The Time-Traveling Mind
The mind holds the marvelous and addictive gift of time travel. Our thoughts transport us to the past and re-lived memories flood us with old joys and successes, as well as pain of ancient wounds and disappointments. Our thoughts propel us into an unwritten future, where we swim in projected fantasies of our deepest desires and darkest fears. As intoxicating as it may be to linger in the hazy past and imagined future, there is a wise part of us that knows that both are a mirage. When we are able to reel our mind in to the present moment, there is such peace and satisfaction waiting for us in the now.
Yet this time-travel aspect of our mind is one of its superpowers and makes us human. Our ability to innovate, improve and make goals rests on this mental ability to anticipate the future and recall the past. Software engineers contemplate what performance problems came up in previous versions and imagine solutions that will give different results. Parents know the meltdown ready to happen in the early evening if their child doesn’t nap, so they structure their day in advance to make sure the child sleeps. The business person sees a lucrative career path, and so they sign up for classes now to get the skills and experience they will need in the long run. This capacity to remember old experiences and envision a future scenario is an invaluable evolutionary mental function. We are full of creativity and power when we are in control of this ability.
From our day to day experience, we can say that there seems to be two worlds. One is an outer world populated by tangible objects, people, places and things that we can perceive with our senses and physically manipulate with our speech and actions. The other is an inner world of subtle emotions, thoughts, impulses, memories, desires, etc. that are perceived by the mind and not directly by the senses.
The Five Senses as a Bridge Between the Inner and Outer World
The bridge between that outer and inner world is the Five Senses. It is through our senses of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell that we take in feedback from the physical world and use those impressions as fodder for our mental process. Our inner landscape of thoughts, feelings and ideas rapidly shifts in response to the outer world. When we hear news that someone has died, we may feel devastated. When we hear we have won the lottery, we may feel elated. Our memories get activated and imagination goes into overdrive based only on what we have heard. If we cut our finger on a knife, versus holding a child’s tender hand in ours, the emotional response is different. The same can be said for perceptions of sight, smell and taste.
While the mind is phasing between states of ‘has been’ and ‘could be’, our senses are functioning in the present moment alone. We can remember or imagine how something looks, but only when that thing is actually in our line of vision can we see it in the moment. We can replay someone’s words, or imagine the sound of them, but only when those vibrations are meeting our sense of hearing in the present can we say that we are actually hearing them.
It is exactly because of their time-bound nature that the senses can serve as tools to come back to the present. Many years ago, I remember my teacher, Acharya Shunya, describing how she used to use her senses to come back to the present. She said that if she felt her mind moving too far out of the present, she would pick up something nearby, like a book, and run her hand across its cover, flip its pages, feel its weight in her hands. Or perhaps she would pick up a fresh flower, look at its colors, observe the light filtering through the petals, inhale its fragrance. That focus on pure sensation brought her attention back to what was happening right then. After a few moments of focused reconnection to what the senses are perceiving, the mind’s activity is calmed and awareness of the timeless Self within emerges.
When you feel your mind is spiraling too deeply or frantically into the past or future, choose a sense to bring your attention to. Perhaps you are sitting with eyes closed on a park bench, or dipping your feet into a pool of water, or beginning a meal.
As you consciously experience one of your senses, let the perceptions wash over you without judgement, without assigning meaning or a story to them. Accept these sense impressions as they are. Do not try to control them. Breathe and receive the outside world in through your selected sense.
Dissolving into the present-moment sensations, your sense will become heightened and more and more subtle perceptions will arise. You will hear a bird perched even further away, you will pick up the smell of a fruit ripening on the kitchen counter, you will taste the hint of clove in your chai, as you hold a stone in your hand the puff of breeze on your neck will also register, your eyes will notice the subtle variation in greens of the leaves on the tree…
Stay in this meditative state of sensory experience for a few minutes.
As the mind naturally becomes more quiet, encounter the silent observer within. The presence that is always observing all that your senses are perceiving, yet is totally unaffected by those impressions. Your deepest Self is timeless, unchanging, expansive, indestructible, and consciousness itself. Regardless of the fluctuations and vibrations outside, your essence is always content, always pure, always whole. Stay here for some time.
Then take a few gently deeper breaths, become aware of your body, and relax your focused attention. Come back to your normal breath, refreshed and ready to be here, now.