Throughout our lives we squander an inconceivable amount of time wrapped up in our own minds. Talking to ourselves instead of with one another, we brood about the past or continuously agonize about the future. Despite our continual engagement with the outside world, it can be within our own minds that we find the greatest noise and distractions.
Early in my high school career, I constantly scolded myself for past failures and worried unnecessarily about how I would perform on upcoming assignments. I was either hypnotized by fear of the future or chained to the past, never truly living in the present. Each satisfactory grade provided me with a marginal crumb of happiness but never quelled what seemed like never-ending, unavoidable worries. New tests and quizzes insidiously invaded my mind despite the past. Nagging anxieties extended past greed, but it took me two years of high school to understand my chronic affliction: being lost in thoughts.
When you really think about it, perpetual wandering is the natural state of consciousness. Our minds tend to repeat the same thoughts again and again, no matter if such thoughts are carried to completion or not. You can be having a perfectly happy time eating dinner with your family, but something as little as what you perceive as acting awkward around your crush one morning, or even missing the deadline for a past assignment, can ruin your experience and launch you into consistent mental noise. Yet the question remains: What produces these thoughts and how can we combat them?
The reality is that this mental fuzziness emerges whenever we exit the present by losing ourselves in solitary reveries. This happens when we unknowingly start going off on a tangent in our own mind. We have all repeated over and over our thoughts or fears quietly to ourselves, but imagine actually speaking every thought out loud; it would not be surprising to then be perceived as slightly mentally shaken. Yet, upon closer inspection, our normal behavior indeed does seem rather abnormal. It does not have to be that way. Therefore, it becomes imperative to understand the nature of thoughts — at least subjectively.
Just as sensations like sounds and tastes rise and fall in their intensity, thoughts are merely ephemeral abstractions that appear and fade away from consciousness. Memories of the past and worries for the future are just thoughts, so accepting that they will resolve themselves is part of a process. Instead of continuously talking to yourself, you can simply observe thoughts as you would observe the way clouds move in the sky. To extend the metaphor, the clouds are like emotions that simply appear and fade away, but are not the entire sky itself and should not be accepted as such.
The fact of the matter is we need not be unnecessarily wrapped up in our own minds. Stimuli from the outside world like homework, parties and noisy neighbors occupy us enough, and dealing with mental noise becomes a continuous process. Even master meditators, people with extreme amounts of patience and concentration, struggle with anchoring to the present.
Whenever dragged back to the past or enchanted by the future, just be reminded that what matters is the present, whether it is the simple act of doing homework, sitting around or socializing with friends. By observing thoughts as objects and constantly trying to remain in the present moment, it becomes far easier to be more aware, mindful and content. On a college campus, such a state has great value for our lives both within and outside the classroom.
Sudhanshu Sisodiya is a freshman in the College. Mental Musings appears every other Tuesday.
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