According to a new book by Barbara Strauch called The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain as we get older, so we are more and more liable to lapse into unmindful daydreaming. From an article on the book:
One of the most troublesome parts of growing older, says Strauch, is that humans grow more distracted as they age. You may start to think of brining your Thanksgiving turkey, for instance, while driving along a highway.
But don’t worry: That’s totally normal.
“These thoughts simply bounce out of our heads,” Strauch says. “What is happening, [scientists] think, is that you can suddenly — as you age — fall into what they call sort of a default mode. This is kind of a daydreaming mode. It’s kind of an inner dialogue. … And what they think happens is that you do tend to fall into a daydreaming default mode more easily. And this default daydreaming mode is brand new They didn’t know it existed in the brain before, and they’re now studying it and trying to figure out how that happens
That the mind always slips off should be obvious to a meditator, and much of the difficulty in keeping up a meditation practise is to replace this tendency with mindfulness.
During daydreaming – which might be idle and uncontrolled, or might be very intentional and directed – you should note that you are fully conscious of what you are doing. ‘Daydreaming’ does not mean that you slip out of conscious activity. But you simply don’t ‘know yourself’ (Ruu Tua in Thai). You don’t know that you are not mindful. You are caught up in that activity and it runs away with your faculties.
Whether this tendency gets worse as you get older or not is far from proven, but if you consider as a child you are always experiencing new things ….. it is easy to imagine that the older you get the more you get caught up in your world. Lapsing (or indeed launching) into runaway thinking is what Buddhism terms ‘mental proliferation’ (papa~nca). On the otherhand, when you watch how easily a child gets absorbed in playing, perhaps we adults have more innate mindfulness?
The word ‘papanca’ in the Pali is translated as mental proliferation, distraction, or other similar terms. As you feel things through the senses, so you perceive. When you perceive you think, you desire. Then comes the mental proliferation of quarrels, dispute, or more wanting. Each thing that arises causes some new perception/memory (sa~n~naa) in a feedback loop.
You can feel papanca for yourself. Like most ideas in the suttas it is actually something that is common in daily life. You get caught up in a stream of thought, and become almost unaware of your surroundings. If it happens while driving, psychologists call it ‘highway hypnosis’ – you get into a stream of thought, with frighteningly little attention left over for driving. Whenever you are doing something familiar, you will likely drift off into papanca – and perhaps that is why adults are more prone to it than children – your life becomes more predictable, so you need less attention for what you are doing in the present moment. Maybe that is why people like to go on holidays – where everything is unfamiliar you are forced to be more attentive.
By practising mindfulness, you cut through this tendency to distraction. You can still read the paper, and you can still go to work, but never far from your mind is that aspect of mindfulnes, where you become aware of yourself undertaking actions. The mindful mind can see not just what you are thinking, but that you are thinking. It can see not just what you are doing, but that you are doing it. After a while you start giving more attention to the actions that lead away from ‘becoming’ or distraction, and less to the un-self-aware daydreams and trains of habitual thought.
The meditation training aids in this. If you can practise mindfulness in sitting meditation, you can note when the mind has wandered away. Then you know directly that the mindful mind is alive, is aware, where the distracted mind is lost in its activity. Seeing the difference enables you to pick out, see, and most importantly value the mindful state. What you value, you develop.
More to come on this interesting term papanca soon.
For the keen sutta followers there is a detailed technical analysis by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
In the mean time note that on occasion you become aware of yourself, and know that you have been off on some train of thought – whether keen and directed with intention, or else gently bobbing along as a daydream. This moment of knowing is mindfulness, and even if it is a little uncomfortable at first, if developed it becomes a beautiful refuge in life, and a source of peace in the mind. The ego will rage and rumble, and do everything to corner all your attention again. But bit by bit, it is tamed by the simple sunlight.