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Losing my mindfulness

“Every time we become aware of a thought, as opposed to being lost in a thought, we experience that opening of the mind.” - Joseph Goldstein

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Joseph Goldstein, perhaps the most well-respected vipassana meditation teacher in the world, employs the term “opening of the mind” to describe the brief moments of bliss one can access while practicing meditation. I’d started a modest practice several months ago. At first, I felt a bit hopeless sitting with the chaos of my thoughts. I couldn’t sit for longer than a few minutes without feeling too uncomfortable to continue. But it took just one instance of feeling that opening of the mind to make it a daily habit. I haven’t missed a day for nine months.

Those that meditate can tell you that the primary challenge in the practice is quieting your thoughts. When you first sit down to meditate you’re overwhelmed by the noise in your brain, but over time, with enough concentration, it quiets. Sometimes, it gets so quiet that you lose your sense of self and your mind feels weightless, effortless. It’s challenging to describe this feeling, but there’s nothing like it. Sometimes it’s brief, a nanosecond glimpse that’s enough to remind you for the rest of the day to stay present and behave deliberately. Sometimes the moment can stretch on for what feels like an eternity. It’s spectacular.

I hadn’t felt it for weeks.

I still sat down to meditate every morning but every single day since I started working for myself full time, I’d unintentionally use the time to sort out my bleary brain. Sometimes I’d plan my work day, prioritizing essays I needed to write and reminding myself of passages I needed to edit. This was great thinking, by the way, far superior to any thinking I get done later in the day, but it was not the purpose of the meditation.

Many teachers suggest silently saying the words “thinking, thinking” when you observe thoughts. Usually this works for me but for these weeks it did not.

While I sacrificed the quality of my meditation, there were some potential benefits to letting my mind organize itself around the work ahead of me.

  1. Know exactly what task to focus on after meditation
  2. Surface any unresolved thoughts or issues and come up with preliminary solutions
  3. Take a small step back to assess the entirety of the project
  4. Come up with new ideas for the project
  5. Remember anything I forgot so nothing slips through the cracks

Allowing these thoughts to take over my practice enabled the more productivity than I’d ever experienced, but it came with some drawbacks. The uncontrollable thinking revealed an underlying stress. I managed my stress primarily with my meditation practice. So I had a symptom of stress and my thinking was taking the place of my original therapy to treat it.

This constant thinking during meditation was the first significant change in the quality of my mind that I’d observed since quitting my job. I’d also started waking up earlier and was working longer hours than I’d ever worked in any previous job or schooling. My interpretation of this was that I was placing immense pressure on myself to make this project a success because I saw what it could become but also knew how far away from I still sat. The stakes also felt high because so much of the project is personal. I was revealing stories that I’d never shared with anybody and presented thoughts that I knew were controversial. I was afraid of alienating people or unintentionally disparaging the world around me.

So I tried to brute force my way through it, getting as many hours of the day on my side as possible, activating every crevice of my brain to process the seemingly endless strategic, operational, and philosophical issues it identified. My mind often wandered to the project during my leisure time. I’d walk down the aisles of Whole Foods and wonder what critique the woman with the stroller might take with my ideas.

I thought I might have a mild anxiety disorder, but when I looked up the symptoms, I didn’t see anything that felt accurate. While obsessive thinking could describe my current relationship with this project, the definitions of anxiety disorders don’t leave room for productive thoughts. Obsessive Thinking is characterized with “unhealthy worry” but mine felt more like obsessive problem solving. When I notice myself thinking a lot, I’d ask myself, “is this helpful,” something I learned from practicing mindfulness and the answer was almost always yes because I was taking those thoughts and applying it to the work.

While not always comfortable, this somewhat obsessive relationship with work was an intriguing and in some ways pleasing new experience enabled by all the space I’d created by quitting my job. It proved that there was a way to foster a relationship with work driven by desire and passion. Knowing this existed in my friends was one important observation that helped convince me that I might be able to work on my own terms, but feeling it myself was an unexpectedly validating experience.

When the desire to work is so strong, a new set of problems arise around managing stress to both improve performance and tend to the other important parts of life. I often ask my girlfriend Anna to give me feedback on how I’d been behaving so I could compare her observations with my own assessment. Constantly checking in with Anna helps me recognize when I need to take some time off to go on a hike, have a glass of wine, or sit for a longer meditation session.

I’m going to try a few different things to try and keep the benefits of the thinking I was doing while still managing stress and staying mindful. To start, I’ll extend my morning meditation to fifteen or twenty minutes and watch for thoughts like a hawk. And then give myself fifteen minutes in the middle of the day to just think. I tried it today and felt the “opening of the mind” again for the first time since quitting my job. Preliminary results are encouraging but I reckon it’ll be a continuous work in progress.

NOTE: Dayo wrote me to share that he has experienced something similar and that guided meditations through Headspace help.

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