Thomas M. Sterner is the author of Fully Engaged and The 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.TomSterner.com.
Q. What inspired you to write Fully Engaged?
A. In 2012 New World Library published the second edition of my first book The Practicing Mind. In that book I discussed what I had learned through many years of studying both Eastern thought and modern sports psychology. The main reason I had put so much time into this study was a quest to solve my own struggle with lack of discipline and impatience about reaching my goals. One of the things that fascinated me was the fact that both entities had come to the same conclusion about how we accomplish the most with the least amount of effort, in the least amount of time and without a sense of struggle. That conclusion quite simply is that everything we accomplish in life is learned through a repetitive process we call practicing. When we learn to be in the present moment and are absorbed in the process of what we are doing, instead of attached to the goal that we are trying to accomplish, we experience what I call the practicing mind. Life begins to flow much more easily and our goals seem to come to us instead of us feeling like we are constantly reaching for them. It is a practical application of mindfulness for the Western mind.
I could not have imagined the number of people worldwide that would be and continue to be impacted by The Practicing Mind. As my exposure to readers continued to grow through interviews, speaking engagements, personal coaching, and workshops, I found that people not only wanted to hear more on the subject, but that there were certain questions and topics that I was continually asked to comment on. Out of gratitude for the many wonderful letters and emails I have received from readers regarding the content of The Practicing Mind, I felt an obligation and a desire to address those topics and to write Fully Engaged.
Q. What do you feel is the most important personal quality to possess in life? Why?
A. 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. 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 in order to have the power to initiate whatever changes you desire and to free yourself from the anxiety and the sense of struggle usually associated with the process of personal growth.
Q. You talk about Thought Awareness Training. What do you mean by that?
A.Thought awareness training is the process of cultivating self-awareness. Another common word for thought awareness training is meditation. The ability to separate who we really are from the thoughts that our mind produces without our permission is the fundamental building block for everything that is discussed in Fully Engaged.
Q. 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/or 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.
Q. Why is our mind so active?
A. 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 by default 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.
We are also prisoners of our technology. We are plugged into the marketing media constantly. Our minds are always being stimulated through the marketing media because they have constant access to us. We have gotten to a point where a mind that is over active feels normal even though it is exhausting and causes us unnecessary stress. We are so used to this state of hyper-thought that being “unplugged” in today’s world leaves us feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable.
Q. What pushes us out of the present moment?
A. What pushes us out of the present moment is 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 and they are nurtured by the marketing media. 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.
Q. What do you mean by creating goals with inaccurate data sabotages our confidence.
A.Many times when we create a goal the very first thing we do subconsciously is attach a timeframe for achieving it. This time frame rarely has any hard data to support it. In fact, in some situations there may be no way for us to accurately predict a time frame. After we attach a time frame, we begin judging our progress based on where we are on the timeline. The problem with this is that even though we may be moving forward at a very acceptable rate, we may interpret our progress as a failure and lose confidence in our ability to accomplish the goal because there is a disconnect between where we are and where we think we should be. Here is an extreme example. If we decide that we want to lose 25 pounds and we estimate that we should accomplish this in two weeks, we have created an impossible, or at the very least unhealthy, goal. Even if we maintain the proper diet and exercise changes that will create the weight loss over time, we are destined to fall short of our goal of accomplishing it in two weeks, not because we are incapable of achieving our goal, but because we did not have accurate data when we set the goal in the first place.
Q. In Fully Engaged you talk about seeing opportunity in moments of struggle. What do you mean?
A. Situations that we are good at handling feel quite easy to us. If asked, I think anyone would say that they would like to be able to handle any difficult situation with ease. But how does that happen? It happens through the repetition of being in the difficult situation. When you find yourself in a difficult situation you can interpret it as just that, a difficult situation, or you can view it as an opportunity to push your threshold farther. For example, I work with a lot of golfers and it’s a very easy analogy for making this point. I tell them that if they want to play well in the rain, it has to be raining when they’re planning. If they want to play well in the wind, it has to be a windy day. You can’t increase your skill level in those kinds of circumstances unless you’re in them. Remembering this can change your perspective and your interpretation of any difficult situation.
Q. Do you still experience times when you feel attached to your goals? If so how do you bring yourself back into the present moment?
A. I do experience those moments when I am anticipating reaching a goal instead of in being absorbed the process of achieving it. I recognize the symptoms because I feel impatient with where I am and a sense of being incomplete. That feeling of being incomplete is always bundled with a sense of “once I have the goal accomplished everything will be okay and my life will change.” We repeat this cycle over and over again despite the fact that as soon as we satisfy one longing there is always another to replace it. So when I notice myself engaging in this mindset I repeat a simple mantra of “And then what?” I remind myself of all the things I’ve wanted in my life and have accomplished. I ask myself if they have changed how I feel right now and if reaching my new goal will stop me from ever feeling that way again. I find that this brief mental exercise reminds me that the joy is in the process of achieving the goal and that is a good thing because it is where we spend most of our time. Repeating “And then what?” Pulls me back into the present moment and stops me from misusing the goal which should do nothing more than to steer my effort. Our goals should inspire us, not make us feel incomplete.
Q. If you didn’t think (or have thoughts) would you experience stress?
A. The answer to this is no. Ask yourself what the experience of stress is and where it comes 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, our internal dialog ramps up (more thoughts), which feeds into our experience and before you know it, we are experiencing 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 it’s 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.
Q. You say there is a difference between having a thought and being in your thoughts. Can you explain this?
A.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. At this point, 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 that is pulling us in 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 can stay in the awareness 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.
Q. Does multi-tasking work?
A. The answer is no. Multitasking is a myth. In fact even when we think we are multitasking we are not. Multitasking is now referred to as “switch-tasking” because it much more accurately describes what is actually happening. 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.
Fully Engaged by Thomas M. Sterner October 11, 2016 • Personal Growth • Trade Paperback/eBook • 120 pages Price: $15.95 • ISBN 978-1-60868-432-8