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Living in the present teaches awareness in the simple things

Last week, I brushed over the mechanics of meditation. This week I want to spend some time expounding on the flaws of an untrained mind, and the tremendous benefits that come from exercising one’s power of awareness.

We breathe every minute of every day of our lives, and yet awareness of the breath comes sporadically at best. Feel yourself breathe right now, and know that this act constitutes an integral part of your ability to live. In the same way we lose touch with something so important and mundane as breathing, awareness of one’s present moment consistently takes a backseat to a mob of silly stories in which we lose ourselves.

Following our thoughts and losing touch with reality is a disadvantage in three fundamental ways: 1. We shortchange the infinite beauty of the ever-present now. 2. We give undue respect to transient, immaterial thoughts. 3. Our powers of concentration atrophy into a state where the slightest breeze will carry our minds for miles.

Whenever silence falls about us, we can hear more clearly the worthless chatter filling our minds at all hours of the day, blocking the comprehension of direct sensory perception. It’s like walking through a dream; we leave our bodies behind, and chase after thoughts like butterflies across a field. Try sitting still in silence for 60 seconds and see what happens. The mind breaks free from the present moment, and plays out some personal drama involving either our past or our future.

[Southern Methodist University] is a veritable Garden of Eden, and yet we tend to not appreciate the vibrancy of the grounds while walking to class. Why? Because we’re too busy thinking about not having done our homework or some other triviality, to remember where we are. Today, right now, make the effort to enjoy the sights, sounds and smells that are always available for appreciation. Be here in body as well as mind.

Too often, people gear themselves simply toward the completion of preconceived tasks. We just want to check something off the list and forget it ever happened: Get ready for class, check; go to class, check; listen to a one-sided conversation, check. This goes on and on. This line of thinking precludes the possibility of enjoying the process and blinds us from the unexpected.

What about the funny way your roommate fell asleep in his or her street clothes on top of their bedspread? What about the birds chirping, the squirrels prancing and the flowers blooming? What about the professor’s mismatched socks? So much waits to be noticed and appreciated, and all you need to do is open your eyes.

Consider carefully what I’m about to propose regarding my second point: You are not your thoughts. Say it to yourself, “I am not my thoughts.” With a blank mind, you still exist, and therefore you are not your thoughts. This realization should have a tremendous effect on your life.

Our thoughts have no more substance than dreams, and yet we allow them to dictate our waking lives. You would not feel embarrassed after waking up from a dream where you went to class naked because you recognize that the dream did not take place. You know that the dream wasn’t real. Similarly, thoughts have only as much effect as we allow them to have.

So why do we blow these thoughts way out of proportion, ascribe them a central, concrete role in our sense of self and take them for something permanent? Simply put, we live in a continual state of mistaking thoughts for reality, thereby allowing them to grow out of control.

One of the most pragmatic results of meditation is coming to understand the clear distinction between thoughts and reality. You may be saying to yourself, “I know the difference between my thoughts and reality,” and you might be right, but I can guarantee that your awareness of reality slips as much as everyone else’s because of an inflated sense of importance ascribed to our thoughts.

And finally: Like any muscle in our body, stronger concentration can come only about through exercise, and practicing meditation is a fantastic way to improve this mindfulness.

Meditation will significantly reduce many unwanted habits of an obstinate mind such as reading a book without remembering the contents, talking to a friend and missing whole chunks of the conversation, falling asleep in class, feeling bored, feeling annoyed or feeling depressed.

Tranquil acceptance of the present will begin to play a greater part of your everyday life, and eventually seeps happily into your character. The details will begin to reveal themselves. You’ll want more and more life because every breath is noted and appreciated.

Schoolwork becomes less of a chore, and more of an opportunity to further practice mindfulness while learning valuable information. Walking to class becomes less of a prerequisite and more of a bonus. Life in general gains this ineffable luster as awareness broadens and strengthens.

Just as a quick reminder: To meditate, simply find a quiet spot and a comfortable place to sit, and make the conscious decision to spend the next little while settling your awareness gently onto your breath. Feel air entering your nostrils, moving down into your abdomen and enriching your blood. As thoughts inevitably arise, recognize them as an obstacle to your meditation and let them float away. Always return to the breath. Recognize thoughts and let them go. Appreciate this time to relax the mind.

Kevin O’ Toole writes for The Daily Campus, the student newspaper at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

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