I've love words since I first began to understand them. I'm guessing it goes back even further to when I didn't.
I love reading them. I love writing them. I love hearing others read, speak, sing, whisper, and shout them. I love to play with them and read between them. I love to watch others stretch and expand them in poems and films. I'm fascinated by how they can be used to tell the truth, to lie, and to blur the line between the two aims.
I spend a lot of time trying to find the right words to describe experiences and feelings. I hunt them down. I wait for them. I ask them to come be in my show and then make them audition. I evaluate them and try to imagine how they'll be heard. I'm doing it right now.
But when I first started practicing mindfulness, my relationship to the words in my mind — aka verbal thoughts — was contentious. I considered them to be my opponents. Like most people, I thought the point of meditation was to try not to think. When verbal thoughts were present, I was not.
Am I thinking? I think I'm thinking. Crap!
I'm doing it again. Rats!
Start over. Don't think.
Hey, I think I've got it. I'm not thinking. D'oh!
Try harder. C'mon!
What is relaxing about this?
I must be the only person who can't do it.
Would you please stop?
I give up...
There's a show-stopping problem with this approach: It's completely normal for the mind to think in words. This is true even when you are using an attention-building exercise. Expectations have to be adjusted if you want to stay in the game.
It turns out that the presence of thoughts is not evidence that you aren't living in the present. It is evidence that you are alive and that you have a functioning nervous system. Inadvertently making an enemy out of our own thinking is one of the most common reasons people abandon the entire potentially life-changing project.
It's not possible to really escape the present when we are conscious and sober. It's only the content of my thoughts that convey a sense of the past and the future. My attention is focused inward, but I'm still in the present. Where else could I be? Where else could remembering and imagining occur?
It is possible to be mindful even when I am thinking.
Spontaneous time travel is not a real problem. The obstacle is not being familiar with how attention works. It is one of the barriers to feeling more at home in your life just as it is.
One of my attention-training objectives is to become more familiar with the process of thinking through consistent observation over time.
This means gradually changing my relationship to my thoughts by trying to listen to the words in my mind as sounds without insisting that they not be there. Sometimes. Just for a few seconds. This simply takes practice. A lot of practice.
But there are ordinary circumstances that can help inform this alternative way of relating to our thoughts.
There are times when I'm unable to find the right words.
There are times when the environment is so loud or distracting that I can't hear myself think.
There are times when listening to people speak in another language forces me to drop my need to decipher it and to hear the musicality that becomes obvious when I give up.
There are time when I observe my verbal thoughts spooling out endlessly and other times when I am able to observe the pauses between the sentences, words, and phrases that can be as simultaneously observable and invisible as punctuation. Both situations have something to teach me.
Instead of approaching these situations as problems to solve, we can use them as opportunities that can help gradually transform our relationship to the verbal side of thinking.
There can be something almost magical about being able to find and arrange words in ways that improve understanding and even shrink the emotional distance between us.
There can also be an unspeakable freedom in letting words escape you every now and then.
- Listen for commas, periods, and question marks when someone is speaking. Start with situations where the stakes are low (news, commercials, strangers in public) and then extend the exploration into work meetings, engaging movies, and difficult conversations.
- Try to notice the end of each verse, chorus, and musical phrases when listening to a song.
- When you are rehearsing for a difficult conversation, experiment with dropping the search for the perfect talking points or script and try to feel the emotion in the body fueling the drive to be heard.
Training your attention by listening closely to words as sounds can enrich your lifelong relationship to the language you rely on to navigate your life. It might even rekindle the wordless wonder that existed before you developed the ability to comprehend words.