I sit1. Which is to say that every morning before I start work (or even side-projects like this, writing for the blog) I sit down for somewhere between ten and twenty minutes and practise focus and mindfulness.
It’s something considerably different the rest of my day, which tends to consist either of:
- Rushing around everywhere and piles of busywork, or
- Periods of intense concentration and flow
When I sit down in the morning, a lot of the time my mind will end up looking like this:
Once I clear away all the immediate stimuli from the outside world (“Is it raining outside? What kind of jam is open? Are those sounds the girlfriend waking up or a burglar climbing through the window?”) my brain sees this writing mass of unresolved mental effort sitting at the back of my mind, and attacks it, because that’s what it’s trained to do. It picks at one of those threads and worries at it, pulling and gnawing until it gets right into the thick of it. If I’m lucky, it’ll keep on going on that thread and I’ll end up having half a thought about it. More likely, though, it’ll get distracted by something else that’s on my mind, and I’ll switch from working out how I’m going to graph a set of data to wondering what encounter my Thursday night gaming group will face. Which solves neither of these problems.
The problem is that my mind won’t let go of these thoughts. I want to forget about them and focus on being here, but of course my mind thinks that if I forget this thing now I’ll never remember it again.
The solution is to make sure there’s a pen and pad handy nearby. Whenever I get a thought that won’t go away, one of those writhing black threads of open-loop-ness, I write it down, in as much detail as I think I’ll need (although a lot of the time all I need is a few words to recall the whole thing back to mind). Now I’ve removed one of the threads:
Things are a bit clearer, and that ball of unresolved mental effort is showing holes. As long as I keep having stray thoughts that won’t go away, I write them down. By the end of it, I should have something that looks more like this:
Or if I’m really lucky, I might get this:
The number of recurring thoughts depends heavily on the circumstances. If I’ve had a hectic evening, or there’s something I’ve been thinking about that’s not written down somewhere, I’ll end up with three or four things I need to process once I’ve finished sitting. If everything’s good I probably won’t need it.
In this way, sitting has a dual purpose:
- If everything is in its proper place, and everything I care about is written down, I can get on with sitting like normal.
- If something is out of place, or I need to do something and I haven’t written it down, I now have five minutes to calm my mind, and things I’ve been thinking about will float to the surface.
Either way, I’m better off at the end of it. It just depends heavily on what sort of help I need.
This is a self-deprecating term I’ve shamelessly cribbed from internet person Merlin Mann to refer to what I guess you technically call vipassana meditation - that is, the practice of meditation to develop focus. The problem is that I feel like either an incredible snob or an incurable hippy if I use the term “meditate” - I guess it has a bit of baggage associated with it. Sitting, however, handily encompasses the act of both meditating and, as more frequently happens, failing to do so. ↩