Over the past year I've done a fair bit of writing. Below is an excerpt from a larger project I've been working on. It's roughly edited, and I shortened it up quite a bit to make it blog-friendly. Hoping the idea still makes its way through the fragments...
Each morning, after a sunrise surf, I would head down to the common area and up the stairs to the yoga loft above the “lobby”. It was a small, open-air studio, just close enough to the beach to be filled with echoes of ocean waves and just far enough away that the surfers wouldn’t’ be distracted by watching the surf. Most mornings, the only people in the loft were the young woman yogi named Nicole, pro Brazilian skateboarder Gunther Barros, and myself. The intimate setting made for an awesome practice.
One morning we took some time at the beginning of class to work on meditation. We began by clearing our minds and rinsing them of any thoughts, good or bad. The point of the art is to think about nothing – easier said that done for most. I’d spent some time practicing mediation prior this trip, at the occasional yoga class and on my own, so I was decent at it. We were a few minutes into the meditation, and I was just becoming deeply focused (on nothing), when the lawn maintenance crew began ripping around the landscaping just outside the loft. Based on the noise level, they may have had every electric lawn tool on the island of Bali. Though I was a novice, I knew this was just another obstacle to reaching full focus, and so I did my best to tune out the lawn crew.
The dawn patrol lawn patrol was on its second lap around the shrubbery when Gunther broke the silence in the loft and in broken English asked Nicole, “Can you tell them to stop??!” I noticed her chuckle to herself just slightly slightly, before standing up, walking out to the balcony, and asking the maintenance men to stop…or at least delay their noisy activities 30 minutes. Ironically they were so loud that they couldn’t hear the yogi's request. After a mediocre effort, and being less than upset when they didn’t fulfill her wishes, she stepped back into the room.
I understood immediately why she lacked disappointment. We were practicing meditation. The goal is to be able to enter a depth of focus to the point that you are able to block out all external diversions and eventually be unaffected by them. With that said, you can be aware of the things taking place in your external environment, but after becoming aware, you have the choice whether or not to engage in them. The current situation was the perfect display of that challenge. Your external environments does not need to be in a state of perfect calm for your internal to be - heck, you could meditate at Monster Jam! Nor does your internal need to begin in a calm state; the idea is to get it there. The practice is about sifting through thoughts and throwing them all to the wayside for a period of time.
On this morning we were being challenged, perhaps to the point that would be difficult for a rookie meditator to overcome, but the challenge was to concentrate completely on our internal selves without being distracted by the weed whacker roaring just feet below us. Being aware of the disturbance outside was okay; it was deciding whether or not we were going to let it bother us that was the challenge.
Awareness as it applies to negativity
Oftentimes, people striving to better themselves put themselves down for having negative thoughts. Regardless of what it's about, they believe that once the thought comes to mind, they’ve failed. “I’m a bad person for having these thoughts.” If this were the case, we’d be living on a planet where 99% of the population was doomed. Truth is, though we should do our best to think positively, IT’S OKAY to have negative thoughts, and if you wait around until the day when you don’t have them, you’ll most likely think you're a crummy person your entire life. What is important is what you do with the thought after it's come to you.
We all have the conscious choice to engage or not to engage in any particular thought. You can either let it go immediately, in one ear and our the next, or choose to engage and allow the thought to grow. Being lured into a negative thought allows this snowflake to hit the ground, begin to roll, and as you become more and more focused, it builds momentum. Growing rapidly in size, the tiny snowflake is now a giant snowball bound to crash at the bottom of the hill. Engaging negative thoughts carries you farther and farther away from where you started, your original mindset, until you’ve lost sight of the breadcrumbs and can’t remember the way home. This is not only harmful, but a waste of time. You can be disappointed in yourself for engaging in a negative thought but realize that next time you can decide not to feed it and get swept down the hill. Simply notice the snowflake and let it drift away in the breeze.
Awareness as it applies to productivity
In addition to wanting to alleviate stress and increase positivity, I practice awareness because negativity it is a time waster. Being slightly obsessed with productivity, finding myself chasing my tail around in circles is my worst fear.
Simple example: In my last semester of college, being eager to finish and perhaps having some tendencies to overachieve, I bit off more than I could chew, taking five upper level classes at the same time. I could NOT stop dwelling on the thought of not succeeding in getting good grades. I was so nervous, even having a GPA of 3.8 at the time. I actually believed there was a chance I was going to fail the most difficult of my courses. Unable to slow the constant flow of anxiety, one day I considered the amount of energy I was expending on the idea of not succeeding. I was burning incredible amounts of perfectly good energy on the idea that I wasn’t going to have enough time or energy to do well. A truly contradictory thought when I actually stopped to think about it. I became aware of the situation and realized that the stress wasn’t helping me in any way; it was actually wasting precious time and energy. Then I decided that instead of burning one calorie, or whatever unit brainpower is measured in, on worrying, I’d instead save all of my energy to actually do the coursework. And it worked. I shut my brain up and got to work. I got a 4.0 that semester.
All philosophical blabber aside, engaging in negative thoughts is bad for you, and, like a dog chasing it’s tail in a circle, isn’t going to get you anywhere. Regardless of how enticing the red apple of negativity is, following it will never lead you to happiness or any resolution for the short- or long-term. If it regards to an anxiety based thought, and you want to completely stop having it in the first place, you must DO something about it. There is absolutely nothing helpful or productive about dwelling on anything, whether it's something you can or cannot do something about. If there’s something you can do: do it; if there’s not, let it go.
Negativity Be Ware!
Awareness is something I practiced long before ever stepping into a yoga studio or learning about meditation. And until the Bali lawn maintenance crew showed up that morning, I’d never seen it depicted in a situation involving others. It’s a helpful tool that can be applied in many ways and areas of your life, including anger, fear, loss, frustration, or just time management. For me, it’s been a helpful tool throughout my cancer journey and other various anxieties I’ve dealt with throughout my life. With that said, it is not easy, and like any skill, takes practice. It’s important not to get frustrated if (and when) you can’t master it immediately. Your brain is a muscle and your thoughts are habitual – you must train your brain and kick your bad habits. With practice, it will become easier and easier, and eventually become routine.
Difficult experiences are not fun, but each one is an opportunity for us to practice awareness. Life doesn’t get easier, but you can get stronger.
So be aware of your internal environment and your thoughts. Be aware of your external environment and what’s happening around you. You should always be aware, but remember you always have the choice in which thoughts to engage in. Challenge yourself and choose wisely.