When I was young I had a very difficult time getting to sleep, but I wouldn’t say I struggled with sleeplessness. Rather, I would spend my time in the casual exploration of simply being alive; young, and furnished with the energy of my youth and the newness of my world, I would stay awake for long, observant hours. The whole world was still a novelty (and it still is, though I lose sight of that) and kept me in a state of rapt attention whether I liked it or not. Of the various memories I have of that time, one that has struck me lately is the sense of vivid awareness of my own internal state. And here I don’t mean my emotional state, but simply my basic physical one. I have memories of being completely entranced by the feeling of my organs at work. I could feel the pulse of my blood moving in my veins. Not just at my wrists and throat but through my arms and down my legs, flipping swimmer-like at the tips of my fingers and toes and then sailing back up towards my heart to start again. The process of food being digested was wildly and grossly felt in my stomach. My internal world, my almost mechanical piping and wiring, was clear in my awareness.
As an adult, this kind of physical self-awareness is significantly less available to me. If I really force myself to concentrate on it, I can still feel something moving around in my veins or my belly, but the truth is that it’s become old-hat; the day-to-day workings of my body are understood to be in order and no longer demand my attention. My attention seems to have drifted now to my thoughts. And this makes some sense: with the kind of life I’ve been trained to lead, thoughts are really useful tools. Thoughts help me move skillfully through my life, in a way that does a pretty good job of increasing happiness and decreasing sorrow. Not bad! But, there can be a danger inherent in privileging thought too highly. The body, too, offers useful information (the kind of information which tends to be less useful in school and more useful in life). This poses an interesting problem: how do you balance where your attention goes?
What I have recently come to realize is that what has been taking up so much of my attention lately is the same thing that took up my attention as a boy: the awareness of my organs functioning. In watching my mind with some perspective, I can see clearly that there is very little personal agency involved in creating thoughts. Certainly nothing I would call conscious decision making. I can vaguely influence the eventual contents of my thoughts by trying to focus on a particular topic in the same way that I can influence what happens in my gut by choosing what I eat, I cannot stop the process of thinking any more than I can stop the process of digestion. Which is to say, I have come to understand my mind as a kind of meta-organ, which has as its function the production of thoughts in the same automatic, unconscious fashion as my pancreas produces insulin.
So what’s useful about this? For me, it calls to mind some common and often harmful advice given to anxious people: “Don’t think so much.” This well-meaning effort to try and resolve a person’s anxieties is not only impossible, but also potentially quite harmful in its ability to convince a person that a strength of theirs is actually a dangerous weakness. Telling someone to think less is like telling them not to perspire - it might sound pleasant but it’s not possible. A more useful thing to do would be to abandon the idea of reducing thought, and instead helping a person refocus their attention somewhere else, like on their physical experience. From this point of view anxiety can be understood as assessing thoughts a little too highly, at the expense of ignoring the body. And while the difference here seems minor - thinking less versus paying attention to thinking less - the difference in meaning is significant. By making it a question of focus rather than automatic function, the solution moves from being impossible and threatening to workable and safe.