It’s amazing how often we get hijacked and pulled away from the reality of a situation.
It’s hard to describe this without it sounding like an abstract problem, but it’s real. It’s just difficult for us to notice.
Our emotions and thoughts get snagged on something that we’ve seen, heard or felt. Once caught they start to extrapolate and iterate that thought or feeling.
The problem is that our brains focus on what our thoughts are saying instead of what is actually happening around us. We miss out on actual experience.
Let’s ground this in an all-too-painful reality.
Imagine that you’re tiptoeing through from your bedroom to the kitchen in the middle of the night to get a drink. You don’t want to wake anyone up, so you don’t turn the lights on and you try to move quietly.
As you creep to the kitchen, you’re completely engaged in the situation. You’re aware of the space, the noise, the light, the objective. You’re fully present and engaged with the reality of the moment.
Unfortunately for you, someone has left a half-constructed lego model on the floor. You bring your bare foot down to the floor, putting all your weight on a jagged wreck of sharp plastic.
Pain shoots up your leg, and as it does, you are immediately hijacked by your thoughts. Your sensory awareness of your surroundings contracts as your brain instantly reallocates resources.
Firstly, you focus on the pain. But that quickly becomes an investigation into who left the lego on the floor. Then an exploration of what kind of punishments they deserve, a curse on the evils of geometry and a longing for the Danes to make their plastic bricks out of something more forgiving.
This process of thought and feeling has whisked you off on a flight of fancy so compelling, you fail to notice the second half of the model on the floor which you quickly find with your other foot.
Rinse and repeat.
This is an overly-physical example to exaggerate how the process occurs, but it works just the same for mental or emotional triggers. Something sets us off, we disengage from our surroundings and follow a chain of thoughts and feelings down the rabbit hole, away from reality.
Now here’s the kicker.
While it sounds like something that only happens when we step on lego, or get triggered by something shocking- it’s actually more frequent than that.
It’s actually happening more often than not. That is, we spend more time engaging with our thoughts about what’s happening, than we do with what’s actually happening.
It sounds ridiculous and you might not believe that you spend so much of your life disengaged, but you only have to pay attention to your thoughts to understand how true it is.
Pay attention to how often you’re fully engaged in what you’re doing, and how often you’re often you’ve been hijacked. How often your attention is focused and in command or all your resources, and how often it’s elsewhere.
That’s not to say that we’re not doing things in the real world while this is happening. All too often we are doing something else, and that’s the scary thing. We’re driving, talking, cooking or eating. We’re in a meeting or we’re talking to our partners or children. We’re there, but we’re not really experiencing the moment. We’re not actively aware.
Our autopilot is keeping us from crashing while our thoughts and feelings run away.
This is the heart of mindfulness. It’s not about sitting cross legged on the floor chanting some mystical mumbo jumbo, it’s about being aware and engaged in what you’re doing.
It’s about not following thoughts down the rabbit hole.
It’s about experiencing what’s actually happening, instead of just thinking about it.
It’s also about remembering to get your kids to pick up their lego.