Each day's lesson asks us to spend some time thinking about the lesson throughout the day. Rather than just repeating the words of the lesson, I like to meditate on the lesson with hopes of finding the profound truth that usually underlies the words themselves.
But there's a problem. When I sit down to begin meditating, my mind wants to think only about one of two things: the past or the future.
Think about it. We spend much of our waking life replaying what-if's in our head about what happened yesterday, last month or decades ago. "What if I had done that differently? I was such a jerk! I shouldn't have acted that way..." Sadly, there's no end to the lifetime of memories we can dredge up from the primeval ooze to take front stage in our thinking. The past is dead and gone. Funny how we spend so much mental time there! Even stranger is that we spend so much time beating ourselves up over things dead and gone. ("Beat and repeat." That seems to be the mantra we use to make damn sure we never forgive ourselves for past "sins." But that's a topic for another day.)
When we think about the future we're focusing on something that's not happened and may never happen. But, oh my, what if so-and-so does happens? What if she says she doesn't love me? What if I don't have enough money? What will I do when he or she dies? Our thoughts about the future are often worries. Fears of what might happen. It's interesting to learn that the subcortical brain structure known as the amygdala is linked to fear responses. In women the amygdala is slightly larger, prompting some to speculate that larger size explains women's more cautious, circumspect and less aggressive approach to life. I'm no expert on brain physiology or function, but I know many of us tend to think about the future fearfully, in terms of what might go wrong, no matter how large or small our amygdala might be.
Now none of this is to say that we don't also spend time thinking about a wonderful vacation we had a few years ago, or the love of our life, or the loving fun we had with our dogs when they were puppies. Or, the exciting times yet to come when some goodness descends upon us. Sure, we can have happy thoughts about the past and future as well as fearful thoughts. But my premise survives: We spend most of our time thinking about the past and the future.
LET'S DIVE IN
What's so hard with thinking about right NOW? That's not a rhetorical question. Here's a simple challenge that will reveal your own mind to you.
1. Sit back in your chair and relax.
2. Close your eyes.
3. Pay attention to the inflow and outflow of your breath.
4. Once you're comfortable, mentally say "GO." Begin counting your inhales and begin watching your thoughts as you continue to count.
5. See how high you can count without your mind bubbling up a thought related to the past or the future.
The goal isn't to avoid thinking. It's simply to notice what bubbles up. If you want to see how your mind truly works you'll have to be brutally honest with yourself. You'll need to notice any thought that bubbles up as you sit relaxing and counting your breath.
I'll bet you won't get past a count of three without having a thought of the past or the future. A count of five would be amazing!
This simple practice reveals how unconsciously our so-called conscious mind works. Mindfulness expert Dr. Mark W. Muesse refers to our everyday state of mind as "mindlessness." It's a state where our mind bubbles up a constant stream of (what I call) babble, and what others have called "monkey mind." Our brain, as Michael Singer would agree, is just an organ that does a certain job. Complex through it may be, it's an organ just as a thyroid, a kidney or a spleen are organs. The problem is, we think the mind that seems to live in our brain, along with our body, is what we are. Students of A Course in Miracles all know, on some level, that's a false belief.
BUT LET'S GO EVEN DEEPER
Now, if you'd like to take a deeper dive into this little challenge, you could choose to analyze your thoughts even more acutely. You'd be looking for any thought that suggests you know what the subject of your thought is all about. For example, a thought might bubble up about the cup of coffee you sipped moments ago, or the coffee you'll pour in a little while.
It's clear that in either case you're thinking about past or future. But there's another layer. It has to do with what you think you know.
Of course you think you know what a cup of coffee is. But I'm sure you'll agree: What you know about a cup and about coffee is based in past learning. For example, a cup is a small, open container made of china, glass, metal, etc., usually having a handle and used chiefly as a receptable from which to drink tea, soup, etc. You learned that sometime in the past. When your thought bubbles up something about a cup of coffee, it's using the past. So for the sake of this exercise, such a thought is a thought of the past.
Adding this new qualifier to your thoughts makes it virtually impossible to think without invoking the past, simply because all our learning about everything comes from past learning—from language itself to our understanding of the universe and all the things in it.
"So? What's the point?" you might ask. This is where you can take the deepest dive. Practice the exercise above with the intent of surpassing your previous count. Practice every day. (I like to envision the past on my left and the future on my right. I set an intention to sit directly between and equidistant from each of them in perfect mental silence). Bit by bit you'll find you can extend that mental silence and approach what Lesson 189 talks about in paragraph 7 when it teaches us that "I feel the Love of God within me now."
Is there a summary? Sure. NOW is the only time that exists. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, and today is a gift; that’s why they call it the present." This little exercise can be quite profound if you choose it to be. See if you can get past three breaths without thinking of the past or future. Let me know how that works for you!
P.S. If you'd like to learn what it's like to have no knowledge of anything, (which Lesson 189 asks us to do), check out this TED Talk video by neuro-anatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor.
It's a fascinating 18 minutes describing a research opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: She had a massive stroke, and watched as her brain functions — motion, speech, self-awareness — shut down one by one. An astonishing story.