Enjoy the View -- Not the Commentary

Here’s the scene: I am standing on top of an overlook in the foothills of the Green Mountains. I can see a 180-degree vista to the West that features the Adirondacks, tinged in pink, as the sun gets ready to set. Vermont’s famous Camel’s Hump sits majestically to the south.

My mind, however, is not appreciating this beautiful experience, at least not consistently so, because I am frustrated and disappointed in myself. I want to get some pictures of this awesome scene, but I have forgotten my phone and thus have no camera. My mind complains—you should have brought your phone— falling into the trap of wanting something it cannot have. I compare this particular view to the ones I’ve seen on other recent hikes up to this spot—it’s so much better. I try to bring myself back. I tell myself how wonderful this is—camera or no—how lucky I am to live near to this place, and how beautiful the mountains are. Yet these are only words, not the experience of it.

My mind goes back and forth like this, I redirect my thoughts from this running commentary to the experience itself. For a moment, as the words drop away, I have a different sense of the scene—one that is captured by my body instead of what the camera would have seen—and it’s a visceral feeling, as if my body is more alive, tingling, expanding, becoming one with the landscape. The personal story of me and what I want and I need gets quiet and my senses come more alive.

What happened on the mountain is not unusual. Our lives are almost always accompanied by a running commentary. Our minds are continually spinning out opinions about every experience as it happens, so much so that the opinions seem to be part of the present moment, unlike excursions in the future (like anticipation) or the past (like regret). Often the running commentary is so pervasive and ever-present that we typically do not notice it at all. It fades into the background, part of the warp and woof of our daily lives.

As in my experience on the overlook, commentary distracts from the perception of things as they are. Much of the time, the commentary is a “color commentary,” judging, valuing, or needlessly embellishing the experience at hand. “I like this” or “I don’t like this,” it says. Other times my mind will string along a series of associations, one after the other, without much rhyme or reason, until I can’t recall how I wound up thinking what I was just thinking. Tangled up in commentary, our minds are caught in a constant push and pull against experience. Rather than seeing things for what they are, we’re often thinking how they could be better, or how this moment compares with some other one.

If we slow down and pay attention, however, the commentary can be heard, clear as day.

One of the fruits of consistent mindfulness practice is the ability to recognize when we have become distracted by commentary, on the meditation cushion and as we move through our daily lives. My practice did not avert the running commentary at the vista, but it did give me the chance to recover my attention, at least in moments. Importantly, I didn’t beat myself up for the distractions. If you think about it, if I had reprimanded myself, that would’ve been just another form of commentary!

And once in a while, if we are mindful, we can not only recognize the running commentary but even turn it off for brief moments. Once we recognize when our attention has wandered from the moment to the commentary on it, we can then choose to redirect our attention back to the experience actually unfolding in any given moment.

See if you can notice the presence of running commentary in your meditation, and you’ll train the mind to notice it in your daily life. See if you can note it as “commentary” … and leave it behind so you can enjoy the view.

Arnie Kozak, Ph.D, is a licensed psychologist and clinical assistant professor in psychiatry at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. He is the author of several books including 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness and Timeless Truths for Modern Mindfulness. During all seasons, you can find him trail running with his dogs in the foothills of the Green Mountains.

Arnie Kozak