This is an excerpt from Oli Doyle’s new book. You can get the book and the audio course that goes with it over at www.alittlepeaceandquiet.
By Oli Doyle
Everybody knows that everything happens Now—that there is no other moment in time—and that the past and the future are really just thoughts, or memories, or imaginings. We all get that on a conceptual level, but most people don’t understand it. Most people don’t live it. And that is why human beings are lost; why we are stressed, unhappy, and frustrated; and why we live our lives unaware of the power, the peace, and the happiness that is within us all the time.
In this book, we will be taking a six-week journey of peace, starting with some basic principles. We’ll begin by learning how to shift our attention into this moment. Hundreds (or thousands) of books have been written on the subject, and though we might all know conceptually that living in the present is a good idea—becoming truly present, truly aware, is not an easy thing to do. We will look at the reasons for this in some detail, but more importantly, in this first chapter, I will give you the tools you need to bring your attention into the present moment. I will also show you how to return to Now when you get lost in another thought, which is normal and inevitable.
First, let’s examine some of the roadblocks you are likely to encounter along the way. My hope is that by knowing about these in advance, you’ll be able to recognize them as a normal part of the process, and not something personally wrong with you or your mindfulness practice. I hope that when you encounter these challenges, you will continue with a small smile rather than giving up or thinking you can’t do it. For it is through this continued practice, day after day, that you will begin to see peace and happiness creeping softly into your life.
The Mind’s Inability to Be Present
The first thing you will notice—even if you have been doing this for years—is that the mind resists any attempt to be present. Each time you make an effort to shift your attention into the present moment, there is a pull back in the other direction. That pull comes from thought. And each thought that arises is focused, quite naturally, not on the present moment but on the past and the future. This is because the mind is essentially an analytical process. It continually analyzes events, trying to make sense of them, looking for patterns, and attempting to use the past to predict the future.
The mind has no interest in the present moment; in fact, it is incapable of being present. Instead, the mind studies the past, believing that if it understands the past, it can eliminate the bad and increase the good, thereby achieving happiness in the future. If you have read Eckhart Tolle’s work, you will be familiar with the concept of using the present moment as a means to an end—the belief that happiness or salvation (as some people call it) is somehow going to arise in the future, and the quicker we get to that future, the quicker we will find happiness.
Therefore, our minds continually analyze the past, scanning for everything that went wrong—everything that should have been different—and trying to figure out how to change it in the future, so that we can be happy. We have a belief that once all our ducks are in a row, once we’ve got everything figured out and set up perfectly, then we will be happy, then we will find peace. Of course, the unfortunate truth is that it’s the process of chasing that future happiness that keeps dragging our attention away from the happiness that’s already here, inside us right now.
The Obsession with Time
We’ve seen that the mind is an analytical process, concerned only with the past and future, and particularly, with what’s wrong. It looks for problems and sees fixing them as its job. It tries to figure out how to keep the problems from occurring again, or how to get a different result in the future, so that we can be happy. These are good intentions—nothing wrong with the mind—but you may have found (and perhaps that is why you picked up this book) that living lost in thought isn’t much fun; living your life thinking about the past and the future is stressful most of the time. Sometimes it may be pleasant, but even then it’s not as fulfilling—not anywhere close to as fulfilling—as spending a moment totally immersed in the Now, in this present moment. That shift to Now is an instant relief, and it can be yours with a simple change in focus—from thinking to experiencing life as it is.
Because of the mind’s obsession with the past and future, it views time as a conveyor belt that runs from the past through the present to the future. You can look back and know exactly what came before, and you can look forward and see what might come next, which gives time the appearance of linear continuity .
The Story of Me
From this belief, we each create the story of Me. This story is really just a bundle of thoughts, or beliefs, or experiences that you turn into your sense of self. The answer to “Who am I?” might include your name, your physical appearance, your mental characteristics, your skills, the things you’ve done well, the things you haven’t, and on and on. By bundling all these together, you create the picture you call “Me.” However, it’s not really the full picture, because it’s impossible for the mind to capture everything you’ve done, everything you’ve experienced, every skill and perceived flaw. So actually, we all just pick a few and bundle them together to form our picture of ourselves.
When we start to practice meditation, most of us are concerned with trying to get something for this Me. We want to feel peaceful, we want to have a better life, we want to be more focused, or we want to have lower blood pressure—whatever it might be. Now there’s nothing wrong with these wants; in fact, the wants are fantastic because they lead us to the path of mindfulness. But we all come in with a goal.
Goals get us to the starting line, but as soon as we start, they become roadblocks—they keep pulling our awareness into the future. After all, a goal is just something we want to achieve at some future time. As soon as it is achieved, it stops being a goal and becomes a memory, or perhaps a part of that story of Me: “Have I told you I attained enlightenment last week …?”
I came to mindfulness because I didn’t like boredom, I didn’t like stress, and I didn’t like anxiety; my goal was to get rid of them. So when I read about enlightenment and Hindu and Buddhist teachings, I thought, “Yeah, that is good. I want that. How do I get it?” And when I learned that you got it by meditating, I said, “All right, I will do that.” It was like seeing those perfectly toned men or women on TV, and hearing about all the hard work they did to get that way, and thinking, “Well, if I can get that toned, then I’m willing to do that hard work too.”
So I knew what I wanted to achieve through mindfulness—but I quickly found that my goal was getting in the way (although it took me years to figure out what was actually happening). The goal itself became a barrier, because whenever I practiced, I was always looking for evidence that I was getting closer to my goal. If I thought I saw that evidence, then I would feel proud and get lost in that thought. I would get lost in the belief that I was becoming better, or the thought, “I am really calm today.”
And then the next day when I wasn’t calm, when I’d gotten angry or reacted in some unhelpful way, I’d feel completely deflated—not only because of my actions, but also because I had lost the belief that I was improving, that I was coming closer to my goal.
Likewise, if I sat and my mind was distracted—if it was busy with a million thoughts coming and going, and I was getting lost in every single one of them—I would lose heart quickly. I would even get angry with myself (which is like the mind getting angry with its own awareness—quite a bizarre thing, in hindsight). At the time, I believed I was angry with myself because I wasn’t concentrating; I wasn’t practicing well enough.
In fact, the whole problem was that I wasn’t content to sit with the moment exactly as it is. I didn’t want to sit still with this moment. I wanted something different. I wanted the peaceful moment that I read about in the book. Or I wanted the peaceful moment that I thought I had yesterday or last week. So my goal became a big barrier.