The Mind Observing the Mind

I am not a scientist in the sense that I don’t work at a laboratory, I don’t publish academic papers, and I am not going out into a field to make observation about the nature of the world to experiment with and report back on. But I do love science. I listen to a handful of science podcasts and I like to approach the world from a scientific point of view. This has lead me to look at objects and observers and to be aware of the relationship between an object and the observer recording the object. Scientists try to be as objective as possible, independent of the thing they are studying, but this is not always possible. When it comes to the human mind, and the observations we make about our thoughts, we must accept that we cannot split the mind from our thoughts and our emotions, even though we can observe both.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh writes about this in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. He uses a metaphor of a guard standing at a gate, observing everyone who enters and leaves to describe the typical vision we have for our mind. Hanh explains that this is a limited view of the mind because we are both the guard and the people going through the gate. The mind cannot truly be separated from the thoughts and emotions going through it.

 

He describes the importance of this by writing, “We are both the mind and the observer of the mind. Therefore, chasing away or dwelling on any thought isn’t the important thing. The important thing is to be aware of thought. This observation is not an objectification of the mind: it does not establish distinction between subject and object. … Mind can only observe itself. This observation isn’t an observation of some object outside and independent of the observer.”

 

Our observations of the mind can change the mind as much as cake, a traffic accident, or the birth of a child can. We only have our thoughts inside our mind, but we don’t exactly control every thought, emotion, and feeling. Being unaware of our thoughts leads us to being whipped around as in a hurricane, but trying to be too controlling of our mind drives us mad and frustrates us at our inability to shut down the thoughts and emotions we don’t wish to have. Recognizing the reality of the mind as being one with its thoughts helps us see that our best option is simply to observe and accept the thoughts and emotions that run through our mind so we can choose to be more constructive with how we react to thoughts and structure the environment in which our mind operates.

The Absurdity of Thinking We Know What is Happening in Another’s Mind

We make claims all the time about what other people are thinking and feeling and about the motivations, beliefs, and desires of others. We can maybe be right about some large things and the study of psychology has given us insight into a lot of patterns of the brain, but to think that we could ever really understand what is happening in the mind of another person is beyond nonsense.

 

This fallacy starts with our misunderstandings of our own brain and our own consciousness. We like to think that there is a single actor in our brain, observing the universe, directing our actions, and making sense of the world in an objective and rational manner. What everything seems to indicate, however, is that this experience of our consciousness does not align with reality. People often fail to act in a way that is in their rational best interest. We are driven by the stories that we tell ourselves, giving rise to prejudices and allowing us to be swayed by our self-interests. When meditating we see just how hard it is to focus on a single thought, even if we try our best to make our conscious mind think about our breath and not the candy jar on our co-workers desk. In all of these situations, our thoughts seem to be a bit beyond our control, a bit random, and heavily influenced by factors that we perceive or imagine even if they don’t exist.

 

When we look inward at our own mind we begin to see just how jumbled our own thoughts and consciousness can be. When we truly work to improve our mind, we can build our self-awareness, look at the world more objectively, and start to recognize patterns of our own thoughts and behaviors, but this is hard work and reveals a confusing set of contradictions within ourselves. Indeed, as Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, “If you want to know your own mind, there is only one way: to observe and recognize everything about it. This must be done at all times, during your day-to-day life no less than during the hour of meditation.”

 

To know our mind is to recognize the times when our mind is not what we think or imagine it to be. And if we cannot even know our own mind without constant study and evaluation of what we are thinking and believing, then how can we ever claim to understand another person’s mind, even for a second? We can hide things from ourselves, fail to recognize the reality of the world around us and of ourselves, and we can develop false beliefs in our thinking. This is true for each one of us, and for everyone else around us. When we think of other people, of their desires, habits, actions, fears, and their general mindset in any given situation, we must remember that they are as complicated as we are, and that we cannot possibly understand what is happening in their mind.

 

When I think of this, when I read Hanh’s quote about self-awareness and how difficult it is to know ourselves, I remember to judge people less harshly, to slow my thinking down, and to first interrogate my own mind before assuming something about the mental state of another person. This is not easy to do, and it undoubtedly leads to a place where I think to myself, “well the world is hard and this person is influenced by many things and feels many fears and pressures, so their actions and behaviors can to some extent be deemed understandable.” This works well when I am confronted by a grumpy person in line at the bank or a jerk driving next to me on the freeway, but it is less that satisfying when thinking about people who commit serious crime (an area I don’t have solid thoughts on right now), or people who seem to antagonistically oppose beliefs that I find important and noble. What I can say is that remembering how challenging it is to know myself helps me be more empathetic with others and view what they say or do in a less attacking and critical light. In personal relationships and in the office this is a great skill to cultivate, because it stops me from assuming I know what is happening in another person’s mind, and reminds me that they may not even have their own thoughts fully understood.

When You Live With Your Mind in the Future, You Will Miss the Future When it is Here

I can remember a time as an undergraduate student at the University of Nevada when I was becoming a bit depressed and frustrated by the fact that the excitement and magic of life seem to be disappearing as the reality (and banality) of work and earning a pay-check set in. I was working at a restaurant to make money, taking classes that were just ok, and worrying constantly about what my future would look like. I wanted to have fun and exciting things to live for, but it was becoming clear to me that my life would likely be quite boring in many ways. I was recognizing and understanding that I would not be a Marvel superhero and every day would not be an action packed adventure in the most interesting places on the planet.

I was not living in the present moment and enjoying the positive pieces of my life. I was stuck in a future mindset, worrying about realities that did not exist and unable to experience the present moment. I was exactly what Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to avoid becoming in his book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. Hanh writes, “Don’t chase after your thoughts as a shadow follows its object. Don’t run after your thoughts. Find joy and peace in this very moment.”

We can spend all our time thinking about the future, ruminating on the past, and interrogating our present self in a way that worries about the thoughts that we have. Or, we can work to become more aware of the present moment, of the smallest details of our current activity, and of the experiences we have at this very moment. Living in a different time (by spending all our mental energy in the past or future – or even by thinking about how dreary our lives are compared to the perfect lives lived by our friends on Facebook) is what drains the magic and the wonder out of life. When we cannot see the fortune of the present moment, then nothing is of value to us and we cannot actually live.

Hanh also writes, “If you cannot find joy in peace in these very moments of sitting, then the future itself will only flow by as a river flows by you, you will not be able to hold it back, you will be incapable of living the future when it has become the present.” This was the state I found myself in during my undergraduate degree. I would look ahead and be excited about a new movie, a basketball game, or the weekend, but because I had not trained my mind to live in the present, that moment would fly by me and I would be worried about the drought of exciting events that would follow the event, and I would fail to enjoy the actual thing and the actual moment that I had looked forward to. Rather than bring me joy and meaning, the present moment was merely a shadow while the future loomed as a tidal wave of fear and depression. Turning inward and becoming more self-aware allowed me to begin seeing the present moment, and seeing the present moment restored the joy and value of small things, such as reading, writing, a short walk, a good exercise, or even just a conversation with a friend. These experiences are the only real things in life (at least as they happen) and the magic is in fully experiencing and living these moments.

Mindful Work

At work, I have often had times where I think past the duty or item in front of me to what I am going to do afterward and what other tasks I can complete or work on once the current task is over. I race through, counting the actions remaining until I have finished everything with the task in front of me. The problem is, I end up taking short-cuts, working quickly and making errors, and not taking the time to truly think through what I am doing. This prevents me from really learning from my work and opens me to distraction.

 

Our work habits are discussed by Thich Nhat Hanh in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. In his book, Hanh looks at the importance of maintaining awareness of our thoughts and the importance of being mindful of our attention and focus. The more we can be connected to the present moment and the more we can be mindful of our actions and environment, the more we can truly live. This helps us avoid the feeling that we are being pulled in a million directions and helps us avoid the feeling that we cannot make the changes we want to make or accomplish what we desire in our life. Mindfulness is a tool that helps us be intentional with how we live and helps us find a mental balance and stability that can drive a meaningful life.

 

One of the suggestions in the book is, “Enjoy and be one with your work. Without this, the day of mindfulness will be of no value at all. The feeling that any task is a nuisance will soon disappear if it is done in mindfulness.” I know that my work is an area where the stories I tell myself about who I am, what I am doing, and who I think I should be interfere with my ability to do great work. My work is also an area where distraction and a lack of focus has lead to diminished quality and lessened efficiency while I try to complete meaningful items.

 

Mindfulness alone probably won’t solve all of my problems at work, but when I read through Hanh’s quote above, I am reminded that when I focus solely on my work and live in the present, my distractions will be reduced and my desire to simply fly through my work  to get to the next task will also diminish. This should create a space for me to produce higher quality work and hopefully work more efficiently and effectively. Improving my focus and being mindful of my work will give me more pride in doing a great job, and that will help my work be more meaningful, even if I think there are better things I could be doing. With a background of great work and a mindful approach to my day, I will also have a stronger foundation to stand on when speaking with my manager about what has been going well for me, about what I could improve, and about the direction I think my work should take for me to be more impactful and to do more meaningful work. Without mindfulness, my work certainly won’t be the strongest version of work that I can produce, and I also won’t have the awareness to recognize how my work and duties could be improved to make me more impactful to the organization as a whole.

The Present Moment Is the Most Important Thing In Your Life

Throughout my life I have been very lucky to not suffer from severe anxiety or depression, but I have gone through bouts of despair and periods where I have felt unhappy and a bit anxious. One of things that has helped me during these times is focusing in on the present moment and trying to be fully aware of where I am at right now and what I am doing right now. Zeroing in on the present helps pull my mind out of the story it tells itself about who I am, what I am worth, how successful my past has been, and what I must do in the future to be a great person. In the present moment, the only thing that matters is what we are currently engaged in and what we are doing right now. Besides the immediate present moment, nothing else truly impacts our life.

 

In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, author Thich Nhat Hanh describes the importance of mindfulness and the value the present moment brings to us when we actually focus on it. Working on our focus and paying attention to the present moment, whatever we are doing, is a form of meditation. I have always thought of meditation as sitting still and quiet,  focusing on my breath or expanding my awareness of all things around me, but Hanh describes a way for us to meditate in any action by focusing on the present moment and being fully immersed with a singular focus on the task, job, or thing in front of us. He writes,

 

“When you are washing the dishes, washing the dishes must be the most important thing in your life. Just as when you’re drinking tea, drinking tea must be the most important thing in your life. … Each act must be carried out in mindfulness. Each act is a rite, a ceremony.”

 

When we focus on the present moment and what is in front of us right now, everything else begins to recede because our mind only has space for one thing. This practice can help reduce our fears, worries, and the stories and pressures we put on our selves. I do not suggest that everyone who suffers from depression or anxiety can fix their problems  by meditation and mindfulness, but in my life, becoming absorbed in the present moment, recognizing that what I am doing right now is all that I truly have and all that truly matters has helped me overcome these challenges. I try my best to recognize that what has happened in the past is gone, and cannot be changed by what I am doing now, so I should focus on my current activity and be entirely present and immersed with what I am doing. Likewise, I cannot control what will happen in the future, but I can know that by doing my best with what I have now, I can prepare myself for what is to come. The present moment takes away the stories we tell about what our actions mean, because we can always fully experience the present and engage with the present, no matter what has happened to us or what will happen to us in the future. This may not solve all problems with anxiety or depression, but techniques of mindfulness have helped me recover from my own low points.

Mindful In All Things

Thich Nhat Hanh’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness helped me think about the value of the present moment and the value of engaging in the present moment. Returning to his book to write about the sections I highlighted when I read it almost a year ago is bringing my attention back to the present moment and helping me reflect on why it is so important in our lives to ground ourselves in the here and now. I often find my mind wandering onto other things, often on things that I don’t want to think about or know that I should not think about, when I have the opportunity to do something productive. The result is that the actual thing that I am doing is lost in a haze as I move about on autopilot barely aware of my surroundings and sensations, and the time I had  that could have been productive is squandered as I accomplish next to nothing in a distracted fog.

 

Sometimes I try to think about my life if I had lost one of my senses. How would I live if I could not see or hear? What would I miss the most about losing one of those major senses? How would the world become less contextual and interesting? These types of questions help me understand why it is so valuable to live in the present and fully examine our surroundings using the senses we have. One day I know that my experiences and sensations of the world will cease, so I should take full advantage of the time I have to sense the world and live in the world.

 

Throughout his book, Hanh encourages the reader to bring mindfulness to each action, and to try our best to avoid thinking beyond or outside of the thing that we are doing in the moment. “You’ve got to practice meditation when you walk, stand, lie down, sit, and work, while washing your hands, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, drinking tea, talking to friends, or whatever you are doing.”  Each of these things are areas where we can be engaged with something while our mind is completely focused on something else, which I explained frequently happens to me. The banal activities that Hanh suggests we bring mindfulness to are activities where our senses can be alive, and they are areas where we can train our mind to concentrate, rather than allowing our minds to be distracted and to flutter about aimlessly. It is a time where we can truly use our senses and value our ability to experience the world.

 

Returning to this segment a year after reading the book reminds me that there are a lot of aspects of even tedious and boring activities that are rather fascinating. The feel of soap on a smooth metal pan, the textured feeling of plastic on the handle of a pot, and the warm feeling of water while washing dishes are things we would never notice if we watched tv, or thought about what we would rather be doing while washing dishes. But by being mindful, we can fully experience these different sensations and recognize that it is incredible just how sensitive our hands and brains are. Being present helps us appreciate the tiniest details of the moment, because it reminds us that we are alive and we are actors in the world who have the unique privilege of being the only one experiencing our particular sensations at any given moment. What mindfulness in every moment does for me is remind me to be grateful for my life and reminds me to soak up the world around me. Living with our mind in the past or with our mind on future possibilities robs us of actually experiencing  the present moment. Our mind is oblivious to the multitude of sensations that we could focus on if we brought mindfulness to the present moment.

Our Breath During Meditation

Any time I have worked on meditation, I have felt incredibly connected with the world. I have only ever done focus meditation, zeroing in on my breath and trying to keep my mind solely on the experience of air moving into and out of my body. Something about this focus on the air we breath has a natural feel that takes me away from the city in which I live (Reno, Nevada – its not too big and urbanized so imagining that I am in nature is not too hard to do) and helps me feel more natural.

 

This connection to nature seems apparent in how other people talk about meditation as well. Thich Nhat Hanh describes the way we should breath during meditation in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness by writing “Your breath should be light, even, and flowing, like a thin stream of water running through the sand.” The connection to nature always feels calming for me. When I think about relaxation I often picture a vast water front, perhaps a beach along an ocean or a beautiful lake. When I think about calmness and pacificity, I often imagine solitary expanses of nature, open fields where I have gone running either in the mountains or in open valleys where I am not surrounded by other people and the hustle of every day life. Hanh equates our breath to a vision of calm nature, reinforcing the idea that meditation is something that should take away the complex, the urban, and the stressful in our lives and bring us to a simpler state of being that is more defined by the forces of nature that are non-human and beyond our control.

 

My descriptions above are my own experiences of meditation and how I have experienced the benefits of meditation. I don’t suspect that my experiences are universal or would be the best fit for everyone, but the connection to nature is something I have often seen in the way people speak about meditation. Focusing on our breath and remembering to keep our breath smooth and stable has physiological impacts on our body, relieving tension possibly reducing our blood pressure, and if we are taking full deep breaths hopefully helping improve the oxygen levels in our body. In a sense, this mastery of our breath is just an observation of a natural process that humans go through, and I think that is why metaphors and connections with idillic nature scenes are so strong.