Life exerts such a guiding influence that, regardless of where we think we want to go, if we relax and engage with it in an open and trusting manner, it will show us the way. It repeatedly leads us back to what we need to see until the integration is complete. This series, which began with an intention to establish a new habit, has led me back to a powerful truth; a subject so familiar that I have old journal entries from 17 and 18 years ago which say much the same thing: Focus is the key to a quiet mind and the dissolution of the self.
A quiet mind. Dissolution of the self. Those are elusive subjects. Any effort to attain them seems only to push them further away. I have been in their company over the years, but never dwelled for long. Here I stand again, with renewed insight and clarity following the breakthrough mentioned at the end of the previous post. Triggered by a bit of science about the brain, it felt to me like a significant piece in the jigsaw, endorsing what I wrote in those early entries about the mind, and last year about the self (‘The Conclusion Is Emptiness’).
There is an area of the brain called the default mode network which is where the brain goes when it has nothing else to do. In that place it will ruminate effortlessly on the past and future, and reflect on the nature of self and others. This can be extremely useful for learning lessons, preparing for whatever comes our way, and understanding who we are. But with nothing to inhibit the process, it will continue relentlessly.
The consequence is that we easily and unintentionally explore the minute details of our past actions and future projections. This leads to flirtations with self-doubt and anxiety, from where a downward spiral of negativity is never far away. (See the scientific paper, ‘A Wandering Mind Is An Unhappy Mind’, published by Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert.)
Give the brain something to do, however, and all that melts away, (including the sense of self). You have experienced it yourself when ‘lost’ in concentration. It means that we can legitimately use the default mode to learn, prepare and understand; but for the rest of the time we can focus on the present moment, the breath, the body, the washing-up, the stitching in our jeans… anything. It doesn’t matter what we focus on, it matters only that we do it fully.
All of which makes me think back to the post from three weeks ago which highlighted a simple yet powerful observation: that I would rather think about something than nothing. It’s as if the brain wants to rest in that contemplative space, even if it risks unhappiness. It’s the same with the body: it’s so easy to rest in the state of least effort, when actually what is good for us is (moderate) exercise.
Therefore, in the same way as movement can lift our mood, so can focus. Whenever you find yourself thinking negatively, or you notice your thoughts going round in circles, or you are distracted by uninvited musings on the past or future, exercise your mind. Pick something and focus on it completely. Then relax, as everything – including who you think yourself to be – simply disappears.