To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.
— Oscar Wilde
The mind doesn’t only dream when we’re asleep. It dreams when we’re awake too.
For the duration of the walk, I was completely caught up in the content of my mind. I was thinking about various things and lost in a never-ending stream of mind chatter. The moment I got back to the house I realised that I’d been on autopilot the entire walk.
I hadn’t been walking the dogs — I’d been sleepwalking the dogs!
I was barely aware of my surroundings. If you’d asked me to describe anything in any detail, I’d have struggled. I could hardly remember anything of the walk. My thoughts had so completely consumed my attention, it was as though someone else was piloting my body.
I’m willing to bet you’ve experienced similar occasions.
This is considered normal for most people. But I’m struck by how incredibly abnormal it is!
Our usual state of consciousness is actually a kind of unconsciousness. It’s a state in which we’re awake but not completely lucid. We’re asleep at the wheel.
Oh, we’re there and we do things. We have lives. We have jobs and cars and families. We watch television. We go on holidays. But how often are we acting out of habit, conditioned reaction and reflex response?
It’s a bit like when you and get out of bed in the morning. Are you actually thinking about what you’re doing as you get up, get dressed and brush your teeth? Or is the doing just kind of happening by itself?
How much do you consciously participate in life and how much is just conditioned response?
It’s as though our minds operate from pre-programmed software. We have a tendency to live in a continuous, self-perpetuating loop.
Every so often unexpected events (usually of the traumatic kind) jolt us awake. They make us sit up and take stock. They shock us out of our pre-encoded reactivity and force us to become a little more conscious.
But it rarely takes long for us to fall back ‘asleep’ again as we again succumb to the spell of the conditioned mind.
We go back into autopilot.
Lost in Thought
There is a reason for this.
The brain receives far more sensory input than it can ever process.
In any given second, you’re bombarded by stimulus: sounds, sight, countless different shapes, colours, textures, as well as motion, kinetic factors, touch, taste and smell.
The mind acts as a floodgate, preventing sensory overwhelm.
As a result, it filters our experience of life.
You’re only ever aware of a tiny fraction of what’s happening around you. You’re not seeing life as it is. You’re seeing your brain’s filtered and conditioned reconstruction of reality.
Since you don’t have to consciously manage all the billions of bits of sensory data relayed to the brain in any moment, your energy gets channelled elsewhere.
Have you ever noticed there’s a voice in your mind continually chattering away?
It’s forever analysing, judging and comparing.
When you have a problem it’ll constantly ruminate on that problem. “This is terrible. What’s going to happen? What are people going to think when they find out? This is going to be a disaster…”
The inner voice is no stranger to catastrophising and melodrama.
Or it can be more benign, making random comments, such as “oh, that’s a nice hat she’s wearing. I wonder where she got it. I’d like one like that.”
If you analysed the content of your inner monologue, you’ll find thought tends to fall into three categories:
Self, self in relation to others, and self in relation to past and future.
Notice a common theme?
This inner monologue is our Self-Referential Internal Narrative (SRIN).
Neuroscientists have found the brain network responsible for SRIN. It’s called the default mode network (DMN) or the default network.
It’s called the ‘default’ network because it’s the predominant state of the human mind. Almost all our waking life we’re accompanied by this inner self-talk.
So it’s considered ‘normal’ for us to be lost in meandering thought.
Unless that is, we engage in tasks requiring focused attention.
When we need extra mental bandwidth for performing tasks, the brain switches into the ‘task positive network’. Energy gets diverted from our mental chatter to the activity at hand.
Prisoners of our own mind
Thinking is good, but there’s a huge difference between what I call ‘quality thinking’ and the compulsive mental chatter of the DMN.
The DMN does have an important function. It helps us process our experience and it aids with memory and social interaction. It’s designed to help us analyse and learn from our experience.
But in most human beings — perhaps due to the increasing complexity and stress of modern living — the DMN is overactive.
Being lost in a useless inner monologue is for most of us a deeply-ingrained affliction.
We become prisoners of our own minds.
We lose touch with ourselves and our environment. Why? Because a significant portion of our energy is being channelled into that stream of mental noise blasting through our mind like a radio someone forgot to turn off.
A lot of people aren’t even aware of this mental noise.
It’s such an intrinsic part of their experience that they don’t even notice it.
It never occurs to them to question why there’s a voice chattering away inside their head and whether what it’s saying is worth listening to.
The source of suffering
Almost the moment we wake up in the morning, the omnipresent voice of the DMN kicks in.
Like a DVD voiceover commentary, it interprets everything we see. It ruminates on this and that, recalling past events and projecting into the future. Pretty much everything we experience gets filtered by this mental commentator.
The problem is this mental commentary is often blinkered and dysfunctional.
It has a tendency to think the worst and turn otherwise neutral events into dire catastrophes.
It’s driven by fear and lack. It tends to alternate between inadequacy and superiority. It fuels our sense of separateness and incompleteness and is the source of pretty much all our problems.
Indeed, studies have shown that an overactive DMN is linked with anxiety, depression and all kinds of neuroses.
We think our way into suffering.
Consider this. If you lost the ability to think about them, a lot of your problems would simply cease to exist.
Without the ability to recreate the past and project into the future, most problems vanish into thin air because they’re largely conceptual.
This isn’t to say you won’t experience difficult situations or circumstances. But you deal with them as they arise. Then you let them go. There’s no need to turn them into ‘problems’ by continuously thinking about them.
A false identity
The real problem is our tendency to identify with our thoughts.
We not only unquestioningly accept whatever the voice in our mind is telling us, but we think this mental commentary comprises who we are.
To create an identity out of the conditioned mind is to create a false self; a pseudo-entity.
This is what many spiritual teachings refer when they talk about the ‘ego’.
It’s a false self because it has no solidity or permanency. You can’t locate or find it anywhere. It only exists as an arbitrary, ever-changing stream of thoughts.
It’s also an object observable to us. That which is observable to us cannot be us, for we are that which observes.
This could be the biggest and most problematic delusion in the history of the human race.
In a manner of speaking, we trade our souls, our Self — our true vastness of being — for a stream of witless mental chatter.
This inner voice masquerades as a ‘self’ but has no inherent solidity or independent existence of its own. It’s only mental static caused by a restless, untamed and, therefore, often dysfunctional mind.
We tend to assume this inner commentator knows what it’s talking (well, thinking) about. How many people have the wisdom to question their thoughts rather than unquestioningly believe them?
Our minds are limited.
We only ever have access to finite knowledge.
We can only ever see a small piece of the overall picture. We are subject to a huge number of cognitive biases, not least our preexisting beliefs, prejudices and assumptions.
Indeed, confirmation bias is one of the greatest obstacles to knowledge. The mind often doesn’t want to know what the truth is. It is, quite frankly, lazy. It wants to confirm its existing viewpoints. It wants to be right.
It’s this lack of an expanded viewpoint on life which makes it necessary to question the content of our minds. Contrary to popular assumption, our thinking isn’t infallible. It’s actually one of the most fallible things in the world.
The inner commentator is neither creative or dynamic. It’s generated by past conditioning and experiences. (Or, more specifically, our interpretation of those experiences).
If you actually take some time to observe the mindstream, you might be surprised at how low quality the thinking is. It tends to go round in circles, over and over the same things again. It rarely finds solutions.
The mind has a narrow and distorted outlook. It tends to eat itself up.
When invested with a sense of ‘self’ — when it becomes YOU — its number one priority is to sustain itself in what it sees as a hostile and threatening universe.
Being limited and distorted, it creates division and separation. It creates stress and suffering. It sees everything and everyone as a potential threat to its continued existence.
It becomes our central controller, feeding itself around the clock with constant and compulsive thought activity.
An overactive DMN, as well as causing neurosis and mental and emotional problems, causes us to lose touch with life.
We no longer have authentic encounters with life, with the world and with other people. Instead, we have pseudo-encounters, in which every experience gets filtered through the screen of our mind.
We no longer see what’s there.
We see only our labels, concepts and judgements of what we think is out there.
We no longer have true and authentic relationships with other people because we’ve never actually MET another person. We only ever meet our concepts and judgements of who we think they are…and who they think we are.
A Wake-Up Call
Lost in thought and out of touch with life. This has become the predicament of humanity.
Human beings are engaged in a ‘virtual reality’ run entirely in our minds.
Manufactured threats exist everywhere in our mind-created worlds.
This influences our behaviour and responses and this is why human behaviour is often so warped and insane, on both collective and individual levels.
We’re literally having bad trips and seeing and creating all manner of horrors courtesy of our thoughts. We get locked into patterns of thought, belief and reaction. In Vedanta and yogic philosphy, these are known as samskaras. It’s the samskaras that direct and control our behaviour.
It is almost like the plot of a science-fiction film!
Yet this article is not designed to create a sense of helplessness or despair.
It’s a wake-up call.
Awakening from physical sleep happens of its own accord.
Awakening from the mental/psychological/spiritual sleep which humanity finds itself takes a little more effort.
Maybe at some point, as a species, we will spontaneously awaken, much as we do first thing in the morning.
But the sheer destructiveness of our sleep-induced behaviour underlies the importance of awakening now.
If your house is on fire, you can’t wait for morning before you take do something about it. You have to wake up and take immediate action.
I believe this is the stage we’re at as a species. And I believe it can be done.
It often seems that the insanely destructive behaviour of those having ‘bad trips’ in their virtual-reality world is intensifying. The suffering they are causing for others is immense.
It’s nonetheless clear that more and more people are starting to stir from their slumber. They’re looking beyond the conditioned mind and starting to question things.
But what does it mean to have a direct experience of reality rather than perceiving everything through the filter of mind and thought?
More importantly, how can we do this?
The answer is we need to learn to reroute energy from the brain’s DMN and our inner commentator to actually become engaged with reality.
It means changing our relationship with life and adopting a mindset of lucid living.
Coming Back to Life
“Lost in thought and lost in time… I knew the moment had arrived for killing the past and coming back to life.”
— Pink Floyd
I don’ t believe that Life went to the immense bother of creating this entire universe and depositing us here just so we can exist like living-dead zombies, driven almost entirely by our conditioning, desires and fears.
Let’s be honest, it doesn’t feel good living this way.
We feel limited, incomplete, anxious, depressed, fearful and unworthy. A lot of the time we’re also immensely frustrated because life rarely matches up with how we think it should be.
Our problems exist largely in our minds.
If you were to sit down and take some time to let go of your thoughts and emotions, your memories and projections, your perceptions and related associations, what do you think would remain?
Would you still have any problems?
Or would you be at peace with life?
I invite you to try doing that for a moment to find out for yourself.
I believe the way out of our predicament is to COME BACK TO LIFE.
We do this by finding ways to wrestle free of the stranglehold the untamed mind has on us.
We can learn to differentiate between quality thinking (reasoning, contemplation, constructive analysis and discernment) and useless thinking (redundant, repetitive, pointless thought spirals which are never constructive and usually make us feel pretty bad).
Rather than being a helpless victim of the mind, we can learn to master it and use it as the tool that it is. This is a revolutionary concept for many!
Creating gaps in the mind-stream is something well worth learning. You’ll find it frees up an enormous amount of mental energy and allows for a major release of tension and stress.
When you learn to see beyond your story of reality (which hinges upon memories of past perceptions and an imagined future), you open yourself to experiencing life as it is, in this moment.
That’s the essence of Zen.
The tension drops away, opening you to more peace, aliveness and happiness than you ever thought possible.
Here are 7 simple ways to stop living on autopilot and come back to life:
1. Live with Fresh Perception.
Imagine you’ve arrived on this planet for the first time.
Consciously see and experience everything as though it’s new to you.
Take a walk. Imagine you’d never seen any of these sights and sounds before.
Observe everything with the eyes of a child. See everything as fresh, alive and exciting. Reclaim some of that childlike wonder.
Wherever you are and whoever you’re with, let go of all preconceived ideas about them and just BE THERE, fully engaged.
Imagine that this is the first and last time you’ll ever be in that place and with those people. Take in every last detail and notice how peaceful and alive you feel.
This exercise is fun and enlivening. Try doing it at least once a day for a week and see how your experience of life changes.
2. Engage Your Senses.
This ties in with fresh perception. In fact, it’s hard to do one without the other.
By fully engaging your senses you take your focus out of the mind and become aware of your surroundings.
Where are you and what are you seeing?
Drink in every last detail.
Even if you’ve been in this place a thousand times before, set yourself the challenge of trying to notice little things you’ve never noticed before. Fully observe whatever sights, sounds, tastes, smells and tactile sensations your senses are relaying to you.
Allow yourself to FEEL your body. Move your attention into various parts of the body and feel the aliveness in every cell of your body.
Meditation has been used for thousands of years as a means of stilling the mind, balancing the body and senses and bringing about a state of peace and harmony.
There are countless techniques for meditating, but I find the simplest ones are the best.
Essentially, meditation allows us to become aware of our own awareness. We learn to witness and detach from our thoughts and emotions without automatically being swept up by them.
We come to know ourselves as the observer of our thoughts and emotions rather than BEING our thoughts and emotions. This is the key to emotional freedom.
4. Take a Deep Breath.
Or two or three. Or ten.
Taking a moment to consciously focus on your breath is a potent mini-meditation in itself.
Breath and mind are closely linked. The quality of your breathing affects the quality of your mind. When you’re stressed and tense, notice what your breathing is like. It’s most likely very shallow and fast. When you’re relaxed, you’ll find your breath is much slower and deeper.
By changing the way you breathe, you can quickly change your state of mind.
Focus on your breath, allow it to slow and deepen. If you have a tendency to breathe in a shallow way from the top of your chest, train yourself to do abdominal breathing.
Breathe right down into your navel area and be aware of the rise and fall of your stomach as you breathe in and out. Abdominal breathing not only calms the mind but properly oxygenates the body, giving us greater energy and focus.
A few moments of conscious breathing can instantly relax and rebalance you, and bring you right back to the present moment.
5. Clean up Your Lifestyle
If you want a good life, you have to adopt a good lifestyle.
This is really just common sense. If your general lifestyle habits are bad, you’re going to feel bad. Like everything in life, it’s pure cause and effect. If you’re experiencing an effect you don’t like, you have to look into the cause and be willing to change it.
I’ve learned the importance of creating a peaceful and authentic lifestyle.
It’s important to ensure your home environment is a tranquil and harmonious place; clean, orderly and peaceful.
The quality of the food you eat will not only affect the quality of your body and energy levels, but also the quality of your mind. You can’t eat a terrible diet and expect to have good physical, mental and emotional health. Again — it’s basic cause and effect.
Yoga philosophy encourages us to eat a sattvic diet (healthy, natural foods that exclude processed foods, meat, sugar and stimulants). (See my post on the gunas for a simple and practical insight on how to create a peaceful, sattvic mind through appropriate dietary and lifestyle choices).
Where possible spend your time with people who make you feel relaxed, happy and comfortable. Hang out with those who nurture and nourish you mentally and emotionally. Try to avoid those who make you feel bad, whether deliberately or not.
These simple lifestyle choices will have an amazing effect on the way you feel. It’s up to you to take responsibility for how you’re living and what you’re exposing our body and mind to.
6. Give Yourself Space.
Learn the beauty and joy of minimalism.
Instead of trying to fill every moment of your life with activities and distractions, STOP for a while and allow yourself to experience stillness and space.
You don’t need to always be socialising, on social media, watching TV or glued to your phone. You don’t need to compulsively fill up every moment with things to do.
It’s wonderful to appreciate unplanned moments and to enjoy being in silence. This might be challenging for some people, but it’s something well worth trying.
As any meditator will tell you, it’s in stillness that we experience our greatest joy. It’s only in the stillness that we come to experience what in the East is called sat-chit-ananda. This translates as existence, consciousness, bliss — which is the true essence of our being.
7. Do What You Love.
Do what makes you come alive, what makes you shine, no matter what other people might think.
I know a guy whose true joy is reading about and talking about aliens and UFOs. Seriously — he lights up when he talks about it! It’s his passion and it makes him really come alive. Who are we to judge?
As Joseph Campbell said, follow your bliss, no matter how random it might seem.
These are some simple ways I’ve found for overcoming the mind’s tendency to keep us locked in sleepwalking mode.
Our time on planet Earth is brief.
We’re not here to be a prisoner to our minds, thoughts and habits.
We’re here to be ALIVE and to live consciously and with passion, peace and joy.
If you have any other suggestions and tips for bringing yourself back to the present moment (which is life!), I’d love to hear them.