We go through our lives half asleep. Our sleeping potion is our own mind, which keeps our alertness dulled by allowing itself to be yanked around in countless directions. When, Nathan insults us, our mind begins racing with ideas of revenge. When Ruby flatters us we continue for many long minutes gloating on the details of her flattery. Each of us has his or herown set of mind habits that insidiously keep us from staying alert to the present. We spend our days in endless inner talking, accounting, self-justifying, imagining. This constant jabber in our minds takes us into the past (reliving Nathan’s insult over and over again, thinking up different retorts we could have made) and into the future (imagining how next Monday’s interview with the school principal will go). We spend most of our time in the past and in the future. As we continue jabbering, the present eludes us. In fact, we are dead to the present or if not dead, at least asleep.
Consider this typical scenario. You are reading the news paper. In the news story on the front page, one word, competition, swings your mind back to your day at the office. Your eyes keep going over the words in the news story, but your mind has left, dwelling instead on the belligerent meeting you attended two hours earlier at your company. While “reading” you are reliving the events of the meeting: ‘what you said’, ‘what Radha said’, ‘what Nancy said’. You now come to an end of the column, suddenly struck by the fact that it says, “Continued on back page”. You realize that you’ve been “reading” for the past three minutes but have taken nothing in. For several long minutes you have been asleep to the present, while dwelling on the events of a dead past.
Where our mind is, is where we are. Just because the eyes keep reading doesn’t mean that we are present in the reading activity. Our mind’s location determines our location. Take this example:
Sitting by a cozy fireplace, you are engrossed in an adventure novel that has your full attention. Your son comes into the room; turns on the television listen to the news. You hear nothing. He makes some comments about the news, trying to pry your attention away from your book. Still, you are not there for him. You are with the book, because your mind is fully engaged in the story. Your body is in the room, sound waves from the television and your son are striking your ears, but you may as well not be there, because your mind is not available.
Many of us often experience this kind of “absent mindedness” on the road – when the mind is not in the location, or cognizant of the action, in which the body happens to be engaged. We travel the same route to work every day. We know every turn and every corner. Or we might say that an instinctive, mechanical part of ourselves knows every turn and every corner and can trace the route without fail, while automatically reacting to traffic on the road. WE—that is, our mind—can be miles away. By the time we reach home, we would have written the outline for a report, solved a problem in the lab, or planned out our lecture for tomorrow’s Vedanta class. With our mind absent, the body will have driven us home.
If our mind is not in the present activity, we are not in the present activity. We are dead to it. If we counted up all these dead minutes of our days, we would be aghast at how little actual living we do. We would realize, in shock, that most of our days are spent in dead space. Constant alertness is the method for getting us out of this dead space. We have to train our minds to remember to stay in the present. We can begin by doing some introspection exercises at the end of each day.
Before you go to sleep each night, review your day from morning until bedtime. Hour by hour, event by event, review what activities and thoughts you experienced. At first it will be difficult to remember everything. You will also be tempted to stop at the memory of various events and thoughts to ponder them further. You may want to criticize an action of yours and rewrite the script. You may want to correct some words you said and imagine an alternate scenario. Resist each of these temptations. Imagine you are a neutral witness to the happenings under review.
In time, the exercise will become easier. Also, in time, you will have developed new powers of alertness and concentration. As your evening introspection improves, so also is your ability to witness your thoughts and actions as they occur during the course of the day. This newfound alertness will keep your mind from wandering off in the dead spaces, since you’ll be there to catch the wandering before it happens. Also in time, you will be alert enough to remember to catch your negative reactions before they manifest. As you catch them and redirect your thoughts into a positive channel, you are literally redirecting the course of your life. Every reaction is the result of a thought, and every thought builds next reality.
Practice this and let me, know your progress!