Just before leaving for my two week holiday in London and Paris I was concerned by how my regular sitting meditation schedule would be drastically interrupted. So I knew I’d have to practice what I preach even more than usual: I had to find a way to integrate a contemplative practice into my daily life under a very different set of circumstances and an unfamiliar environment. And not practicing just wasn’t an option: Trust me, you wouldn’t like me when I’m not practicing.
After arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport two weeks ago, my fiancee and I eventually made our way to the Underground Train (aka “The Tube”) that would take us to the house we’d be staying at. So we arrived at the Bakerloo Underground station and while waiting for the train to arrive I was struck by the bold yellow letters stenciled into the edge of the platform just below my feet:
MIND THE GAP
In New York City when a subway car arrives at a station, there is virtually no space between the edge of the car and the edge of the platform--so you can walk onto the train very easily with no chance of having your foot sink through the space between the train and said platform. In the London Underground system however, there can be a significant gap between the train and the platform edge--thus the constant recorded “Mind the Gap” warnings over the intercom and written ones you see all over the place.
When I saw “Mind the Gap” just before boarding the train towards London Bridge Station, I was instantly handed an invaluable contemplative tool that I knew would remind me several times a day to come back to my mind as it rests peacefully between thoughts. This phrase is something one sees and hears frequently when riding the Tube in London so I knew that I wouldn’t have to struggle all that much to keep my practice strong and consistent during my two week trip abroad.
Those gaps we experience between thoughts become more noticeable over time as we get more acquainted with how our thinking minds operate. I liken it to that moment immediately following a continuous noise of some kind like a car alarm, a barking dog, or wedding bells. When those sounds cease there’s this space left over that is always there but gets obscured by a constant array of internal noise. It’s an openness or gap where our thinking minds get a reprieve and something else has an opportunity to poke its head through--something that is always there but we tend to miss because we’re so enthralled by distraction.
When all of the relentless brain chatter stops, even for just a moment, we’re left with something open, calm, and fertile. And those spacious moments gradually get longer and more frequent as we consistently practice both on and off the cushion.
What happens about 97% of the time is that our brains secrete all kinds of thoughts, ideas, and opinions about our moment-to-moment experience. We buy into these thoughts, ideas, and opinions as real and as a result they take us over, leading us this way and that as if we’re nothing but dogs on a leash being yanked around by an erratic master. And in so doing we aren’t experiencing our lives directly but rather a facsimile of our our experience due to all of the commentary that’s been piled on top of it.
So we confuse the constant chatter that goes on in our heads with who and what we are. But who and what we are has nothing to do with whatever stuff happens to be coursing through our brains at any given moment.
Who and what we are has much more to do with those gaps we experience before thinking arises.
This is not to say that thoughts are the enemy and we need to work hard to eradicate them. Trying to make our brains stop thinking would be like trying to fill the Grand Canyon with a thimble full of water.
But it’s essential that we train ourselves to notice those gaps between thoughts, because it is within these gaps that we get a more direct experience of our true nature.
This process allows us to create more space between us and our thinking minds. When we notice this gap, we can relate to our thoughts with curiosity and objectivity rather than obsession and fear.
So please: Mind the Gap. Your life and your sanity depends on it.