How to Get Out of Your Head

7 ideas for being more in the moment

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The hardest thing to see, said Friedrich Schiller, is what is in front of your eyes.

Gardening is more and more recognized, and now even prescribed by doctors, for its health benefits, including reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.

How might gardening, and nature more generally (including animals), help with mental health? To various degrees, we live inside the stories we tell ourselves. But gardening drags us out of our tortured heads and back into the natural world, which blunts the ideological and emotional extremes to which detached, abstract thought is prone.

In the Philosophy of Existence (1938), Karl Jaspers described this disinterested process of looking outside oneself—or “phenomenology”, as it is sometimes called—as “a thinking that, in knowing, reminds me, awakens me, brings me to myself, transforms me.”

Just picture the gardener’s pure and simple delight at the first crocuses or tulips, a bird’s nest, a swarm of bees… When we stop noticing small things, we are no longer truly alive.

The word “phenomena” derives from the Ancient Greek meaning “things that appear”, and phenomenology can be defined as the direct examination and description of phenomena as they are consciously experienced.

Pioneered by Edmund Husserl (1859-1939) as a philosophical tool, phenomenology involves paying close attention to objects and their relations so that they begin to reveal themselves, not as we take them to be, but as they truly appear to naked human consciousness, shorn of superimposed theories and preconceptions. Pick out an object, plant, or animal, look at it, and then keep on looking for much longer than you normally would. Vision, said the painter James Ensor, changes as it observes.

As a method, phenomenology enables us to study not only the phenomena themselves, but also, by extension, the very structures of human experience and consciousness. This is not quite the same as mindfulness, and, unlike mindfulness, phenomenology has not yet seeped into popular consciousness.

Mindfulness, which derives from Buddhist spiritual practice, aims at increasing our awareness and acceptance of incoming thoughts and feelings, and so the flexibility or fluidity of our responses, which become less like unconscious reactions and more like conscious reflections. Phenomenology, in contrast, is more explicitly outward-looking—and, I think, much easier to practice.

Phenomenological activities such as wine tasting, gardening, and bird watching remove us from our stifled selves and return us to the world that we came from, reconnecting us with something much greater and higher than our personal problems and preoccupations.

In that much, phenomenology can, quite literally, bring us back to life.

Without further ado, and as promised, here are 7 ideas for being more in the moment:

1. Start small and make it regular. For example, aim to go for a half-hour nature walk each day. Go no matter what, even if you’re busy or it’s raining. Having to go for a daily walk is one of the best things about owning a dog. People enjoy the disconnect of having to walk the dog—because, actually, it’s the dog that’s walking them.

2. Make a change to your routine. Born in Königsberg in 1724, the philosopher Immanuel Kant was renowned for his strict routines. His neighbors could tell the time by his daily walks and even nicknamed him “the Clock of Königsberg”. He died in 1804, having in all his 79 years seldom left the city’s precincts. When we are too set in our routine, we tend to take our surroundings for granted. This actually helped Kant, enabling him to live inside his head and become the abstract philosopher that he became. But for most of us, it can grow into a problem. By making small changes to our routine or surroundings, for example, going for an early morning walk, putting a pitcher of tulips on the kitchen table, we naturally notice things more. It’s a bit like traveling, but on a smaller scale.

3. Simplify your life. When we are anxious or stressed, we tend to focus on our worries at the expense of the world around us. But the more we focus on our worries, the more stressed and anxious we become, setting up a vicious cycle. We can bring down stress and anxiety and break that vicious cycle by cutting out certain things, even if that means doing less or doing only one thing at a time. At the very least, we need to make sure that we are getting adequate sleep and exercise, and that we are making the time, every so often, to do the things that we enjoy.

4. Practice deep breathing. In the shorter term, we can alleviate stress and anxiety (and even physical pain, as anyone who’s been through childbirth knows) by regulating our breathing: Breathe in through your nose and hold the air in for several seconds. Then purse your lips and gradually let the air out, making sure that you let out as much air as you can. Continue doing this until you are feeling much more relaxed. Try it now, it’ll only take a couple of minutes—and, I promise, you’ll notice the difference.

5. Cultivate idleness. There’s a very fine divide between idleness and boredom. Most animals dislike boredom, but man, says writer Colin Wilson, “is tormented by it”. Boredom can open the shutters on some very uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, which we normally block out with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts and feelings. We are, in the words of Virginia Woolf, “always giving parties to cover the silence”. But idleness, and even boredom, also have important upsides.

Here’s one of my favourite Zen jokes:

A Zen student went to a temple and asked how long it would take him to gain enlightenment if he joined the temple.

“Ten years,” said the Zen master.

“Well, how about if I work really hard and double my effort?”

“Twenty years.”

The more we rush, the less we contemplate; and the less we contemplate, the less we understand. Time is a very strange thing, and not at all linear: sometimes, the best way of using it is to “waste” it.

6. Savour. Make an effort to enjoy whatever it is that you’re doing. For example, when it comes to your main meal of the day, don’t just lean at the counter and scoff it down lukewarm. Give it a bit of love and care, even if you’re eating alone. Turn off the TV, set the table, dim the lights, and make a moment to feel grateful. Wine lovers don’t just swallow their wine, they admire its hue, swirl it around in the glass, close their eyes and breathe it in deeply…

7. Focus on the process more than on the purpose, especially when it comes to repetitive, mundane tasks like cooking and gardening. When you paint a picture or write a book, it is there for ever (and isn’t that just amazing?). But when you mow the lawn you have to do it all over again in just a few days’ time. The gardener is like Sisyphus, the mythological king made to repeat for all eternity the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again. In his essay of 1942, The Myth of Sisyphus, the philosopher Albert Camus concludes: “The struggle to the top is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Even in a state of utter hopelessness, Sisyphus can still be happy. Indeed, he is happy precisely because he is in a state of utter hopelessness, because in recognizing and accepting the hopelessness of his condition, he at the same time transcends it.

The ability to get out of your head and be in the world is only one aspect of a wisdom that has been known to mystics and scholars for centuries and millennia, and that is increasingly being confirmed by both philosophy and science. Socrates certainly knew it, as did the Buddha, and more recently, Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, and Emily Dickinson. In my new book, The Secret to EverythingI reveal this wisdom and discuss nine more of its aspects and practical applications.

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