Even in the most beautiful of places our minds wander. Last weekend when hiking in the Colorado mountains my psyche ruminated. Focus was on anything but the body’s movement up the hill and the stunning setting: the lovely rustle of the wind in the trees, the leaves waving with each gust, the smell of the damp soil in the hillside woods. Similar to exploring a new destination, we had set a clear intention: to spend our day hiking. Sadly, however, thoughts swirled. Sound familiar?
According to a Harvard researcher, Matt Killingsworth, we spend 47% of our time thinking about something other than what we’re doing, aka, mind wandering. Mind wandering includes ruminating about the past or future, acting from habits and assumptions and feeling distracted and or judgmental. Although there are times when we need to relax and let our minds freely stroll, Killingsworth found that mind wandering in the long term is a cause of unhappiness.*
Consider the hike. My mind was on “autopilot”*, ignoring the surroundings and intention for the day! Luckily we hadn’t gone far before I realized my attention was elsewhere. Noticing the busy thoughts was the first step in being able to shift my awareness. I set my timer for twenty minutes of very thoughtful walking. My breath and senses became an anchor for experiencing the natural mountain environment. Finally I arrived!
Although the intensity of the distraction shocked me, there was little reason to feel bad. Actually to have even noticed was cause for celebration. With gentle kindness I re-set and became more settled in my being. Aspen trees, rays of bright white bark, surrounded us. A gentle path guided us through the groves. Deliberately we inhaled and exhaled the fresh cool air while stepping gingerly around tree roots. What was most important right then? Enjoying the beautiful place together.
Being present means being mindful. Being present is “paying attention to what’s happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment with an attitude of curiosity and kindness.” (-Mindful Nation UK Report) It’s an awareness that “stays open to whatever arises in the mind rather than to one thing only- to the exclusion of all else…the ability to maintain this mindfulness, an alert by not active stance”**
Admittedly it’s very hard to stay focused on the present. Even when we travel and arrive after months of planning, anticipation and actual hours of transport, we often find ourselves talking about where we’ll go next. We feel so inspired. But what about where we are right then?
Bring attention back, bring attention back! Kindly and thoughtfully coax your mind to the present. As Eckhard Tolle says, “We are not our minds”***.
Notice feelings. Acknowledge them. Don’t become them.
Allow your body to inform you. The hike was surprisingly strenuous. We took time to rest, enjoy the view, drink water and snack on a bite of sandwich. Normally our drive to reach the the top usurps all other goals. This time we stayed present with our physical selves, too.
With practice and gentleness it’s possible to shift from “autopilot to aware”.**** As we do, we’ll become more familiar with ourselves, others and our surroundings, live richer and happier lives. Living as a traveler wherever we are, at home or abroad, means staying present, examining the stunning details of life right before us. Reveling “in the now” with self awareness and self management, we arrive!
** pg 37,Altered Traits: Science reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Bodyby Daniel Coleman and Richard J. Davidson; Penguin Random House, 2017.
*** You are Not Your Mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGOUGeTUg-E
**** “From “Auto-pilot to Aware”; Search Inside Yourself Two Day Program explaining mindfulness.