I struggle mightily to close my eyes, focus, and breathe to a count of ten.
At around four or five seconds, I can find my mind trying its best to fend off the thoughts knocking violently at its gates. By six or seven, there’s usually a breach. By eight or nine, I’ve already been overrun with a half dozen thoughts.
And this is after more than a year of using Headspace, the meditation app. There may be a few instances when I find that I can get to 10 with a clear mind, but these are a rarity.
I sometimes feel like my mind is a Superfund site, contaminated and polluted with many years of distractions and poor habits. It’ll take years of cleanup before it’s safe for sustained, quiet thoughts.
I’ve been thinking about how reluctant I am to lose myself in my own thoughts. I am always reacting to external stimuli. The smartphone is the ultimate distraction tool. Even without the social networking apps that I’ve deleted as well as the notifications I’ve turned off, I still find myself checking for text messages, headlines on ESPN and NY Times, and email. Sometimes, I’m barely conscious of the fact that I reach over and check these things. If I want a more mindful type of engagement, I’m consuming content, either reading on Kindle or Medium or listening on Audible or Podcasts. These often lead to more productive outcomes, but they still put my mind in a reactive mode. There is no quiet. It’s as if I’m afraid to go on a walk without the sound of a book narrator or a podcast host talking into my ears.
Why do I care about breathing to ten, about having quiet? I’d like to think that giving my mind the space to calm down, get bored, and slowly explore itself internally may help me develop the abilities I feel I lack: the patience and the willpower to think about various things in-depth, to not lose the thread of cohesion, and to synthesize familiar ideas into something new. I’ve experienced such moments in bits and pieces, but I’m hopeful that more than a chunk of my waking days can be spent this way. And even if these moments don’t come easily or don’t come at all, I’d like to steer my senses to absorb more of the world beyond the screens I put in front of my eyes. It’s not that I dislike or want to escape the technology. I’d love to exercise, or feel that I exercise, a small degree of control in how I spend my conscious time. Wish me luck.