To find your way through the forest of thoughts, all you have to do is remember
Have you ever arrived home and realised that you have virtually no memory of the journey?
It’s not just that you don’t remember specific turns or landmarks, the whole thing is basically a blank – both what was going on inside your head and in the world around you.
Some call it being ‘on autopilot’ or ‘zoning out’, but for me the phrase ‘being lost in a forest of thoughts’ better captures what’s going on.
The human mind has between 50,000 and 60,000 thoughts a day. That’s at least 2,500 thoughts an hour! So on that journey home you were, quite literally, lost in thoughts.
Most of us, myself included, spend a significant part of our lives completely or at least partly lost in thoughts, as well as emotions and physical sensations. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with us – in fact it’s part of what makes us human.
Lost in thought
But it does mean that for a good portion of our lives we’re missing out on the full experience of the present moment, whether it be the opportunity to connect deeply with a loved one, to engage fully in a work task, or to just enjoy the feeling of the morning sun.
Also, if the thoughts, emotions or sensations we are lost in are difficult or painful for us (which is an inevitable part of life) we can experience great suffering.
That’s where the practice of mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is not about trying to stop or change these thoughts, emotions or sensations. Rather, it’s about bringing awareness to the full range of our experience in this moment, both what is happening externally (the information being gathered by our senses) and what is happening internally (our thoughts, emotions and sensations).
Mindfulness practice does not involve an expectation that we can constantly remain in this state of awareness, it’s about remembering to bring our awareness back to the present moment when our minds inevitably get lost in that thought forest.
The literal translation of the term mindfulness from the original Buddhist texts is, in fact, remembering.
So the practice of mindfulness is the practice of remembering to bring our awareness back to our full experience in the present moment.
When you come back to that moment and notice what’s going on, try not to be too tough on yourself, such as by thinking ‘why am I having anxious thoughts when I should be present? Is there something wrong with me?’
Instead bring a sense of nonjudgemental acceptance to whatever is going on.
This helps us to experience the present moment with greater peace and ease.
♦ Paul Bibby is a mindfulness and meditation teacher based in Mullumbimby. For information about classes or one-on-one sessions email firstname.lastname@example.org.