The practice of awareness

The practice of awareness takes us below the reasonableness that we’d like to think we live with and then we start to see something quite fascinating, which is the drama of our inner dialogue, of the stories that go through our minds and the feelings that go through our heart, and we start to see in this territory it isn’t so neat and orderly and, dare I say it, safe or reasonable. So in the practice of awareness which as gone on for centuries after centuries and millennium after millennium, human beings have asked themselves, Hmmmm, how do I engage this process in a way I don’t become too frightened by what it might unfold or too complacent by avoiding it. This is the delicate work of awareness.

Rebecca Solnit’s observations on what we learn when we give ourselves time to be aware (A Field Guide to Getting Lost, pp 198-199) struck a chord the moment I read it.

A few months ago, I started making time in the mornings to “sit quiet.” It’s funny, though. Though it may outwardly appear quiet outwardly, inwardly it’s anything but.

I’d hoped for something else when I started doing this. I’d hoped for the opposite. It’s cheesy, I had hoped for “inner peace.” I don’t think that’s how I put it to myself, but that’s what I wanted. A place to go to find a sort of silence. A refuge from the constant barrage of everyday life. That’s not what I’ve gotten, though. At least not so far.

The result of sitting quiet two seemingly contradictory things: awareness and focus.

“The drama of our inner dialogue” is absolutely what I experience. The moment I sit down and stop doing, my mind sets off in any number of directions. I think about work, family, the book I’m reading, an snippet from an article I read months ago, a television show I’m watching. These threads of thought come thick and fast. As they do, I let them come, take note and try return my thoughts to my breath, my body or my physical surroundings.

This doesn’t happen immediately, though. Often, my own thoughts carry me away in some direction I had no intention of going. It takes a while before I realize this has happened. I’m so busy following the thread of my own thought that I don’t even realize that I’ve done it.

Sitting, being aware of what I’m thinking, bringing my thoughts back: all of this has helped me learn to focus. Even when I’m not doing this, I’m now much more able to know when I’ve stopped paying attention to a person, a conversation or a meeting. It still takes a while, but I’m much better at bringing myself into the room. I’m getting better at paying attention to other people, rather than what I’m thinking, what I want to say next.

The other benefit is one I didn’t really expect: I know my own mind better. By giving myself time to sit quiet and pay attention to the swirl of thoughts and ideas in my head, I actually know what I’m thinking. I know what I’m worried about. I know what I’m excited about.

When I started, I thought sitting quiet might provide an escape from my thoughts. It hasn’t. As Solnit points out, at first this was frightening. It still is sometimes, when I come across a fear or a worry I wasn’t aware of. Knowing about them changes them somehow. No longer lurking the shadows, they’re less frightening. Just knowing about them makes it easier to breath.

The same goes for ideas I’m excited about. I think there’s a fear in exciting ideas that they’ll never get done, that they’ll disappear into some corner of my mind. Slowing down and spending time with those thoughts makes that less scary. By knowing which of my own ideas are exciting, I’m better able to choose what to do next.

Solnit calls this the “practice” of awareness. This is important, I think. Practice is actually doing something, moving beyond theory, learning through making mistakes, learning through getting it wrong. There are times when I sit down and my mind is a riot of thought. I spend a lot of time chasing one stray thought or another. At the end, it seems I’ve not done a very good job of bringing my thoughts back. But I’ve practiced. Practice also means the way of doing something, something you do over and over again. It’s not so much that “there’s always next time,” it’s more that “there’s always this time.”