To be fully engaged in an activity means to be present in this moment and in what you are doing right now. It also means to be completely content in that experience. There is no anxiousness about or sense of longing for the future, and there is no regret about the past. In our culture, living in this manner has become very foreign to us. Having an overactive mind, a mind that strongly resists being absorbed in this moment, a mind that can sometimes feel out of control, feels normal to us. Because of this we need to train ourselves to be aware of the thoughts our mind is producing at any moment, and we also need to learn what it feels like to experience a quieter mind. “How do I accomplish this?” is usually the first question asked of me in interviews. We are surrounded by so many distractions, so many temptations, all pulling us away from where we are and what we are doing. Some cultures are much more grounded in the here and now. However, as the pace of life has increased for us globally, and as much of the world has become more westernized, that perspective has dissolved in many cases and surrendered to a mind-set that is always reaching, always connected to a point in time other than the present. As for myself, I didn’t need to be taught that mind-set; I was predisposed to having a butterfly brain when I was growing up. My mind was always generating thoughts, flitting around and changing directions, with me running after it.
As a child I had a vivid imagination and was very creative. Though that could be considered an asset, it can also have a distinct downside. When left unbridled, such a mind is very unfocused. It is always running off in different directions, exploring new adventures. Growing up, I could imagine anything, and anything I imagined I wanted to try. My mind was always in fifth gear, and a mind that operates like this is easily distracted and also very tiring, if its energy is not harnessed. This was the reason that I became so intense about each new endeavor and fairly quickly would burn up my initial enthusiasm to accomplish the new goal. At the same time that this mental fast-burn was going on, my mind would be offering up more ideas to explore, and those options would very quickly begin tugging at my attention. As a result, a silent competition would begin. I would expend enormous amounts of energy but complete very few goals.
In the end I would learn a little about many things, but I would feel like a failure. I might not have noticed this cycle at all, except that there was always this silent observer in me watching my behavior, listening to the promises I made to myself, watching me become distracted, hearing me make up excuses and repeat the same cycle over and over again. It was as if I were watching someone else. The “I,” or at least who I thought “I” was, would feel disappointed and annoyed with me. The part of me I identified myself with had no self-confidence and felt like a failure. The observer, however, loved the part of me that it saw as possessing incredible amounts of creativity, a voracious appetite to learn new things, and an untapped potential to achieve any goal I could imagine, if I could only harness and focus my physical and mental energy.
My awareness of this observer who was separate from what I’ll call the little me was what gradually propelled me out of this self-defeating cycle. It provided me with a sense that I could change how I was, how I processed life — if I could only figure out how. As time passed and my perspective became more biased toward the observer, I began to notice that my ability to achieve my goals, and perhaps more important, my experience both emotionally and mentally in each moment of achieving them, drastically changed from one of impatience and frustration into a relaxed peaceful sense of personal power. Ironically, my pursuit of the answer to that question may have been the first goal that I really completed. In reality, even when I thought I was a failure I was only in the process of learning what worked and what didn’t. I was developing a practicing mind way before I chose to call it that, and self-awareness or “thought awareness training” is what made it all possible.
The key to becoming immersed in what I call “Present Moment Functioning,” or PMF, is growing your connection to the observer within you, and you do this by what I’m calling “thought awareness training.” You must learn to operate from the perspective that you are not your thoughts; you are the one who experiences your thoughts. Some thoughts you create intentionally, but most of us most of the time are the victims of the thoughts our mind creates without our permission. Without thought awareness you can’t accomplish any real personal growth, and you have no authentic power. People often ask me, “How do I become more patient?” The first thing you have to do is become aware of when you are being impatient. That may sound obvious, but the fact is that most of the time when we are feeling impatient we are immersed in our impatience, not separate from it. When you experience an impatient thought as something separate that you can choose not to participate in instead of as something you are the puppet of, you have achieved the power of a conscious choice maker.
Here is a simple exercise that can open up a whole new world for you. I have used it many times with both large groups and individuals. Set a timer for two minutes. Sit comfortably in a chair, close your eyes, and stop thinking. After the timer goes off, open your eyes and take note of your experience.
When I ask people about their experience doing this, the answer is always the same. They couldn’t quiet their mind. Random thoughts just kept popping up out of nowhere. For many people this is an “aha” moment because it has never occurred to them that their mind would think without their permission, even if they were applying their will, telling it to stop. They also begin to realize that how they are feeling in any moment of the day has quite a lot to do with what their mind is thinking. Thought is the vehicle for stress, happiness, sadness, anger, and everything else we perceive as an experience. All these emotional experiences begin with a thought. We have a thought, and then our body reacts to our interpretation of that thought. In fact, I have often asked people at lectures I give, “If you didn’t think, could you feel stress?” That’s one for you to ponder. When we develop thought awareness, we give ourselves the gift of freedom of choice, of being a conscious choice maker. Virtually everything discussed in this book requires that you develop a strong connection to the observer within you, that you grow in your awareness of what your mind is doing behind the scenes all day long. •
Thomas M. Sterner is the author of Fully Engaged and The Practicing Mind. He is accomplished as a musician, composer, and technician in various fields of music; as a recording and audio engineer; and in athletic pursuits from archery to golf. He speaks around the world on developing focus and discipline and lives in Wilmington, Delaware. Visit him online at www.TomSterner.com.
Excerpted from the book Fully Engaged: Using the Practicing Mind in Daily Life. Copyright ©2016 by Thomas M. Sterner.