There are days when things get moving so fast that inevitably there is a moment where I have to set everything down, take a breath and smooth out the tangle of my thoughts. It’s as if by taking a few moments to sit still and re-connect with myself, I have run a comb through my thoughts and can carry on without the knots that form with too much mental activity. I have always felt like hair is a good metaphor for thoughts because like hair, if properly cared for your thoughts can be silky and luscious and shiny, while if you just let them fly crazy and out of control eventually you find yourself frazzled.
A few years back I was reading a piece in the New Yorker about the renovation of the fountain at Lincoln Center and found an even better metaphor for precision of thought that came in the form of an explanation of fountain technology. I was happy to finally learn what makes the water leap and dance in the fountains like the one at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. The principal behind the phenomenon is called, laminar flow. Laminar flow is achieved through a process of diminishing turbulence in a stream by removing cross-currents, eddies, and swirls so the fluid flows in very orderly parallel layers. It is the quality produced by replacing chaos with order. By cultivating this quality engineers are able to make water perform in delightful and amazing ways such as shooting in a sleek fifteen-foot arc without breaking up.
Many years ago my grandmother told me about how when she was a child she would card wool for her mom to spin into yarn. “Hours and hours,” she said, of pulling the wool, removing imperfections, combing it and combing it so that the clumps came out and all of the fibers went in the same direction. This process of cultivation is what I think of when I think of laminar flow or combing my hair, or taking five minutes in the middle of the day to walk or sit and meditate. If I can untangle my thoughts and make them all march in the same direction they become more powerful and precise and I am more able to move through my day free of the turbulence and clumps. I have material to spin yarn with. I can project with precision and focus.
If you take a minute to listen to what is actually going on up in your head it might sound like a mish mash of work, laundry, bills, love, joke you heard, irrational worry, irrational worry, irrational resentment at the jerk from your commute this morning, work task 1, radio song, work tasks 2-8, irrational work worry, radio song, influenza scare, birthday, aging, skin cream, work tasks 9-11, coffee, radio song, bills, hot guy from the sandwich shop, what am I doing with my life? Why did I wear these shoes? Why didn’t they run the ball?… and on and on forever.
I’m sorry to have subjected you to the nonsense in my head, but it helps me to be able to share with you the dire need that I have to maintain a mental hygiene practice. Maybe you don’t have this need, but if you do and would care to hear about mine, here it is: Set everything down. Sit, stand or walk quietly on your own for a few minutes. Breathe. Observe your breath. When your mind wanders simply notice without judgment that you’ve been thinking and return to your breath. That radio song pop up again? Don’t respond just return to your breath. At first all the turbulence might try to roil to the surface, but the breath is constant and steady. Returning to it is the process of removing the cross-currents, eddies and swirls by applying order and direction to your mind.
The sounds around you might take on new qualities. They might seem louder or more significant. You might notice the rumble of your building’s ventilation system where before it was drowned out by the business in your head. It’s okay. Just notice it and keep going back to your breath. Maybe now that you’ve slowed down and cleared your mind you will suddenly remember something that urgently needs done. It can wait a few moments longer. Give yourself a little more space–a minute or two more. Stay with the breath until you start to feel more connected to yourself and more serene.
Implementing a practice might seem very ambiguous and challenging at first, but eventually it will feel as natural as anything else you do to get ready for your day. It can take as long as washing your face and brushing your teeth to feel free of distractions and minor stressors or, if you find that giving yourself this space to breathe feels good you might find that it is nice to set aside time specifically to sit quietly and meditate on a regular basis. I have found that when I observe a regular practice it enhances my ability to be more present in my day-to-day activities and to be more resourceful with my time and energy.
What are some techniques you like to use?