Our brains have an annoying way of tuning out normalcy. Regardless of whether the stimulus is a sound, sight, taste or thought the brain’s attentional system eventually tires of it and turns it into a mumbling din. This neurologic strategy makes sense given that humans evolved in a climate of predators and uncertainty. We needed to be primed to give priority to new information about our changing circumstances. When it comes to maintaining mindfulness, however, this mechanism can work against us.
Contrary to the impression of many spiritual-seeking Americans, mindfulness does not bring us to a hyper-alert bliss state akin to an acid trip without the side-effects. The act of practicing mindfulness is to thoroughly experience what is already present. The core of the practice is learning to attend to the mundane. No wonder we go off on so many thought tangents during meditation.
One popular piece of advice for bringing our minds back to the present is self-verbalizing “thinking”, after which we refocus our attention to the breath (or whatever else we have chosen to attend to). This is a gentle, nondualistic way of breaking the momentum of our extraneous story lines.
I am a superhero, flying over the city. I have just vanquished another bank robber! Ah ha! I rock!
In meditation I have to think “thinking” a lot. So often that my brain has gotten really good at continuing to think right through it. “Thinking” has clearly become too boring a cue. I was struggling with this one day when out of the blue I thought “fizzy!” instead. Don’t know where it came from. Just popped out. Fizzy! Stopped my brain dead in its tracks.
Well smack me ten times with the zen stick y’all. What the heck? But the circulating thoughts were gone and I was easily back to finding the spaces between the breath – one of my favorite points of focus.
I’m certain my mind will never respond as thoroughly and strongly to “fizzy” after that first encounter. My neurologic system has already got its number. Oh…You’re just “thinking” in disguise…It was a profound reminder though of the power of the unexpected to bring us back to the now.