This week I reign in the mind wandering
Back when I edited a women’s magazine I learned very quickly that a lot of women worry that when they’re having sex they’re thinking about the washing in the tub that needs to be hung out, or the pork in the freezer that needs to be defrosted, or whether they have time to get their legs waxed on the way to their 11am meeting on Friday. As if mouldy washing isn’t enough to worry about, they worry that they’re worrying instead of being carried away in full orgasmic flight.
But hark! happiness expert and Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert this month released a much-hyped study on distractedness and found that we’re less distracted while having sex than while doing any other activity. The study used iPhone app trackyourhappiness to interrupt 2200 participants in the middle of everyday activities to track their emotions and focus. It found our minds wander 47 per cent of our waking lives, but only 10 per cent of the time when we’re getting jiggy with it (which begs, who answers their buzzing iphone app while having sex?!).
The study also found we’re happiest while having sex. And concludes happiness is inversely proportional to how much our mind wanders. So much so, that it doesn’t really matter what we do, so long as we don’t daydream while doing it.
To bundle it up into a catchphrase: you stray, you pay. Or to use the quasi-spiritual (slightly passive-aggressive?) parlance of our day: Babe, you really need to learn to live in the moment, like, now.
But how!? Psychologists, scientists, doctors and spiritualists agree living in the now works; it’s the method that eludes.
This week I decided to give “living in the now” another crack, spurred on by these recent findings. Stilling the mind is one way of doing it. Which, if you’re an activity-orientated ratbag like me, is tough as it requires non-activity. It’s like asking a butterfly not to flutter.
So, given Gilbert’s findings, another way might be to actively reign in, or disturb, the mind wandering. A good start is to simply be aware of when you’re doing it as often as possible. Some Zen practitioners advise using everyday triggers, like stopping at traffic lights. I did this during the week. The trigger was waiting (for Dad to finish his long spiel on the phone, for the ATM to spit out my cash). As soon as I felt the tension, the resistance, the negative mind wanderings, I pulled back. But what to do next?
A lot of literature suggests drawing attention to the breath at this point. I get this. It works. But in my exploration this week I was pushed to find out why. A University of Toronto study found we have two distinct brain networks for experiencing everyday life. The first sees us experience life as bodily sensations in real time (in the moment). This network activates the insula. The second activates the medial prefrontal cortex, which creates narrative. This is our default network and when it’s activated (most of the time) we don’t experience a warm zephyr or an awe-inspiring sunset in the now. Instead, the sunset triggers a narrative about how it’s getting late and you really need to defrost that damn pork. The study found when you activate one network you dampen or disrupt the other (the more you worry about the pork, the less you experience the warm zephyr). Thus, focus on the breath as a simple bodily sensation, you dampen the noisy, wandering storyline mechanism. And happiness is yours.
But the most effective mental strategy for living without mind wanderings I found in Eckhart Tolle’s magnificent The Power of Now. During the week I went hunting for the exact passage that struck me over the head with it’s visceral effectiveness about four years ago. Here it is: “Ask yourself what ‘problem’ you have right now, not next year, tomorrow, or five minutes from now. What is wrong with this moment.” Try this with a problem. Feel into the problem now, not in 60 seconds, not in 2 seconds. Now! Is the problem still there? Nope. It’s gone, right? Worries don’t exist in the now. Worries about the future or the past don’t exist either – they’re just narratives we create in the present. When I practice this realisation, when I sit in it (as triggered at ATM machines) my mind doesn’t wander. I feel the zephyrs.