity predominating.
We are equally equipped to mind-process and to simply attend, to be with – to attune, in a sensory way, to present-moment reality.
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A person aching for freedom, or simply for a reduction in suffering, would do well to focus on discovering the living difference between these two capacities: being-with and thinking. The revelatory potential of that single practice is profound. Simply notice, in the inner life of daily experience, what each is like, how each registers in the body. Explore the difference in feeling between just-being-here and being in the head. See how the two differ most dramatically, one of them alive-feeling and the other prone to trouble-making.
It may appear that being and thinking can occur simultaneously, but that’s only because the speed of one flipping to the other is breathtakingly fast. A person goes back and forth, between attending and thinking, countless times each day.
Attention and thought do not occur in the same “part” of you. That which attunes is not what processes. Simple observation – patiently undertaken – makes this vivid. Attention is more fully bodied, while processing occurs entirely in the head. (Yes, the latter often gives rise to emotion, which then takes over the poor body.)
It’s only in the occasional intervals of mental stillness, when present-moment reality fully engages attention, that the mind’s pause button has been hit. A fleeting sensation of beingness may be felt, maybe even profound well-being. Yet it’s almost like a person cannot stand to linger in the now: the compelling sense of “who you are” (along with the apparently real momentum of time) keeps insisting its way back into awareness, hauling you out of the only thing that is, in fact, real (this now) and into the alternate “reality” that lives (only) in the head.
And so – most poignantly – a person persists in the fruitless, lifelong effort to fix life in order that suffering will abate, all the while entirely missing the point.
However much the familiar self may generate torment and perpetual dissatisfaction, something in us is desperate for that compelling sense of self to feel substantial. For it to register as insubstantial can look – to the ego-mind – like a death. This is, of course, only the appearance of death; in fact, since the self never had any objective reality, it was never actually living. The ego-mind, of course, does not warm to this idea.
The innate capacity to attend, to fully be with, goes into whatever life moment we enter (however infrequently it’s engaged). That means that it’s always there, in potential. If only noticing will happen! We are physical; we are always located somewhere in space, in some particular setting. The senses are always alert (if infrequently attuned to). Tune into the immediacy of life itself: the stirring in the belly, wind moving over the cheeks, the motion of the traffic, a facial expression on someone. If there’s an emotion churning inside, tightening the muscles, allow yourself to sink into the sensation of that – without inviting the story behind it to flood awareness.
When we’re in our heads, life – this moment – is missed. The sensation is not of aliveness but of remoteness from life. We are “living” in the mind’s picture or idea of what appears real.
These two “occupations” – experiencing (which includes spontaneous feeling) and mental activity (which includes thought-based emotion) – are what a human existence is “spent” on. To explore the difference opens the door to a transformed life – a brand new sense of what is, in fact, real.
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Understanding how the experienceable now differs from mental content becomes apparent by considering the idea of a relationship. See how momentary encounter is one thing and the mental image of the relationship is quite another. In order for you to consider a given relationship (parent/child, partner, whatever), it’s necessary to engage the mind. There is mental recall of the history-so-far, along with all the vast content of recollected emotion. The anticipated, dreaded, or desired picture of what may be ahead also occupies a space in the mind. All of this is carried around wherever you go, whether or not you’re presently engaging with the person. Of course, when you are in encounter, the vast accumulated baggage inevitably influences how the moment plays itself out.
Yet it is possible, in an encounter – even with someone known well and long – for all the mind carries of “the relationship” to recede far into the background. For freshness to come into the picture of the face, the voice, the content being conveyed, the activity being mutually engaged in. Indeed, you may be able to recall such a moment with a loved one, perhaps with a family member you thought you knew well (and perhaps struggled with), or with an ex, some “enemy,” whose plain humanity was suddenly palpable. There was an attunement to the presence of the other. Perhaps you too felt more truly seen, acknowledged by a more fully open heart. For once the terrible burden of the mind’s story of the relationship had lifted, opening the encounter to an unaccustomed authenticity. Life itself was allowed to happen, fully let in, felt.
A relationship is an idea, having to do with identity and recollection. A relationship is not experienceable. But a real-life conversation, with two beating hearts, voices, bodily sensations, where real listening and feeling are taking place? That is living reality.
None of this is to say that you should somehow stop remembering you “have a relationship” with someone. It’s to invite you to see – to feel – the critical difference between any idea or memory of it and a moment of actual life. And to allow it to deeply register that everything but the now “lives” in your head. However much the mind insists otherwise, thought and experience are not of the same order of reality. Most crucially, see this: it is because the mind has you convinced of the reality of the mental/emotional story that an authentic encounter is so rare.
Again and again life itself – the only reality – is missed.
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Another fruitful context for learning the difference between the now and mental content is the matter of an ongoing situation, perhaps a difficult one. Any life includes such circumstances. If the situation is seen by the remembering mind to be ongoing, perhaps potentially unending, how can it be we don’t need to dwell there constantly, especially if it’s worrisome? That is, how is it possible to acknowledge the known situation without steadily living in distress or fear, without straining to try to fix what may not be fixable? (If this doesn’t ring a bell in your current life, just wait a minute.)
The mind may insist that because the situation is ongoing, so must be your present-moment awareness of it. Yet all you need do is watch what happens when momentary attention is deflected from the challenging thing to (say) the shirt you’re buttoning, the warm swallow of tea traveling down your throat, the feel of the cat’s fur under your hand. Did the situation stop being objectively real, just then? Yet is it in front of you this moment, as you hold your cup of tea? Only if your mind introduces it. Most continuous situations are not steadily, physically “in your face.” Something else is also happening right now – something more immediate. More real.
When you allow the mind-recalled “reality” to recede in awareness, gently opening to the now, a welcome release is felt. You may detect an underlying belief (likely unconscious) that since the situation is ongoing, for you not to be constantly aware of it is to be either in denial or uncaring. See that such a belief is generated by the mind. And in the times when you are in the presence of the reality of the difficult thing, if your heart is allowed to be soft and receptive, your senses engaged in that particular now (the mind’s habitual context-providing, future-projection, and recoiling grown quiet), you may feel how actually “okay” the moment is. How alive you feel, just then.
This is not to say that you should strive never to think about the challenging situation. It’s only to invite you to notice how thinking about differs from being in the presence of – and (above all) to discover how when you’re lost in thought about something that isn’t here-and-now, you are missing the now. Life itself is escaping your notice.
Even if a challenging long-term circumstance has directly to do with you, such as an overwhelming grief or physical pain or terminal illness, this moment, this feeling in the body and heart, is all it’s necessary – or possible – to fully be with. And being there, without resistance, feels alive, even as it may also hurt.
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Whenever you become self-aware, and you notice something has entered your radar, step back and look to see whether it’s the encounter with immediate life or something the mind has re-minded you of. Ask What is the source of this that’s drawn attention just now? Did you remember a problem you’ve been wrestling with, or the thing you need to do in a few minutes? Perhaps you dislike (are resisting) what’s happening this moment.
In this way it becomes possible to discover the variety and persistence of mental “nudges.” You can see how frequently mind-based content reminds you of itself: something you want, a troubling situation, something recalled, the tendency to resist what’s happening. You need not try to squelch this, to discipline yourself to stop the habit. It’s potent enough to simply register that the source of this momentary focus is the mind. Then, see if you can gently redirect attention to something immediate: the task you’re doing, the sensation in your body, the scene around you. Let the now register – as it is always able to do, when you give it space.
It’s not that all thought is “bad.” Nor should there be a goal of reducing episodes of thought. After all, some mental engagement is useful (making travel plans) or pleasurable (discovering how a new thing works, revisiting a delicious memory). The point is to cultivate a sense of the difference between something mind-located and a sense-based encounter with present-moment reality. If it’s thinking you’re noticing, and it has no productive or enjoyable function, see what it feels like to let it go in favor of attention to life itself. You will discover that almost all episodes of pain have their roots not in present-moment life, but in the mind.
Talk about relief! Ah . . .