by Patton Hyman
Years ago I gave a talk about meditation. I was sitting in a chair and wearing a jacket and tie. During the Q&A following the talk, a fellow at the back of the room shot his hand up and said, “I can’t learn anything from somebody who wears a tie!” I was surprised and somewhat amused, as were many other people in the room. But he wasn’t joking, as his tone of voice confirmed.
I don’t imagine he thought of himself as a closed-minded person; his objection to a tie probably arose from an assumption that ties symbolize authority or hierarchy and the narrowness and rigidity sometimes associated with them. While his challenge reflected rigidity that was probably inconsistent with his self-image, his preconceptions kept him from hearing what I had to say that night about training the mind which is too bad because I suspect his mind was tighter than my necktie.
Once we realize how the untrained mind keeps us from connecting fully with the world, the benefits of applying mindfulness become apparent. As we start observing our minds, we see how the untrained mind separates us from our direct experience by automatically and relentlessly accompanying our experience with mental and emotional commentary. That commentary colors our experience and distracts us from being present with what is happening around us.
Imagine being so busy planning a rebuttal to an imagined slight in a opponent’s presentation that you miss his main point. Or suppose you’re avoiding an overly chatty subordinate only to find out later that she took her money-earning idea to your boss. How about being in the middle of a presentation and seeing a look on your superior’s face that causes you to lose confidence in what you’re saying and sputter to a close, never knowing that his expression was triggered by remembering he’d forgotten to make dinner reservations? In situations like these, our inner dialogue actually harms our perception of reality because we fail to see how its filter of interpretation colors our experience. The inner commentary is so ubiquitous and has been with us so long that we don’t even realize it’s there, much less that there is an alternative.
Mindfulness meditation helps us drop the habitual soundtrack. While sitting in meditation, we begin to notice that not only do we have thoughts, but they are often repetitive. And not only are they repetitive, they often have nothing to do with anything that’s actually going on around us. Habitual mental chatter is like leaving the TV on without watching it, creating meaningless background noise. Conversely, the experience of presence is like watching a sporting event on TV without the commentary or “color”—or even better, attending the event in person, where we can feel the energy of the crowd and hear the sounds of the game. Once we see how our inner chatter resembles the endless repetitions of a dotty old uncle, we find it less convincing and we don’t need to take it so seriously.
Meditation also shows us that there is an alternative to habitual inner turmoil, something that is true, consistent, and accessible. It is that sense of presence, of just being here, in a body, with sense perceptions, both external and internal. Presence is so simple and so subtle that we may have missed it for most of our lives, or only noticed it peeking through in moments of tenderness or beauty. Meditation lets us notice simple presence and see that it’s always there behind the mental chatter, an ever-present screen on which our sense perceptions and other experiences are projected.
Presence is what hears our thoughts, feels our emotions, and perceives our experiences. When we learn to rest in presence, not only do we inhabit our lives more fully, we bring greater enthusiasm and insight to every aspect of life. Contrary to the idea that meditation is for self-absorbed navel-gazers, we find that its practice helps us engage more fully with whatever life offers.
The mindfulness cultivated by meditation opens us to creative solutions and insights so that we can be more skillful in work and relationships with others. When we are in the midst of a constant storm of thoughts, some of which may include valuable information, it’s hard to tell the wheat from the chaff.
Applying mindfulness to cut through distraction and preconceptions and cultivate presence is like panning for gold: it allows innovative ideas to reveal themselves as the treasures they are. And it allows us to recognize wisdom wherever it shows up. Even if it comes from a guy in a tie.
This post was adapted from Patton’s book The Inner Advantage: Applying Mindfulness in Business and Law—and Everywhere Else!