11/29/2009 08:49 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Keeping An Eye On My Mind

I'm reading Eat, Pray, Love for the second time. Here's something I can say about Elizabeth Gilbert, the author: as a writer, she is the real deal. Her book is extremely entertaining, artfully written (I sometimes reread paragraphs just to experience her cleverness with words again) and, on top of it all, wise.

For those who haven't read it, here's a summary: following an ugly divorce and years of wanting life to be better, Elizabeth Gilbert was in a really dark place. But she was also in a highly conscious place and ready for some big-time personal growth. So she spent a year traveling: four months in Italy ("eat"), four months in India ("pray") and four months in Indonesia ("love").

The heart of the book is the India section, which was also the hardest for me to get the first time around. Although the author never, ever asks the reader to follow her own spiritual path, the silent invitation is always there. Because if it worked for her, maybe it will work for the kind of person who is attracted to her memoir.

She did a lot of things on her spiritual journey. But at the core she practiced mindfulness. Mindfulness means attention. It means engagement. When you pursue it to its logical conclusion, mindfulness means engaging in the exact moment you are existing - not contemplating the future, not obsessing over the past. You can practice mindfulness while ironing your shirt at a hotel, you can practice mindfulness could be doing nothing. Focusing on the moment is not the most natural thing for me. I identify pretty strongly with my mind. I feel a bit traitorous setting it aside. But kind of relieved.

The alternative to mindfulness is not actually existing in the moment - thinking of something else. Typically we are either thinking of something in the past (i.e. not now), thinking of someone or something else (i.e. not here), or something in the future (i.e. waiting for some time in the future to actually live). (Hence the name of Ram Dass's 1971 bestseller, Be Here Now.)

When you practice mindfulness, you try to engage in the moment, and when you notice your mind wandering off to do something else, you take note and get back to what you are doing. This is what I mean by keeping an eye on my mind.

This weekend I am doing a lot of keeping an eye on my mind. I've also been reading a book called When Fear Falls Away by a woman named Jan Frazier. She has a great website that is simple and interesting. She describes the habitrail that she lived on (as we all do) for most of her life: a life of thinking that by doing one more thing, by accomplishing something else, by changing herself, she would arrive at some kind of ultimate happiness. And then one day, for reasons she still doesn't quite understand, she got off and found a different way to live. One that is much, much better.

I would do a disservice to her book and thoughts to try to explain them any further. So I'll shift it back to me.

Here's what I've learned about my mind, given a few days of observation: boy, it does like to wander. My mind plans, it judges, it reviews, it fantasizes, it decides it's bored, it devises ways to stimulate itself, it fears it might be bored later, it makes lists, it hopes, it agonizes, it gets annoyed at what people say on television, it refocuses and looks on the bright side. In other words, it's quite the expert at slipping out of the moment. And this was all just at the gym while I was trying to do 45 minutes on the elliptical machine.

On the other hand, with attention to what I'm actually doing it's possible for me to turn my mind back to the moment I'm in. Which is strangely relaxing.

Well, that's all for this moment.