Thoughts are just products of our minds. They are a part of ourselves, but they do not define us. Our thoughts influence our behavior, but they do not control it. This idea is central to mindfulness.
We tend to believe that our thoughts are true representations of reality. However, our thoughts are often erroneous: cognitive biases prevent us from thinking rationally. When we assume that our thoughts are facts, we let them influence us in both positive and negative ways. The point is that we let our thoughts have a great impact on us.
If we do not pay conscious attention to the present moment, our thoughts take us into the past or the future. We think about what has happened and what might happen. Some estimates suggest that we invest as much as 50% of our waking hours in mind wandering.
When our minds wander, we become mentally absent from the present moment. The human brain likes to produce thoughts of all sorts so if we do not actively redirect our attention to the present moment, we quickly become absent. Why is that problematic? The present moment is all we have:
“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” – Henry David Thoreau
As our thoughts occur so naturally and unconsciously, we tend to go with them (auto-pilot mode). I would like to illustrate how we can caught up in our thoughts and pay little to no attention to the present moment with this “driving car metaphor”:
One driver may turn on auto-pilot mode when he drives; he does not pay much attention to the driving itself, which allows his thoughts to wander. As a result, he cannot recall any details from a route he has just driven. He is mind full, not mindful.
Another driver may pay most of her attention to the present moment; she does not allow herself to be on auto-pilot mode: her thoughts spontaneously begin to wander, but when it happens, she redirects her attention to the driving itself and her surroundings. As a result, she is able to recall many details of a route she has just driven. She is mindful, not mind full.
I hope my metaphor made sense. The point is when we let our minds wander, it is impossible to be in the “here and now”. We do not let ourselves see or experience life fully, and we miss many of life’s opportunities or experiences because of that. We need to take control over our attention (actively and consciously) to increase our present-centered awareness.
In sum, when we are mind full instead of mindful, we are mentally absent from the richness of life. We worry about what has happened in our lives and how it will be. Research shows that we tend to overestimate the emotional impact of future events, i.e. we worry more about the future than we “should”.
Do we really want to live a life full of worries? Most people benefit from spending more time in the “here and now”. Research on mindfulness training shows that present-centered awareness improves mental health in many ways.
Please leave a comment if you have any experience with mindfulness training. I would like to hear how it works for you.