A few years ago I started consciously watching the first thing that came to mind as I awoke each morning.
More often than not what would appear during those first few hazy moments was “The List”. The curtains I must remember to fix, the email that hasn't been sent, the magazine my neighbour asked me to lend him, the bill I have yet to pay, the programme for next semester. Sometimes, it was “The List” that would wake me. And I discovered that, if I was not careful, it would be “the List” that would propel me from the bed and not the smooth conscious act of creativity I most desired.
I live in the city of São Paulo, Brazil, where I give courses, workshops and consultancy on Mindfulness. Teaching others the value of the present moment has made me more curious about the nooks and crannies of my own mind. For the last few years I have been particularly curious to see whether the first state of mind of the day effects my stress levels during the rest of it.
This is a big and busy city. There are 19 million of us huddled together and our claim to fame is that our solution to the traffic problem is having the biggest helicopter fleet in the world. São Paulo is the only place I know where people, after learning their first meditation, frequently report back that they were delighted to find that they could focus on their breathing AND multitask at the same time.
As I became more curious about my mind I began to notice that “The List” would even pop up when I stopped and sat to meditate. I would close my eyes and there it would be: “Hey! There are a thousand more important things to be doing than sitting on yer backside!”. In fact, at that time I reckoned that if I were to be hit by a bus then the last thing that would probably not flash through my mind would be my life or my loved ones. Yes, it probably would have been that damn magazine I still hadn't found. Or something similar.
So I did a little research. It looks as if the root cause of the “The List” was recognised long ago. Buddhists found what they called the “Calculating Mind”. They considered it a universal tendency and associated it with the image of a frivolous chimp in a mango tree. He hops from fruit to fruit, munching away, without ever fully finishing any of them – which sounds like one of my bad days. This Calculating Mind is a deep-set disquiet. It is a kind of jittery hankering that lingers unnoticed backstage while we act it all out on the surface. According to the Eastern traditions, those of us who allow this kind of agitation become automatic are like a man who digs the ground looking for the sky.
The practice of Mindfulness approaches all of this in a unique way. A conscious shift is made towards learning what it means to live, from the inside out, instead of being a hostage to a constant background anxiety and disquiet. Daily Mindfulness increases the possibility of looking back at the end of our lives and appreciating that we were actually here for it as it unfolded in all its manifold forms.
The practice teaches us to open up to anxiety as opposed to avoiding it. It appears that, far from being an enemy of the state, anxiety simply needs our attention. We can't turn it off – much as we would like. It seems that minds don't work that way. Carl Jung knew this when he proclaimed: “That which we resist, persists”. The vitality trapped within anxiety could potentially be used to drive our personal evolution. However, it will probably remain trapped until we learn to face “The List” mindfully and tap into its reserves.
Mindfulness invites us, moment by moment, day after day, to come into a new relationship with our anxiety at its most tangible point – the body. You can't get more real than that. If you happen to have a tendency to be very intellectual or to live in a virtual world, the anxiety held in the body is a very good place to start. In my own efforts to live wholeheartedly, “The List” and its underlying unease have become my close companions.
I have found that there are plenty of opportunities to make this conscious shift – at the moment you open your eyes, during the ups and downs of the day, and before turning the lights out. What if, instead of allowing yourself to be swept away by a tsunami of thoughts about current urgencies, you just intentionally stop and put your attention into the silence of your body to feel what is actually happening there for a few moments? This way, you too can do a little research and see if, afterwards, there is an improvement in the way you go about your day.
So, let's get back to our initial state of mind first thing in the morning. If the first thing your mind does tends to be ruminating over a number of seemingly urgent tasks powered by a real (but largely unnoticed) physical disquiet, what if you decided instead to kick-off your day with a “non-doing” task?
Take a few moments to feel your very existence – whether pleasant or unpleasant – just as it is. Do this before getting out of the sack. Feel the weight of your body – the sensations that the sheets create on the skin, or the light in the room through closed eyelids. Give yourself a few minutes each day to really wake up. Can the mental queue of reminders and post-its just wait a little? If they can, then maybe you can bring even more of yourself to them afterwards by being mindful first. And more than that. Maybe you'll discover, once again, that your very own life is not in fact “The List”.