Practice makes perfect

November 5, 2009
What is most essential to Buddhism is based on clarifying the mind. If you want your mind to be clear, it is important to put opinions to rest. If opinions are not stopped, then wrong and right are confused; if the mind is not clear, reality and illusion are mixed up. – Hsueh-yen

“Pay attention.” “Be mindful.” “Stay present.” This is standard advice in ancient sacred texts and now in self-help literature. If it is so ubiquitous and so necessary, why is it also so darn hard to do? I want to stay in the moment, really I do, but off I go again.

To answer why I can’t behave, I like to first check latest brain research. As you have read in past posts, our natural brain reactions are what make it difficult to: be calm when another is yelling, listen when we are terrified or stick around when there is conflict. Our brains often take our best laid plans (stay calm, listen, stick around) and send them packing!

It also turns out that it is our brain’s natural story making propensity that keeps us from enjoying the moment. University of Toronto neuroscience researcher Norman Farb in 2007 mindfulness study described our default mental state, which he calls a “network,” as one that loves create narratives. In a Psychology Today article, author Doug Rock explains Farb’s definition as:

“This network is called default because it becomes active when not much else is happening, and you think about yourself. If you are sitting on the edge of a jetty in summer, a nice breeze blowing in your hair and a cold beer in your hand, instead of taking in the beautiful day you might find yourself thinking about what to cook for dinner tonight, and whether you will make a mess of the meal to the amusement of your partner. This is your default network in action. It’s the network involved in planning, daydreaming and ruminating… When you experience the world using this narrative network, you take in information from the outside world, process it through a filter of what everything means, and add your interpretations. Sitting on the dock with your narrative circuit active, a cool breeze isn’t a cool breeze, it’s a sign than summer will be over soon, which starts you thinking about where to go skiing, and whether your ski suit needs a dry clean.”

Sound familiar? That’s how my brain works. Wouldn’t be a problem, but I often feel like I miss my life when the narrative mind kicks in. Gorgeous sunset? Oh yeah, missed that because I was thinking about an upcoming presentation. A wry smile delivered by a friend? Shoot, didn’t fully appreciate that either…and the list continues. Life’s beauty passes me by while I am making “to do” lists.

In my last post, I wrote about when I go “mother bear” how it helps to notice what story I am telling myself. After posting, a friend poked me with the comment, “Do you really want to abandon the narrative?” “Abandon?” Well, he probably should have asked, “Could you really give up your stories?” I’ve got great story creation capability. Pick the circumstances and my mind runs worst-case scenarios, develops possible next steps and wonders what I should eat for lunch.

My Buddhist buddies recommend “practicing mindfulness” to quiet the mind. After the “lose the narrative” question and reading the above referenced article by Doug Rock this week, I decided to study on what is mindfulness and what “practicing it” means.

Mindfulness from a Buddhist perspective is basically the idea of paying attention to everything without making up a story. Instead of interpreting what you see, just notice what you can about the present moment. Notice — your breath, what our hands are doing, stomach is saying, your words and how we are feeling. We are also advised to track what thoughts are appearing and regard these as simply, “thinking.”

So, try to pay attention without creating any stories or interpretations for five minutes.

If you are anything like me, you’ll notice how it is ridiculously difficult! While sitting at a stoplight today I attempted a bold act of mindfulness. Looking down the road I noticed a set of thirty new recently installed streetlights. I started by saying, “Just noticing the new streetlights…” Instantly, my mind wanted to add that there were too many lights; how this would add to light pollution and how do they decide the spacing between each anyway? Amazing, given I was trying to be mindful! How knows where I’d have gone if I wasn’t attempting to stay present.

Practicing mindfulness

Yet, according to Dr. Farb’s study, we can practice becoming more present and that this practice pays off. Daily meditation practice allows us to engage an experiential focus and pay attention. In this mind state we drop the narrative and enjoy what is in front of us without filters. Sitting quietly, back straight and focusing on your breath, your entire job is to stay present. Since there are less stimuli than at the stoplight, you are more able to pull off the experiential focus. Noticing everything in the silence of meditating is like hitting against the backboard to get ready to eventually play a tennis match. Meditation allows us to notice, for how many breaths can we pay attention? With the baby steps of meditation, our brain becomes trained to more easily shift from narrative to experiential.

Nothing new here, but it helps to understand why it is a struggle to stay present and that practice can make perfect…sense.

Deidre Combs

Deidre Combs is the author of three books on cross-cultural approaches to resolving conflict and overcoming challenges:  The Way of ConflictWorst Enemy, Best Teacher  and Thriving Through Tough Times. The books integrate perennial wisdom from the world’s lasting cultural traditions with systems theory and brain research.

Dr. Combs is a management consultant, executive coach, mediator and core instructor in Montana State University’s Leadership Fellows Certificate Program and Columbia University’s Teacher’s College Global Competence Certificate Program. Since 2007, she has also taught intensive leadership training to State Department-selected students, teachers and professional leaders from throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eurasia, Latin America and Pakistan’s FATA region.

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