Picture yourself standing at the edge of a platform, peering down at a river 200 meters below.
As you stand on the precipice of abyss, and stare into it, to quote Nietzsche:
The abyss stares back at you.
You feel your toes inch past the edge; you can’t turn around now.
Time stands still.
You imagine plummeting: several seconds of stillness before the ground sprints up at you and delivers its knock-dead blow.
A chill runs down your spine.
You glance at the rope around your feet. It doesn’t look secure. And the guy who put it there seemed absent minded…
Who was he? Does he take his job seriously? Did he choose the right rope?
Then, the most horrific sound cuts through the air…
Okay, are you ready mate?
His words echo down the corridors of your mind, seamlessly morphing into jagged rocks, blood, crying, wheelchairs, funerals, algae…
No. No I’m not ready. I’ve changed my mind. Let the next guy fall to his doom.
A Leap of Faith
Statistically, you have a far greater chance of dying in a car accident than a bungee jump, yet you’re not scared of getting into a car, right?
Your mind likes to make sure it knows everything that could possibly go wrong. That little voice in your head, he’s pretty interested in survival, and so he’s always trying to play it safe.
No danger, no risk; no risk, no danger.
When your mind wanders, it usually does one of three things:
- Looks at your goals.
- Replays nostalgic memories.
- Conjures up far-fetched stories and terrifying narratives.
When you’re about to do something “crazy,” something that gets the adrenaline pumping, the wandering mind starts doing what it does best — wandering through dark thorny mazes and pulling you along with it.
Your mind starts playing out worst-case scenarios. When it comes to living a life filled with meaning and purpose, dying kind of gets in the way. And to stop this from happening, your mind gets in the way of you.
When we freak out, our analytical and intelligent selves get overwhelmed; we start to second-guess everything.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living and founder of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School says:
The tendency to over-think is an occupational hazard of being human.
(Read more about Jon Kabat-Zinn and his discoveries about meditation here.)
Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost
It’s important not to look at the wandering mind as an entirely bad thing. Trying to get rid of it should not be the goal.
It has its positives.
Mental storytelling can help us practice for life events like interviews, sports games, what to say on a first date, and what to do if the first date goes well.
The psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, author of Ungifted, has shown that daydreaming is an essential component of imagination, creativity, self-awareness, memory formation, goal driven thought, and empathy.
It’s smart to question whether we should always be living in the moment. The latest research on imagination and creativity shows that if we’re always in the moment, we’re going to miss out on important connections between our own inner mind-wandering thoughts and the outside world. Creativity lies in that intersection between our outer world and our inner world.
There’s clearly a balance — there are times when mind wandering is beneficial, and times when it’s not.
One example of when it’s not in our best interest is when we’re trying to make a difficult emotional decision:
“I don’t want to die from a bungee jump.”
“If I don’t go to the interview, I will save myself the embarrassment.”
“I won’t bother trying, I know I won’t be any good.”
It’s important that we make the distinction between when it’s time to let our mind wander and when it’s time to rein it in.
This is where mindfulness comes in.
The act of focusing on the present moment, non-judgmentally, allows us to see the action we want to perform without saturating it with buts and what-ifs.
We can see it for what it is: an experience.
Mindfulness reduces stress and anxiety. When we engage with things mindfully, we silence the network of brain regions specifically associated with mind wandering.
Neuroscientists such as Marcus Raichle have discovered that when the brain is ‘at rest’ there is in fact very much going on. Raichle is credited with discovering the default mode network, a series of structures within the brain that come alight when we mind wander, daydream, think about the future, or look back on the past.
What’s interesting and slightly counterintuitive, is that mindfulness not only dims this network when we need to, but it starts to rearrange it, so that it begins to work more effectively when we do call upon it.
Mindfulness makes us better daydreamers.
Another network — the Central Executive — lights up when we focus on the outside world. These two big networks are responsible for most of what goes on in our minds, one is about the inside, the other the outside.
Understandably, we can’t use both at once — you have one point of attention, you can direct it inside or outside. You can switch back and forth, but using one deactivates the other.
When you need to quiet the voices in you head, pointing your attention to the world around you does just that.
Throw Caution to the Wind
Our minds like to keep us in the comfort zone, but, as we all know, the magic happens outside.
Within our wandering minds, the negatives outweigh the positives, and in an effort to keep us safe, can end up making us cowardice.
Courage is the ability to recognize our fear and act anyway.
We all have these nagging thoughts simmer up from our subconscious, especially when we’re fearful, but those that can harness it, those that can act against their own inner monologue, are going where the magic happens.
Mindfulness is a way of being
— John Kabat-Zinn
When you cultivate courage and stop letting your thoughts get in the way of what you want to do, you are being mindful.
It’s not always better to be safe than sorry. Sometimes throwing caution to the wind is a good thing. Who wants a boring life where, the only things we do are predictable?
Safety is important. Being sheltered, not so much.
“A ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.”
Facing the things that scare us, looking fear in the eye, unflinchingly, and walking headfirst into the unknown… that’s where life begins.
Sometimes it pays to shut off the voices and stories and focus entirely on the present. To be mindful of what what’s right in front of you, and just do it.