Mindful Waking: What Was Your First Thought Today?

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My husband and I have a long-standing tradition of bringing each other coffee to bed. Whoever is awake first and feels energized enough to let their toes touch the coldness of our fake hardwood floors eventually asks: “Would you like some coffee?” Or: “Magst du Kaffee?” Or “Vil du ha litt kaffe?” Depending on which language we are choosing to practice that day (we live in a curiously multilingual relationship).

I don’t know why we keep asking the question, because the answer is always yes, and the consequence is always that the asking person gets up, drags their leaden tiredness to the kitchen and pushes the magical button that miraculously produces two steaming cups of freshly ground coffee. These are then taken back to bed, where another fifteen, twenty, sometimes even thirty minutes are spent prolonging the semi-waking stage.

Now, if you think we are spending that time all cuddly and warm and fuzzy and happy, you are right. But only half-way right. See, my husband usually dozes off again, mumbling elaborate hymns about how divinely soft and amazing our bed is, greater hymns than he has ever sung about me — or he stares into space. When I ask him what is going on in the murky depths of his brain, he says “I’m in the Nothing Box.”

The Nothing Box is a magical place, a blissful place where, entirely without effort, nothing is thought. And some people just go there all of the time, naturally, automatically, smoothly.

Now me, I have to pay for meditation courses to get me there.

Because when I wake up, I may be tired — but my brain is not. There is no such thing as the Nothing Box in my brain. I am trying to make room for one, but let me tell you, it hasn’t just been there all along. My brain is a powerhouse. It likes to work and obsess and plan and calculate and estimate and expect and assume and ponder. And it starts doing so as soon as it surges from its nightly standby mode. Pam! I’m there.

Within the five short minutes that my eyes have been open my thoughts have already been all over the place. I have already been in Switzerland with my grandmother whom I am afraid is suddenly aging rapidly and somehow there is not enough time in the world to catch up with it and I am so far away and I don’t have the money to go home all the time. So my heart has already felt heavy and I’ve already felt like I am not being enough of a grand-child. I have mentally envisioned my “to-reply”-list of text messages and emails and invitations, feeling a pang of guilt that I haven’t answered this and that message, resolving to get to that immediately when truly starting my day. I have been in the future, too, re-counting the weeks leading up to my thesis deadline, making sure that I haven’t missed one, calculating the approximate amount of weeks I will still need for each of the case studies, observing a tiny surge of panic at the thought of perhaps needing more time (which I probably won’t. I’ll probably finish early, but my panic brain doesn’t like to feel safe, so it doesn’t allow for that to become the basic assumption). And lastly, my eyes catch sight of our window frames that should have been repainted with anti-mold paint last year but well, that never happened, and oh my God, what will the landlord say! Should I call him? Is it too late? Should we just wait until we move out (no current plans to do so) and see what happens? Will it even be an issue? And why is it always me who has to make these calls?

Sometimes — today for instance — I manage to snap out of it and observe my waking with mindfulness. This is when I consciously realize that I am already on that hamster wheel of thoughts that are just taking over my presence, melting from one random topic into the next. I can watch myself thinking things over at a frantic pace, but I don’t have to judge myself for doing so. I can just take note of this happening without attaching any value to it. I can observe the moment and my feelings about that moment as it is.

And then I can sometimes even remind myself of my personal 10 most destructive thought patterns, which are different for everyone (the list of which is now complete, by the way, so I may blog about it some time soon). I can suddenly remember that all thoughts are JUST thoughts, not reality. That I am not my thoughts. That thoughts are trains that we can identify and label and, once we have done that, we can either jump on them or watch them swoosh by. And sometimes, it may be the case that we suddenly realize we already ARE on one of the wagons — but no matter how fast the train goes, in the world of our brain it is always possible to jump off.

In an instant, my world is altered. I remember that I have a choice. Yes, I can choose to push onwards into the dark abyss of ruminations that, let us be frank, are usually really not that productive. One thought — let us take the window paint one — can trigger so many associations that take so much energy, and yet once we finally snap out of it, nothing has changed. The window frames look the same, the landlord has not been called, the problem (if it even IS one) has neither been worsened nor alleviated. And yet I have wasted emotional and cognitive energy on it because I decided to jump on that wagon and blindly race through my inner landscape with it. And don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that we shouldn’t tackle our problems. I am saying that we tend to have thought patterns (evolving around our problems) that create unnecessarily energy-depriving ruminations which are of absolutely no use to anyone, least of all ourselves.

Then, I remember my blanket and the colorful flower print on it and I suddenly remember how I could as well feel the incredible softness and the warmth and sing hymns about the goodness of our bed like my husband does (every night he goes to bed, mumbling that “yes, this is my favorite place I think. It must be.”). I remember my toes. I remember what they feel like. I feel my body. How it feels heavy and warm and good. How mornings are amazing. My gaze extends beyond the window frames to actually notice the endless blue of a morning sky illuminating the day. The sunshine makes me happy. I suddenly smell the coffee, its roasted bliss infusing my nostrils. I take a sip and taste it. I feel its heat transferring to my throat and my stomach and it feels good.

And just like that, I gained consciousness of another precious moment of my life in which beauty was there all along.

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