One of the gifts of life is the ability to forget suffering. When a person becomes injured, all of their attention focuses on pain. For example, a stubbed toe heals incredibly quickly. A person may experience a lot of pain for a few minutes but eventually will forget about the incident. Two days later, they won’t even remember it. Suffering caused by headaches or soreness takes longer to recover from. For a few hours or days, all of a person’s attention will focus on pain.
It would take a lot of energy to focus on the physical sensations across our entire body. If we payed attention to how our legs feel when we walk and our breath when we run, we may run into a wall. Unfortunately there is only so much attention that we can spread out. We can either think about what we’re going to have for dinner, how last night went, or we can focus on this exact moment.
Our limited attention isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There is so much information around us that if we could focus on more, our heads may explode. At this moment I’m experiencing the sensation of typing, the color of the computer screen, the sound of the fan blowing, the temperature, the humidity, exhaustion from walking, a little bit of hunger… the list could continue. If I could focus on all of these at once, it would be sensory overload.
In the book “The Reason I Jump”, the author, who has Autism, explains how he doesn’t always have the ability to regulate his attention. Most people are able to concentrate on one subject – the book they’re reading, the people around them, the color of the walls et cetera. Naoki Higashida says that this regulation or organizing of thoughts, is impossible at times. Colors jump out, or the shininess of an object, or the feel of fabric. The world feels like it’s too much, full of details but not the overall idea.
Without sensory regulation and the ability to concentrate, we’d overload. The way our body prevents this overstimulation is through forgetting. When we initially experience a new blanket, we may notice the softness or thickness of the fabric. Within a few weeks, we will no longer notice either trait. We adjust to the world around us and forget excess details to prevent sensory overload.
We also forget details because we are mentally preparing for new information. If we walked barefoot through grass for the first time, we would notice how unusual it felt on our feet. After experiencing this multiple times, we forget the sensation. If we continued to focus on that sensation, we may miss new experiences like a plane flying overhead or a deer running into the woods. There isn’t enough attention to focus on everything.
This adjustment to our environments or forgetting sensory data, ultimately leads to unhappiness. When you travels to a new city, it may be exhilarating. The air may feel more crisp, food could have more flavor, the people may appear much different. While any of these could be true, it’s more likely that you’re focusing on your senses. You may have the same feelings in your hometown but you no longer notice them.
An easy way to notice this is to walk around your city. People who are new will be engaging with their environments to a greater degree. If you pay attention to them, they will be looking around and moving their head more. Now focus on other people who don’t look around and move their heads – it is likely that these people live in the city or have been there many times. Instead of looking around at places they’ve already seen, they look straight ahead. Even sitting in traffic you can notice this about people; some will look forward with a dead look in their eyes and other will be absorbing their environments.
The longer we go without new experiences, the more that we disengage from our environments. If we walk down the same street everyday, we will stop paying attention to it. Inevitably we will drone on and focus on our mind.
Earlier we were talking about the limits of our attention; we can only focus on so many details. Well one of the “details” we have is our mind. If we focus on our mind (thoughts, feelings, judgments), we use some of our limited attention span. Putting half our attention into how we feel emotionally (“it’s a beautiful day”, “that building is off center”, “the grass is prickly”) restricts how much information new information we can absorb. If we’re constantly making judgements about our environments, we aren’t fully experiencing them.
A huge part of “Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” discusses a similar concept. We think about what we’re experiencing more than we actually experience something. What this means is that we look at the sky and think “that is blue”. Of course it’s blue, it’s the sky. When you reduce the sky to the word “blue”, you negate the exact experience of looking at it.
Let’s reverse that: you’re sitting in a chair blindfolded. In front of you is a man who is explaining the sky. He says “the sky is blue and filled with white puffs of air”. Now try to imagine seeing the sky for the first time with only those labels. Would your image accurately align with what the sky looks like? No way, because the sky is so much more than words can describe. “Blue” doesn’t do it justice.
It’s incredibly important to understand that your experience of the world cannot fit into words. You cannot fully describe what it’s like to sit on a chair much less what if feels like to fall in love. You can explain pieces of what these sensations are but they will always be less. There will be no perfect combination of words to explain what heartbreak feels like.
The reason this is important is because over time we fade. Our cities lose their color, the grass loses its texture, our work dulls and our lives become boring. We simplify our lives to make room for new experience but in the process we forget old sensations.
Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance discusses a concept which I believe is a solution. The author calls it “pre-intellectualized” experience. It’s the moment when you immediately take in sensations but you don’t process them. An example would be to look at the sky and just feel it. Don’t label the feeling or reduce it to judgements – just look at it. When you step on the grass, don’t think about the texture, just feel it. Concentrate on the sensation instead of labeling it.
While it’s a blessing that we can forget suffering, like injuries or heartbreak, it’s also a curse. Over time we stop absorbing environments we spend a lot of time in. We forget what our house feels like or the comfort of laying in bed. These sensations are what make life full of color and vigor. When we experience the world, we have the ability to appreciate it. If you don’t notice the color of the sky, how can you appreciate it?
That appreciation and awareness is the basis of true love. By removing labels and experiencing life without words, you also remove the desire to change your environments. True love is centered around appreciation and acceptance. Osho once said, “If you love a flower, don’t pick it up. Because if you pick it up it dies and it ceases to be what you love. So if you love a flower, let it be. Love is not about possession. Love is about appreciation.”
Eventually wordlessness creates a silence in your life. Over the last month there have been times where I notice how quiet everything around me is. The loudest thing is my thoughts. At those points I pay attention to the silence and the sensation of what it’s like to be alive. No words, no descriptions.
Unfortunately this is where I run out of words to continue. In life we naturally forget what we become accustomed to. If we stop paying attention to our environments, we stop experiencing. Eventually we don’t look at the sky, because we create an image of it in our head, we already know what it looks like. We don’t feel the grass when we walk because we’ve already experienced that. Food starts to taste dull and it’s because we keep looking for new experience. What you have now is enough. There is so much to experience at this moment, life is never truly dull. You just have to pay attention to your life and take it all in!
This is what mindfulness is about! Learning to pay attention to your body and the experience of being alive. Sit down, slow down, and really focus on your senses!