The Strangeness of Consciousness: Stray Observations from My Morning Meditation

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A stray observation from my meditation this morning: being alive is really weird. 

As I sat on my cushion and tried to be with my breath and in the moment, I did my best to use mindfulness to reflect and observe myself. I paid closer and closer attention to my thoughts and feelings and had a few realizations: 

Firstly,  I’m a solipsistic, narcissist whose every thought and feeling centers around me and my needs. That’s not shocking, I suppose because that describes everyone to some extent. But as I sat with myself, I saw how self-centered my conscious state is. No wonder most of the world’s religions try to take our self-centered gaze and try to direct it elsewhere, whether in compassion or through God because left to our own devices as humans, we are often violent and selfish. 

Secondly, unless directed intentionally, almost all of my thoughts and feelings are about my own survival. One way to put it: my body and mind form what I perceive as me, Anthony, the therapist and writer, who has a projected self-image about what I do and who I am. My body or ego’s job primary job is to do two things: have me survive today and procreate so my DNA can survive beyond my death. 

So as I observed my thoughts this morning, my consciousness became flooded with hundreds of thoughts about my survival. Some of the thoughts that went through my head include: boy am I hungry, I’d like to make some breakfast after I meditate. Why do my body and mind send me thoughts about hunger? Food is essential fuel to my survival.

Other thoughts that went through my head: that person is really attractive. A strange thought to have during my morning meditation, but as I get to know the weirdness of my consciousness more and more, I see how often sexual thoughts come up in general. And why wouldn’t they? Everything in my biology is about not only my survival but my DNA’s survival. 

Another theme that kept coming up in my thoughts and feeling: was fear. I’m often shocked by how much of my daily consciousness is all about fear, anxiety, and avoiding danger. 

For example, as I imagined myself walking toward the subway stop this morning, I had many an anxious thought that quickly turned into a believable narrative. The story looked like this: I need to leave soon to get to work. I know someone who got hit by a car recently, I need to be really careful out there, New York drivers are terrible and don’t pay attention. Also, there are so many more bikers out there than ever, who almost hit me, I hate it. I should try and walk on streets with less traffic. 

Like so many narratives, there are elements of facts here, but also plenty of hyperbole about danger. Negativity biases are strange, strange things. We as humans tend to see only what can go wrong and ignore all that is safe in ok. It’s a survival mechanism at its core to find danger and make sure we’re safe. So let’s break down this narrative a bit, what’s actually true? 

Yes, New York drivers can suck. Yes, bikers can be insanely aggressive in Manhattan. But I’ve walked down the streets 1000s of times since I’ve lived here and I’ve never been hit by a car or bike. That data point alone calmed my fears. But here’s the fucked up part: if I’m not aware of how my brain makes me anxious and tries to protect me from fears real and imagined, I can easily start to believe my narratives without really examining them. By our very nature and instincts, humans are incredibly anxious creatures because everything in our biology is telling us to look out for danger because we might get hurt or die. Anxiety is strange like that, just part of the neverending loop that is daily human consciousness.

But during my meditation, when I had a few moments of actual peace, which can be quite rare, my thoughts began to calm down, and all I had left was awareness. Once all the background noise ends, I just am: a weird, conscious, sentient animal with all these biological and emotional needs. 

We rarely have glimpses of this feeling in daily life. I think this is one of the reasons we love new experiences, adventures, and travel so much. It can wake up our consciousness. For example. I think about one of the greatest moments of my life: standing on the Charles Bridge in Prague at night and feeling the overwhelming sense of the beauty of the world. I was completely present at that moment, all my worries and thoughts dissipated. 

It is possible to be this awake in our daily lives too, but it’s incredibly hard. It’s what Buddhist practice is all about though. I try to have as many moments of true mindfulness as possible but it’s challenging. I try to practice walking meditations where I’m aware of the movement of my body and all the sounds and sights around me. When I am with my patients, I try very hard to focus on my belly and my breathing, but I am often led astray by random thoughts such as I’m starving. And I try to visit water once or twice a week because nothing quite calms me like the ocean. 

 It’s a constant practice to bring awareness to one’s life, but also I think necessary. Otherwise, we just go about our days in a constant fog, never quite fully aware of what is happening or why it is until it’s over and we are gone from this world forever. 

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