My dog, Miel (yes, like the French word for honey. It’s a Golden Retriever, get the link?), loves to walk. He also likes playing a lot, but as soon as I put on my shoes or get near the garden gate, he starts to freak out, thinking it’s that time again. Since I have no idea what is going on in is head, I said “thinking”, because we humans associate animals with our own behavior - because that’s what we’re familiar with. Have you ever walked a dog? Have you noticed the dog’s “state of mind”? How would you notice such a thing? Pay attention to what your dog is doing and you’ll know what I mean.
Miel is not thinking. He’s walking. Sniffing. He’s present in that very moment.
On the other hand, I’m pondering something that happened to me today. I might be distracted. After a few blocks, I might think “oh wow, now where was I”. I might have missed the waving neighbor, the sunny weather or the absence of noisy cars. I am not present in that very moment at all - I’m either in the past (“why did that person say this to me”) or in the future (“I need to do this and that and that after I get back”). Why is it so hard to be in the present, if Miel can do this so easily?
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It seems that I’m not the only one with that problem. After taking an eight week long mindfulness course, it seems that I’m still practicing mind-fullness instead of mindfulness. We humans are blessed and cursed with a thinking brain but luckily Buddhists have proven that it can be temporary shut down. There’s only one way to achieve this state of mind: practice. I love reading about this subject and recently finished the extremely popular “zen mind, beginners mind” by Shunryu Suzuki. It’s a very practical book that explains the basics of Zen-Buddhism. One major recurring subject is practicing versus studying the philosophy behind Zen. The more you read and know things about Zen, the more poisoned your mind is. So start doing and stop reading.
Miel isn’t the only “person” (whoops) that loves his daily walk. Ever since we got the dog, I too started to enjoy breaking out of my comfortable living room, doing the usual nothing. Dog walking gives me an excuse to get up and walk, and to try to be in the moment, to try to notice the weather, to smell the air, to feel the raindrops and to simply walk. Failing implies getting up and doing it again. When I catch myself thinking about something or worrying, I friendly but firmly redirect myself to the present: walking. Most of the times, Miel does this for me with a pull of the leach. In that sense, it could be a bit like meditating. That’s one of the reasons I like drawing so much: I can’t do anything else but to study the subject, and start laying done line per line. Study it more closely, start seeing details within details as Tommy Kane would say. I usually need a few minutes to get myself into that (drawing-) mode and that’s one of the reasons I am having difficulties drawing in urban regions where a lot of people distract me.
In one of the lessons in the mindfulness course, we had to do a walking meditation. That implied focusing on the contact of the earth and your foot, feeling where you land each foot and concentrating on walking alone. I like to do this when I’m biking. You start to notice how your knee joints work, and where that heavy pushing on the petals is going when you cross a steep bridge. This sounds like it’s easy but it’s not: I’d say those moments are rare for me. I usually catch myself thinking stuff about my work when I’m biking to and from work a few minutes after attempting to concentrate on biking alone. But that’s alright: I’m learning from my dog.
I’m grateful for my dog reminding me I need to “take a walk”, to “clear my head”. So why don’t you clear your head when you’re walking but fill it even more?
- Does it make you feel better?
- Are the problems resolved when pondering them at that time?
- Can’t you focus on your dog instead of your “stuff”? He’d appreciate it.
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The thinking most certainly still needs to be done but you’ll make it yourself a lot easier if you think when you need to think and walk when you need to walk. It’s called single tasking and we should all do it more often. The myth of multitasking that gets more work done is a very short sighted view on economical capitalism. Context switching costs precious time - even up to 20 minutes to get back into what you were doing. That is one of the main reasons you should not check your mail every hour but once in the morning and once in the evening. I’m starting to resent people who cling to their iPhones, instead of focus sing on the person in front of them. It’s all part of the same problem.
If you’re having trouble, remember this: if your dog is playing, it’s playing, not playing and managing his backlog. If your dog is eating, it’s eating, not playing with his ball next to his supper. So keep that cellphone off the dinner table and try to mimic his behavior.
I know this sounds easy, but it takes a lifetime to fully master. I still wake up most days with too much scrambled thoughts about what happened yesterday and what will happen today, having difficulties letting go of them. It’s so easy to get lost within your own thoughts and it does have it’s purpose to do a “thought walk” and mix and mash ideas to get to another one. But it’s also vital that you have a working STOP button.
I have to stop typing and think about that for a moment now.
What was I saying?
The common problem of noise in your head has not been solved just yet. In fact, it has only gotten worse. A lot worse. The garbage thinking problem spread like a disease, clinging onto everything in it’s way inside me. It has reached my ears and my mind. I’d like to make a distinction between “head” and “mind” as “head” might be a temporary problem, getting something to stick in your “mind” sounds a lot more definitive to me. Allow me to elaborate.
Pollution in my ears
Are you also fed up with this noise generating world? The louder the better. You’re only cool if you are able to stand the music beating your ears in your plugs at level 15 or higher. It’s awesome to drill a hole in an exhaust pipe so your motor doesn’t get unheard. Yelling usually provides you with the direct attention you need, whether at the checkout or in a meeting. Does this sound familiar to you? I’m not even talking about people who are highly sensitive or introverts vs extroverts, but in general. Just, in general, at every single level. Getting to work makes my body take more decibels than it used to thanks to the increased traffic full of ignorant people who like to listen to the (loud) radio and have the comfort of a leather chair instead of a bike. The absurd concept of open work spaces makes my day at work barely productive. A beginning headache by 3h PM is normal. Shopping for groceries in a mall or supermarket doesn’t make my day any better as the non stop stream of commercials rolls out of speakers and mounted televisions. The end of an exhausting day marks watching television because my wife thinks that’s the best way to relax. Don’t forget to crank up that volume, otherwise you won’t be able to follow that quiz.
At last, in bed. I greet the ever present buzz inside my mind and sigh.
Something has to be done. And so I did:
- When I’m driving, the radio is always off. I love that bubble of silence.
- Take your foot off the clutch if you have an engine that stops automatically at a red light. Ahhhh.
- Get rid of everything that ticks and whirrs in your living room.
- Bike around traffic even if that means a couple of minutes extra commute.
- Try to use headphones that block out noise of others at work.
- Turn off the TV.
- Turn the TV back on after your wife gets angry.
- Read somewhere else where there’s no TV on.
- Go back to the room with the TV because your wife is lonely.
The above has only seen partial success. Traffic is everywhere, you can’t bike around it that easily. Thanks to the nature of my job, as a software engineer working inside teams, I’m constantly disturbed - headphones or not. However, we introduced a “silent period” of 1.5hrs twice a week in an attempt to reduce the general noise overhead. That does mean we need the cooperation of our colleagues…
Pollution in my mind
Getting obsessed with something can prove to be dangerous too. Let’s call it “unhealthy”. When I get excited about something, like fountain pens or more recently my reintroduction into Magic: the Gathering, I can get a bit too obsessed with it. Searching for the perfect pen, watching videos, looking around for the better shop, reading about what others think and say. Looking at what cards are played at tournaments, thinking about strategies, trying out different combinations inside my head. That sounds innocent, but can cause me to put all other things to hold. Suddenly, I lose interest in other things I was a lot more interested in, in the first place. Biking from and to work happens pseudo-automatically, pondering the right combination of killer combo cards to put into my deck. Oh, did I pass this street already? How time flies.
My mind saves all ongoing progress of different stuff and loads up one single program: Magic.
That’ll mean I’ll probably dream about it and talk about it until everyone thinks I’m obsessed (at that point, I might very much well be). Until something else comes along, Magic probably will get stored as ongoing progress and something else (completely) occupies my mind.
Sounds like mind-full-ness or mind-fool-ness to me. Every time I catch myself thinking “I should meditate more and try to clear my head”, I end up surfing to some Magic-related website again. The cards or the game aren’t the problem, but my occupation with those temporary things is. And I’m convinced the only solution will be to slow down and take a deep breath. The more I’m upset with something like the repetitiveness of my work, the more I delve into that ever ready stream of happy Magic-thoughts. Yay!
Less thinking, more being.
Pollution in general
Think about the amount of images that burn in our retinas daily, the amount of unneeded refresh rates it has to take for your eyes to read a stupid Facebook page of a distant friend you’re not even remotely interested in in the first place. The amount of things you have to do each day because they’re part of a weird ritual made up by your local government or employer. The amount of noise you have to dig through in order to reach the data that is actually relevant to you in order to get your job done. The ridiculous amount of mails you send and receive each day because you think you have to or otherwise others won’t find you that productive. The amount of times you have to say “I know what you mean” and “really? How cool!” to someone, when, in fact, that person is very irritating and you just want to go home. The amount of hours you spend watching a television show that could be spent walking your dog, drawing or reading instead.
The amount of hours you waste sitting in a chair thinking you could do something else right now. I might have a feeling of melancholy typing this, and you know that I might overreact, or not based on your situation, but you also know that time is better spent if you’re in that very moment you’re spending it. Maybe
Like bicycling instead of thinking about games. Or just trying to sincerely help others instead of complaining about noise and receiving positive feedback on your way out. Or actively engaging into a conversation when you’re committing yourself to it instead of thinking about games. Or honestly saying that you’re not interested and simply going home. That’ll do.
I’m still (not) working on a solution to this problem.
I’ll probably figure it out just before I die.