(An excerpt from my book, Body Over Mind: a mindful reality check)
Though in real time we are always engaged in a continual flow of physical activity, we mentally experience ourself to be moving in and out of action. We perceive our behavior to have a stop, start quality, as implied in the thought pattern, “I am doing this, then nothing, then that, then nothing, etc.” This impression feeds the illusion that there are gaps of space between our activities, but that is physically impossible, as our movements never stop bleeding one into the next. There is only ever an absence of action with regard to a specific thing we think we should be doing, otherwise the body is always in motion (I am sitting in a chair, eating a pretzel, watching a movie, picking clothes up off the floor, lying on the couch, doing work, etc.). It is especially valuable to note that the transitions between tasks are as much a form of activity as anything else.
Two factors obscure our awareness that our physical activity is continual. The first is that we prioritize the importance of our actions based on our psychological conditioning and individual preferences, i.e., we value some of the things we do more than others. Whether it is a nod of the head, a telephone call, a sit-up, a hiccup, a hand gesture, a job interview, a piano recital, the purchase of a car, a marriage proposal, or a transition between activities, all actions are equal when considered solely as physical movement. We are confused about this because if we do not find ourself doing something from our list of priorities, we consider ourself to be doing nothing.
I would like to point out that as our preferences are rooted in belief systems that stem from personal and cultural heritages, people’s values are random. This means that what one applauds as productive another might define as lazy. In one culture making money might be greatly revered while another population regards sitting still as the highest form of success. One person paints all day while another plays video games. Who is to decide which is more reputable? Actions are just movement until they are labeled good, bad, right, or wrong. If a piece of seaweed were traveling along the ocean floor, would we deem one hour of its life to be more meaningful than another?
The second factor that contributes to the misconception that we move in and out of action is that we blink in and out of presence, which makes us feel like we have disappeared from time and space. But this is clearly impossible; we are simply unable to keep our focus consistent enough on the ongoing quality of our physical movement. Instead, we drop into a state of mental distraction, losing ourself to thought, which leaves us only slightly conscious of our attendance inside of our physical goings-on. Though it is too difficult to tune into our body all of the time (because “mind wandering,” as Alexander called it, is habitual, and something that cannot be avoided), it is still useful to remind ourself that we truly are always in action, whether we are directly aware of it or not.
Many of us criticize ourself for being inactive; we feel like we do not do enough with our time, or we do the wrong things. What is indispensable for countering this judgment is the knowledge that we can only, ever, be doing the thing we are doing, regardless of the value we or others put on it. Though we cannot avoid feeling sad over the fact that our life may not be going the way we had hoped, recognizing that we really do not have the power to influence our behavior (beyond what we naturally do) might alleviate some of our self-criticism. As an emotional consolation, it would be helpful if we could take our life seriously, know that everything we do is legitimate, and understand that the way we act is more correct than what our mind thinks is best, even if we do not understand why. We are always productive, and we are always doing enough, because anything other than what we do is physically impossible.