Bimbling around the wintery garden in my ‘chores’ window each afternoon, I was very aware of that inner soundtrack of my thoughts – often irritated or obsessive – cycling round just as, days before, strains of “Jesus Christ Superstar” had cycled round.
My thoughts would descend into a wall-to-wall blanket of angry vengeful obsession
Sometimes as I yanked at resistant clumps of grass or grappled dandelion roots out of flowerbeds in the rain, my thoughts would descend into a wall-to-wall blanket of angry vengeful obsession. One or two people would spin around, over and over, in ever-varying combinations of insult or revenge.
On one level I was quite conscious of these thoughts. I could often see them clearly as “just angry, obsessive thoughts” and sometimes I could cut through them for a few moments of weeding before they crept back in just as the singing had done before.
What became much clearer though during this retreat was the parallel experience that is constantly going on around the thoughts. Alongside that thin gruel of thinking there was the sound of my fork jabbing the wet soil, there was the smell of freshly pruned laurel, there were birds singing, the clanging of the scrap metal movers down on the dock.
Usually my awareness foregrounds the thinking stream and all those experiences are in the background. They only really break the surface when they’re particularly extreme and even then they quickly disappear again under the duck-weed carpet of my thinking.
This is not even clear, ‘neo-cortical’ thinking. It’s more like an underground layer of weedy roots – much like the ubiquitous ground ivy that I was pulling up for hour after hour – that chokes out any of the other experiences happening around and about it.
What had been background suddenly snaps into the foreground
Without the constant hyperstimulation of TV, media, computers, chatter, this substructure of grumbling became much more apparent and I realised that the only way to escape it was to ‘switch’.
Switching involves noticing the parallel stream and abruptly swapping across to it.
It’s very hard to disentangle yourself from thinking with more thinking. Much more effective is the knife-like abruptness of simply switching all your awareness across to a sound, a smell, a feeling within the body.
What had been background suddenly snaps into the foreground. The field becomes the figure and the boring, claustrophobic thinking doesn’t vanish but becomes part of the background.
Reggie talks about this. With continued practice, the negative chatter of the mind doesn’t suddenly vanish. But like a radio left on in a neighbouring room, it becomes a faint feature of the background. While the foreground of experience is the compelling and precise nature of what is actually happening all around us. Simple, non-conceptual things. Smells, sounds, bodily experiences: the completely unpredictably, a 4-dimensional profusion of embodied life.
When we are asked to look at emotions we often end up thinking about them
It’s amazing how difficult it is to stay in this embodied and simply satisfying space. But it’s perhaps a sign of how total our indoctrination into left-brain processing has become. All the school, media and work systems we operate inside of in 2018 are all working on a thinking/conceptual mode. Even when we are asked to look at emotions we often end up thinking about them. So to suddenly switch out and plunge ourselves into the cold water of real, moment-to-moment experiencing is a vivid and somewhat unbelievable shock. You can try it now. Suddenly snap your awareness out of this thinking stream and click across to something real in the space where you are. Snap out of thought and switch across to the real.
How can we have missed this simple thing? Existence running on in all its variety. But that’s what has happened for all of us. The habit of shutting out the world is so ingrained it seems shocking when we switch out of the thinking mind and experience it directly. If only for a few moments.
Figure becomes field: thoughts disappear into the background. And field becomes figure: Life snaps into focus and we are satisfied. Moment to moment.
The practice is making those moments, longer and longer, more and more habitual.
I’d love to know your thoughts about foreground and background thinking. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!
Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.