“Think about what you’re doing.” As a child I heard this instruction most days from my frustrated mother.
I was a head-in-the-clouds child; not so much in the creative sense of making up friends, or worlds (though I did a little of both) – more like wondering, or anticipating.
I might be trying unsuccessfully to tie a shoe lace, wondering which pony I would ride on Saturday. Mum would notice my faraway look and say, “Think about what you’re doing.”
And I would think, “Right, what am I doing? Putting my shoes on… I wonder why humans are the only animals who wear shoes? Except horses of course, but that’s only because we make them… are we the only animals who make other animals do things?’… and so on.
I was thinking about what I was doing, but not in a way that got my shoelace tied. The instruction got lost in translation between Mum’s pragmatism and my tendency to abstract concepts. If she’d had the language, she might have said instead: “Bring your awareness to what your hands are doing right now.”
It’s an experiment I often suggest to clients whose minds tend to leap off across lily pads: practise bringing yourself present to your current task, or your immediate choices.
Of course lily-padding is both natural and productive to those inclined that way, but it can also distract them from important tasks – such as applying for a much-needed job or significant decisions (such as whether to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’).
Abstract thinkers aren’t always aware that being present comes easy to natural pragmatists; that the present is where they spend most of their lives. For them, the unfamiliar stretch is to dream. But being present in the moment is almost impossible for those with a strong tendency to lily-padding.
Any habit needs time and work to take on a life of its own. But one major obstacle is not even remembering to be present. This is where a daily, scheduled, mindfulness meditation can really help. It’s discipline training for the mind, strengthening of the attention.
Once we’ve got the habit of being present, able to bring ourselves back from the clouds at will, we’re far better able to deal with the present: whether choosing what to prioritise next, or tying a shoelace.