Have you ever been part of a conversation and tuned out? You got distracted by your thoughts and then realized you’d missed a significant portion of what the other person said? The worst is when you get caught and have to admit you weren’t listening and need them to repeat them-selves. Other examples of this type of mental distraction include arriving at a destination without having any memory of driving there (this always happens to me when I’m on the phone!) or reading a page of text and realizing you haven’t taken in any of the content.
What’s this all about? Dr. Harris explains that these are all instances where our observing self is distracted by our thinking self. The thinking self is like a time machine – constantly pulling us into the future by planning, worrying, and dreaming or into the past by rehashing events or remembering when times were better. When we do actually think about the present our mind typically judges, critics, and struggles against reality. “And this constant mental activity is an enormous distraction. For a huge part of each day, the thinking self completely diverts our attention from what we’re doing” Harris states.
This section of The Happiness Trap helped me to understand an odd phenomenon I used to experience pretty routinely, often while checking out at the grocery store but also at the office. Man, this is hard to explain. It felt like I was in a daze, of sorts. Like I was listening and trying to engage another person but my mind was cloudy and my thoughts and words weren’t coming as quickly as usual. After several instances of this, I noted that it occurred after a long stretch of being “in my head” and then trying to switch gears to communicate with someone else. Now I can recognize that “being in the moment” had actually started to feel strange because I spent so much time absorbed in my thoughts. Or, to use Harris’s terms, I was simply disconnected.
Connection is the third core principle of ACT. What is connection? It means “being fully aware of your here-and-now experience, fully in touch with what’s happening in the moment.” And why is it important to be in touch with the present? Because “to create a meaningful life, we need to take action. And the power to act exists only in this moment.”
When I think about being connected to the moment and primarily experiencing life through the observing self more than the thinking self, it reminds me of that quote by John Stuart Mill: “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.” Once your mind starts commentating on what is happening, you are pulled from the pure experience of the moment (that may help you live a meaningful life) and engage in judging, evaluating, or critiquing your feelings.
So, practicing connection simply means letting your observing self take over. Harris says, “it involves bringing our full attention to what is happening here and now without getting distracted or influenced by the thinking self.” There are several exercises that Harris outlines; the first few all involving awareness of your surroundings, such as being aware of your body, your breath, and sounds. While doing all of these simple exercises, Harris notes that thoughts will continually pop up and advises:
- Let those thoughts and feelings come and go, and stay connected.
- When your attention wanders, the moment you realize it, acknowledge it.
- Silently say to yourself, “Thanks, Mind.” Then gently bring your attention back to the exercise.
Building on thesebasic exercises, he describes the “Notice Five Things” exercise:
- Pause for a moment.
- Look around and notice five objects you can see.
- Listen carefully and notice five sounds you can hear.
- Notice five things you can feel against the surface of your body.
These exercises are simple, but they really helped me to realize how disconnected I’d been from my present, here-and-now experience. Harris uses the expression “half awake” to describe a life lived with the thinking self running the show. Maybe that’s the best description of the odd feeling I tried to express above!
The way Harris describes the observing self as registering “everything it observes with openness and interest” is very appealing to me. Curiosity is great! Therefore Harris explains:
“The fascinating thing is that when, with an attitude of openness and interest, we bring our full attention to an unpleasant experience, the thing we dreaded often seems much less bothersome than before. Likewise, when we truly connect with even the most familiar or mundane experience, we often see it in a new and interesting light.”
Can you guys relate to feeling the distinction between being disconnect or connected to the moment? I’d love to hear others thoughts on this idea!