“You ever heard of the reticular activator?”
My friend Sue and I are sort of like characters from the 90’s sitcom, Home Improvement. I’m Tim Taylor, and she’s Wilson (the neighbor on the other side of the fence). Sue is used to my confused looks and mile-long stares as she pontificates about profound and mind-boggling truths of the Universe.
I sat across from her at the kitchen table at her house, “The reticular what?!” I asked, my voice an octave higher and full of confusion.
The Encyclopedia of Neuroscience defines the reticular activating system this way:
Humans have three sleep and arousal states: waking, asleep (resting or slow-wave sleep), and asleep and dreaming (paradoxical, active, or rapid eye movement sleep). These states are controlled by the reticular activating system located in the mesopons, which interacts with descending reticulospinal and ascending hypothalamic, basal forebrain, and thalamocortical systems.
Can we all breathe a collective WTF? Basically, the reticular activator is the part of your brain that notices things.
Sue went on to tell me about buying her red convertible a few years before. She had never noticed so many red convertibles on the road until she owned one herself. Her reticular activator had subconsciously been weeding out unnecessary information, allowing Sue to focus on driving and getting to her destination. But now that she owned a red convertible of her own, suddenly, it seemed there were many more!
I don’t notice the hum of my air conditioner the majority of the time. But when it’s time to hit “record” on my next podcast episode, you can bet I know exactly how loud the vent is in my office. Damn reticular activator.
Stillness sharpens the reticular activator of the soul. As you engage your reticular activator through a daily stillness practice, you hone your ability to notice. And the opposite is true, too: you fine-tune your skills at culling distraction. Coming to stillness, you filter through the white noise of busyness and unnecessary bullshit so you can notice what your soul is trying to tell you. It makes space to allow the truth of your being to grow. It is watering the ground of your soul, allowing goodness and truth and light and calm to grow.
Stillness & Gratitude Work Together
Engaging your reticular activator via stillness also has one other significant benefit: it helps you practice gratitude. When you reduce your busyness, cut out the noise, stop engaging in numbing behaviors, and allow yourself come to stillness, you begin to notice the beauty in your everyday life.
When I get quiet enough, I can sit in my brown leather recliner and notice things I might typically miss. I hear the hum of the ceiling fan in my living room, it’s breeze against my skin. I feel my cotton shirt as it brushes against the hairs on my arms. I hear the little bird singing its song outside on the tree branch. I can sense the tightness of my shoes on my feet, and feel the warmth of my coffee cup in my other hand. Without stillness, I might never recognize these tiny little gifts – the gifts of presence.
Slow Down and Look Around
My challenge for you, right now, if at all possible, is to close your laptop or put down your phone and sit still for five minutes. Do nothing other than getting quiet and observing. What do you notice? Is it sunshine through the window? Your partner snoring in the next room? The buzz of a fluorescent light fixture above you? Your children laughing in the backyard? Or the rump-a-tum-tum of your heartbeat? Note every single thing you observe for five minutes and when you finish, take a moment to write it all down. If you want to cultivate gratitude in your daily life, it starts by getting quiet.
As I sit in silence, more often than not, a smile curls around my lips and I think this is good. All of this may sound silly to you. Maybe you read these words and think, who cares about your recliner and the hum of a ceiling fan? The ceiling fan is not the point. Wax on, wax off. The purpose of this exercise is to realize how many opportunities we have to practice gratitude. We miss them, more often than not, because we’re too damn busy.