A few months ago I started trying a daily practice of meditation – what’s referred to as “mindfulness,” actually. The idea is to quiet the mind and focus the attention on breathing, continually drawing stray thoughts back in. I’ve been using an app with a seven day series for beginners, just ten minutes a day.

And I’m terrible at it.

My brain is going in so many directions at once. And while sometimes it’s worry about what might happen or rehashing what has already happened, most of the time it’s just a running commentary. Most evenings it’s felt like all I’m doing the whole time is running after stray thoughts. I get one back only to realize another one is already well down another path. It’s like wrangling a pack of pre-schoolers.

And I’m learning that’s okay – learning not to get anxious about getting it “right.” Learning not to get frustrated by my hyperactive thoughts. Learning to struggle to learn something. Learning to give it time.

I have noticed something, though. The app encourages me to “pay attention” to my breath. It coaches me to draw those straying thoughts back to “pay attention.” And I’m beginning to think that, for me, trying to “pay attention” is part of the problem.

When I pay attention to something, I mentally pull back to observe. To pay attention to an experience is to, in some sense, take myself out of it so I can turn around and watch it. 

But I’ve learned something different in the past few years – I’ve learned a little of what it means to be present. For me, at least, that’s entirely different.

When I’m able to be fully present, I don’t need to pay attention – I’m there. I’m not thinking, I’m knowing. I’m not using my mind, I am. My whole self, including my mind, flowing together and simply being. Feeling, responding, improvising, experiencing, living.

I could never pay attention to a kiss and really be present to the kiss, just enjoying the kiss, at the same time. 

Mindfulness seems to work in a bit of the same way. If I can stop paying attention to my breath and just be present with it, my mind stops racing off in eight directions. It’s not easy to shush the commentary (“see, now this is working! Interesting that paying attention is so different…hey, maybe there’s a blog post in that!”).

But it’s a start. Somewhere to try learning more about myself and how I engage life and encounter the world.

If I can just stop paying attention long enough.

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