So many different thoughts dance through our minds constantly that we have to make a concerted effort to pay attention to what’s really happening — both inside our minds and in the world around us — to make sense of it all. Becoming more aware of our own thoughts and experiences in each present moment is the goal of the mindfulness movement, which has been gaining popularity here in the USA lately. It also plays a key role in renewing our minds, since we have to identify what we’re really thinking before we can figure out how to change our thoughts for the better.
As a chronic daydreamer whose mind often wanders, I know what a challenge it can be to focus on fully experiencing each moment as it comes. The mindfulness process is simple. Yet mindfulness can be daunting to actually practice in our culture, which constantly overloads us with information and stimulation, training our minds to be perpetually distracted.
Visiting the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia helped me understand what the process of paying attention should involve. There, the world’s largest moving telescope (the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope) measures radio waves – which are invisible to human eyes – that travel to Earth from objects in space (from planets and comets to galaxies and quasars). Astronomers from all over the world use the telescope’s data to learn more about what’s happening in space, from areas nearby our planet to locations that are billions of light years away. Some of the experiments even delve into the search for extraterrestrial life.
As NRAO scientists tune into signals from space, they follow the same basic steps that we can all take when trying to tune into the thoughts in our minds:
1. Open yourself up to receiving new insights. Just as radio telescopes open wide toward the sky to receive signals that result in new scientific data, you can open your mind to learn something new in each moment. Making an intentional decision to learn more about the thoughts and feelings you experience will help you start noticing much more than you would otherwise.
2. Eliminate distractions. The NRAO is surrounded by the 13,000-square-mile National Radio Quiet Zone, which is designed to minimize radio signal interference. People often lose cell phone service in the quiet zone, and many radio stations don’t work in the area. It’s all so that the telescopes can pick up space signals without the distractions of earthbound signals getting in the way. By incorporating the disciplines of solitude and silence into your life on a regular basis, you can eliminate distractions in your own life, creating your own personal “quiet zone” that will help you tune into your thoughts.
3. Listen carefully. NRAO scientists were often moving their telescopes around, adjusting them to the best positions to receive different types of signals for various experiments. You can adjust your mind by reflecting on your thoughts regularly and listening to their messages carefully.
What challenges do you face when trying to pay attention to your thoughts? How could it help you to focus better if you expected to learn something new each time you’re fully engaged in a present moment? Do you practice mindfulness — and if so, how?