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Q and A with Tom Sterner Author of Practicing Mind

Thomas M. Sterner is the author of Practicing Mind. He’s also a trained jazz pianist and an avid pilot, student of archery, and golfer. He teaches his techniques to businesspeople, at sports clinics, and to learners of all kinds. He lives in Wilmington, Delaware. Visit him online at http://www.thepracticingmind.com.

What inspired you to write The Practicing Mind?

As a child growing up I was very creative with a wonderful imagination. Unfortunately I was also quite undisciplined and didn’t stay with any task for very long. A creative mind without the discipline to propel it forward is like Cinderella with her beautiful coach and no horse to pull it. You never get to the ball.

What saved me from a lifetime of unfulfilled potential and goals that were never reached was my self-awareness. From an early age I was aware of both my internal dialogue and the feelings I experienced by listening to it. I was aware that I followed the same path almost every time I undertook any new endeavor, certainly the ones that took longer to accomplish. Because I was aware that I usually gave up on my goals, I felt I had no real self- power. If I couldn’t see a goal, which I had chosen myself, through to its completion than what power did I really have in regards to choosing my own destiny? What could I really look forward to? I felt a lack of self-confidence and I am sure it affected my self image.

Things began to change during my late teens and through my college years. By the time I was in my late 20’s I realized that I had done a complete turn around and become extremely focused and even known by those around me as possessing a very disciplined mind. That was when I began to want to understand the changes that had occurred within me seemingly very quietly and without struggle. It was that contemplative reflection and the desire to share what I had learned with others that inspired me to write The Practicing Mind.

What do you feel is the most important personal quality to possess in life? Why?

I feel without a doubt the most important personal quality is “Self-Awareness,” I describe this subtle but extremely powerful quality as the key to the prison door. Self- Awareness is the experience of knowing that you are not your thoughts. You are the ONE who both thinks the thoughts and the ONE who experiences the thoughts that your mind generates on its own. You cannot change what you are not aware of. Awareness must come first. In terms of self development you must be aware of and able to separate yourself from how you process the events that you experience during your day in order to have the power to initiate any changes you desire and to free yourself from the anxiety and the sense of struggle usually associated with the process of personal growth.

What is lack of focus and where does it come from?

Lack of focus is the inability to keep your mind in the present moment, on what you are doing in the here and now. It comes from a mind that is agitated, over active, trying to multi-task constantly, and being overly attached to our desires, or we could say misusing our goals. It is also a by-product of living in a hyperactive culture and lacking the self -awareness necessary to separate ourselves from the influences of that culture.

Why is our mind so active?

Part of our mind’s over-activity comes from our inherent curiosity and creative nature. We are creative out of a need to communicate and express ourselves but also a need to survive. The reason we have things such as art, dance and music is because of our creative minds. But this creative nature is also the reason we live in the comfort of heated homes and sleep in nice warm beds when the outside temperatures are frigid. We’re problem solvers and our minds want to be in motion. In fact our mind will chose to be in motion even when we tell it not to. It will go into search mode looking for something to think about. It hates being still because then it loses it’s identity—no thoughts, no mind.

But we are also prisoners of our technology and as it moves faster we must also move faster in an effort to keep up with it. It’s easy for us to lose perspective of just how high paced our daily life is. Consider this. In the last century a trans-Atlantic trip took ten days (or 240 hours). Today that same trip takes just seven hours. In fact we can travel to virtually anywhere in the world in less than a day and yet we are impatient to get there. It feels like a long trip. We dread such a “long” flight. We can talk to anyone anywhere in the world in real time and even see them on Skype. It all feels quite normal to us but we forget that our brains must work at a much faster pace to function in today’s world than it used to, and that creates a hyper mind with many thoughts.

What pushes us out of the present moment?

A feeling of being incomplete. We all have this sense that what we need to feel fulfilled, to feel happy and to feel at peace is somewhere outside of ourselves, in some place and at some time other than where we are at right now. ” After I get through this I’ll be happy or when I get that thing I’ll be happy”. These are common emotions we experience. They represent a false sense of perfection that we haven’t yet reached or acquired when all will be right in our lives. This perspective fuels an impatience to get to the next step (the future) so that we can resolve these feelings or it causes us to worry about things we have already experienced (the past) which are causing these emotions. The present moment is the only thing that is truly real and most of us ignore the opportunity to experience it in favor of living in the past or future.

If you didn’t think (or have thoughts) would you experience stress?

The answer to this is no. Ask yourself what the experience of stress is and where does it come from? Stress is the experience of emotions that are triggered by our thoughts. We have a thought, we judge the content of the thought as being good, bad or somewhere in between and then the emotions we have learned to associate with our interpretation begin. Hormones are released, internal dialog ramps up (more thoughts) feeding into our experience and before you know it, we are into full blown anxiety. This is why we must learn that we are not our thoughts. We are the ONE who is HAVING the thoughts. The more aware we become of the thoughts we allow into our minds (or we allow our minds to produce on its own) the more we empower ourselves as conscious choice makers. We can then choose our thoughts and in so doing use our thoughts to serve us instead of unconsciously reacting to whatever thoughts we have.

You say there is a difference between having a thought and being in your thoughts. Can you explain this?

This relates back to self-awareness. It might be easier to look at this from the perspective of behavior. Most of the time we are not “aware” of our behavior, we are just “behaving” in a certain manner. It could be said we are “in our behavior.” There is a very big difference because in the latter we have surrendered our objectivity. We see this very clearly when we are observing other people. We make comments such as “they have no idea how they are behaving”. This is because the person we are observing is “in their thoughts”.

When someone insults us, there is a very brief period of time when we process the remark and make a decision about how to react. This generally happens without our awareness and so without our choice. We usually experience a thought that is angry or defensive. It is here that we are at a fork in the road. We can become angry at which point we are “in our thoughts” or we can be an observer who is aware that we are” having” this angry thought which is pulling us into itself and begging us to allow the anger to flow. Once we step into our thoughts we are no longer separate from our anger. We are in our anger which is a thought filled with emotions. On the other hand if we stay in the perspective of “oh I am having this angry thought” we give ourselves the privilege of being able to choose our reaction to the comment. In other words we empower ourselves and we become the commander of our thoughts, instead of the puppet of the emotions our thoughts create..

What is the difference between analyzing something and judging it?

The process of analyzing comes BEFORE the process of judging, even though the two may occur micro seconds apart. We can’t judge anything until we first analyze it. Judgment always comes from a perspective of right or wrong, good or bad or somewhere in between. Analyzing does not.

Analyzing just objectively observes “What IS”. We are much more effective dealing with situations no matter how stressful we judge them to be when we stop our thought process after the analyzing portion and before the judging portion (which we do subconsciously). When we do this we also remove the experience of stress and greatly increase our ability to focus and make good decisions. But what about truly bad situations you might ask? Is it even possible to remove judgment from those circumstances? The answer is yes. We can learn to do this and it is in our best interest to do so.

A very publicized example of this is when Captain “Sully” landed the commercial airbus on the Hudson River. Professionals such as EMTs and pilots are taught to stay in the process of analyzing and not to cross over into judgment. This is done by learning to deal with severe situations using formal procedures. The procedures give them a focal point that helps them stay on task without judging their situation as being good or bad. In the case of Captain Sully it was the perfect storm. He lost both engines at low altitude over a major city. Statistically the chances of that happening are incredibly small, and yet there he was living it.

He could have panicked with internal dialog about “how could this happen, this is so unfair, we’re all going to die if I mess this up” and so on. That internal dialog would have been the normal outcome from “judging” the situation for what it was — horrible — but none of that internal dialog would have been solving the problems that faced him. It would only have contributed emotions that would have stolen his ability to think clearly. Because of Captain Sully’s training he was able to stop that forward motion of his thoughts after he analyzed the situation and then make decisions with focus and clarity that saved not only his life, but the lives of all of his crew and passengers.

Does multi-tasking work?

The answer is no. Multitasking is a myth. In fact even when we think we are multitasking we are not. We now know that much like a computer, when we ask our brains to handle several things at once it must stop one action and start the other. Again, like the computer, this happens so quickly that we think we are working on more than one thing at a time but in reality we are not. This constant stopping and starting uses enormous amounts of our energy. It exhausts us and because we are never fully present in any one activity, much of the energy that could be going into completing our task more efficiently and with much less stress is wasted.

It seems like it is getting harder and harder to focus for any length of time. Why is that?

This experience is not our imagination. It is part of the evolution we are forcing on ourselves. There is a book written by Nicholas Carr called The Shallows: What the internet is Doing to our Brains. Part of what Mr. Carr’s book is revealing is that we are losing our ability to focus because what we are asking our brains to do all day long is scan and to be in constant motion. This is part of the hyper nature of our culture today. Life demands that we move at a very high pace, and we have come to expect everything to be instantaneous. We have instant communication to anywhere in the world. We send emails and texts instead of waiting for a letter to arrive. We download products so we can have them now instead of having to wait for them to be shipped. Think about it. When was the last time you read an entire web page, newspaper, a long book? We scan looking for hyper- links and words that look relevant to what we want to know.

The portion of our brain that handles this function is evolving and becoming much more proficient at the tasks we are asking it to do, but other area are atrophying with less use. I believe this change can be seen quite easily when you observe the last few generations. Younger people can text extremely fast. They master any smart phone in minutes as well as all the new technologies that require their brains to work quickly and to scan for only relevant data. Their parents (my generation) came along when the Internet, computers and all of this technology was being developed. We can use it, but our learning curve is longer. Seniors on the other hand struggle with much of the technology. It moves too fast for them and feels overwhelming.

However what we are learning is that the younger generations in general have trouble focusing for any length of time. The portion of their brains that handles the more contemplative processes is not being developed or is used very little. So our brains are doing exactly what we are asking them to do. Get better at operating at high speed scanning and let go of the old skill of reading one word at a time or sitting for long periods and thinking about one thing or reading. I recently heard of one college professor that built a texting break into his longer classes because the students couldn’t pay attention that long without a break for their mind to go off in another direction.

It’s not that possessing a brain that can ramp up in speed is a bad thing. It can be an asset, but we don’t want to lose the contemplative ability that we have developed over centuries. That is why I feel that activities such as meditation are important because they force us to take a portion of time out of our day to just be still. They increase our awareness of just how fast our minds want to move and give us the opportunity to gain control of that. We can call it training the mind if that is a more comfortable phrase but our minds are a tool that should serve us. If you cannot focus your mind on one activity for a certain period of time that you feel necessary then who is really in control?


April 12, 2012 • Personal Growth • 168 pages • Trade Paperback with flaps

Price: $14.95 • ISBN 978-1-60868-090-0

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