I am in one of those periods in life where it is very easy to get caught up in anticipating the future. Recovering from hip replacement surgery, getting around with the aid of a crutch, having strict limitations on my mobility, it is challenging for me not to look forward to when I will be walking normally without a crutch, driving a car, bending more than 90 degrees, and experiencing the pain free benefits for which I went through the surgery in the first place.
When such leaning into the future thoughts become so obvious, it’s an excellent opportunity to really notice them as they arise and to sit with them a bit.
In doing so, I see that these anticipatory thoughts involve comparing my current experience with others. This other experience may be an imagined future one, as in this case, but it could just as easily be some remembered past experience, or the imagined experience of someone else whose life seems vastly superior in some way.
By noting that my thought process is in a comparing mode, I have brought a clear awareness to my mind activity. This awareness isn’t judging the activity, but if I am suddenly judging, then hopefully I can become aware of my mind switching into a judging mode. These modes are in constant movement throughout our days. We don’t have to switch them off, we just benefit by becoming aware of them.
Now I could at this point just note ‘comparing’ or ‘judging’ and return to the breath. But I can also choose to notice if there is any emotion attached to this thought. And in this case I was surprised to find there was. I discovered an underlying fear or anxiety that seems to ask the question, “What if?” In my case: “What if I am the unusual patient that doesn’t fully heal, that continues to need a crutch, continues to feel pain forever?”
It doesn’t matter how rational these “What if?” scenarios are. If we are to have an honest and open exploration, we need to accept what is true for us in this moment. Sometimes the mind rushes in to offer supporting evidence for the fear, fueling it. Or, conversely, our mind might argue with the fear, belittling the experience. But rational arguments hold no sway with emotion, they just add the new emotion of frustration or shame on top of it.
The challenge is to simply acknowledge an emotion in our current experience and sit with it. In our sitting with it we might then discover a physical component to the emotion — a tightness in the chest or tension in the jaw, for example. If so, we can sit with the physical sensation and breathe into it. Which ultimately brings us back to the breath, where we focus our attention.
Why bother with all this awareness?
Well it might save us and those around us from a lot of unnecessary suffering!
In the usual course of events, a thought trips a whole series of actions and reactions. Staying with my current case, I am caught up in anticipating a few weeks down the road when I will be returning to normal activity. The emotional component is a small underlying anxiety, as noted, but more noticeably an eagerness to get the show on the road. This could quite easily lead to over-reaching my current physical boundaries in this moment out of a restless impatience, which could cause injury. It could also make all my interactions with others a little testy or grumpy, as I complain of my current fate. Instead of savoring the wonderful visits from friends and family and being incredibly touched by the tender care of my wonderful husband, I could be making both their lives and mine a living hell. I’m sure there are many other possible results as well, but you get the idea.
By paying attention and noting our thoughts, we don’t get rid of them, but they are somehow derailed from their causative roles. They exist but they have lost their powerful hold on us. We can be with them with spacious awareness, acknowledging them but not ruled by them.
And it all starts in meditation, noticing that we are thinking, then noting the mental mode of the thought (planning, remembering, comparing, judging, fantasizing, problem solving, etc.) Then we have the option to see if there is any emotional component, then any physical sensation that accompanies it. Then we simply breathe into the physical sensation.
Our attention always comes home to the simple but miraculous core of our physical existence: the rise and fall of the breath.