“Compared to what we ought to be, we are only half awake… the human individual thus lives far within their limits. They possess power of various sorts which they habitually fail to use”William James.

Many people in today’s society appear to be what the great psychologist and philosopher William James describes as “only half awake”.

So what does this mean?

For me it describes how people can become trapped in their minds, locked into compulsive patterns of thinking from which it is difficult to escape. This can be especially pronounced when waking up in the dead of night, or when people are feeling anxious, lonely or depressed.

Compulsive thinking is also very common in everyday activities such as driving, eating, taking a shower, or talking to a friend. It is a very rare person who actually listens. Most people tend to be thinking about what they are going to say next, rather than actually listening.

Have you ever found yourself talking to someone and then realize that you have no idea what they just said?

It is amazing how common this is.

Our minds love to wander

According to research, people spend 46.9 percent of their waking hours doing what’s called “mind wandering”. Instead of focusing on the task at hand, they are distracted by their own thoughts.

Unfortunately, a wandering mind is not a happy mind.

How often have you been to work, even argued with your boss, before you’ve even gotten out of the shower? How many times have replayed an argument in your head? How often have you driven to work and could not remember the journey? You might even notice your mind wandering right now. Maybe you’re thinking, what the hell has this article got to do with a chicken and an eagle? Don’t worry, I’ll get to it at the end.

The point is, for many people, myself included, there is an internal dialogue continually running through our minds. We can have full-blown conversations with ourselves about future events that are unlikely to ever happen.

“I have lived a long life and had many troubles, most of which never happened.” — Mark Twain

This might not sound too problematic. It may even be helpful to think through potential problems that might be encountered throughout the day.

So who cares if we are always thinking?

The truth is, many people in today’s society are utterly consumed by compulsive thinking. Suffering has never been more prevalent, and world is getting busier by the day.

Thinking was an incredible evolutionary leap.

But is it now more of a burden in our noisy modern world?

Thinking… friend or foe?

First of all, thinking is a fantastic tool if used correctly. Planning, problem-solving, and reasoning are all excellent examples of this. When we are in control of our thoughts, the mind is a beautiful instrument.

But are we always in control of our minds?

I’m unsure.

And if we examine it carefully, it is often the case that our minds control us.

This is especially so when our thinking becomes emotionally loaded.

In his highly enlightening book “The Power of Now”, Eckhart Tolle makes an excellent distinction between thinking in clock time, and thinking in psychological time.

Clock time is used for practical purposes and is absolutely necessary. This includes activities such as planning, making appointments and setting deadlines. Your attention stays in the present moment and there is no emotional attachment to the end goal.

Psychological time is something completely different. This occurs when you drop out of the present moment and start projecting yourself into the future (or past). Emotional attachments arise, and you become trapped in your mind.

Consider two people going for a job interview. They both do an excellent job preparing for the interview. Each decides ahead of time what to wear and how they will get there.

This is thinking in clock time.

On the morning of the interview however, one of them starts to think… what if I say the wrong thing? What if they don’t like my personality? Am I even able to do this job?

This is thinking in psychological time.

Who do you think got the job?

Thinking is ALWAYS based in the past or future. And when it is loaded with emotions, it can lead to all kinds of mental suffering.

If you are prone to anxiety, worry or fear, your thoughts will be grounded in the future.

If depression, sadness and despair are your default, it is likely that you are consumed by the past.

I’ll say it again. Thinking is ALWAYS based in the past or future.

This is a fact.

So if you are thinking, and it is emotionally loaded — you are not present. And if you are not present; are you really aware, fully awake, or truly alive?

I don’t think so. I know, I see the irony in that too!

The Power of Awareness

This brings me to the second part of William James’ statement: “They possess power of various sorts which they habitually fail to use”.

So what is this “power”?

Some might say that thinking is an incredible power, and if used correctly, it certainly can be.

But for me, this “power” is the awareness that evolves through living in the present moment.

It is a stillness, an inner peace that arises through the absence of thinking. Or more precisely, the absence of incessant and compulsive thinking.

So why not nurture this power?

If you do…

  • You will have boundless energy, and acquire a new found passion for life
  • Your creative fires will burn bright
  • Verbal chatter will no longer consume you
  • You will be able to control your mind instead of your mind controlling you
  • You will attain clarity
  • And when required, you will be able to direct your thoughts in more purposeful ways

So how do you cultivate present moment awareness?

How do you quieten the voices in your head?

Several things can help:

  • Introduce meditation into your life
  • Observe your thoughts and feelings rather than letting them consume you
  • Spend more time in nature
  • Listen to the birds singing in the morning… it truly is a beautiful sound
  • Neutralize negativity from your life
  • Read good quality books
  • Exercise

Practice these things on a regular basis and you will be astonished by the results.

Chicken or an Eagle?

Finally, let me tell you about the chicken and the eagle. This story was originally told by the great mystic Anthony de Mello to explain the nature of his work. It appears in the foreword of his powerful book “Awareness”. He suggests that it applies to many people; it certainly applied to me.

A farmer found an eagle’s egg and put it in a nest of a barnyard hen. The eaglet hatched and grew up with his new family of chickens. Thinking he was a chicken, the little eagle did what barnyard chicks did. He clucked like a chicken, scratched the earth like a chicken, and thrashed his wings like a chicken. He didn’t even know he could fly. Years passed by and the eagle grew very old. One day he saw a magnificent bird soaring through the cloudless sky. It glided gracefully, with scarcely a beat of its powerful golden wings. The old eagle looked up to the sky in awe. “Who’s that” he asked. “That’s the eagle, king of the birds”, said his chicken friend. “He belongs to the sky. We belong to the earth — we’re chickens”. So the eagle lived and died like a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was.

So what is Anthony de Mello trying to say?

He is saying that people can live their wholes lives without ever truly waking up to the joys of life…

That most people are completely unaware of their true potential…

That people are eagles living like chickens…

And he is correct. Suffering is everywhere. So many people are depressed, anxious and addicted in today’s complex world. And it is holding them back from reaching their true potential.

This story had a profound impact on my life. I decided from that moment that I wanted to be an eagle.

It’s not easy, and to be honest, most days I feel like a chicken.

But now I have a choice….

And so do you.

Do you want to be a chicken, or do you want to be an eagle?

Do you want to be trapped in your mind, or live with awareness, peace and joy?

It’s not easy, but the choice is yours!

P.S. I actually love chickens… just in case anyone was confused with the metaphor ?

Originally published at www.alustforlife.com on May 17, 2018.


  • Brian Pennie

    Brian is a PhD candidate studying the neuroscience of mindfulness, a practice that provided him with the foundations to recover from long-term addiction.

    On October 8th 2013, Brian experienced his first day clean after 15 years of chronic heroin addiction. Instead of perceiving his addiction as a failure, he embraced a second chance at life and went to university to study the complexities of human life. He graduated with a degree in psychology in 2017 winning several awards, including a fully funded PhD scholarship in Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience. Since then, he has become a lecturer at University College Dublin, published academic writer, motivational speaker for mental health awareness, and personal development consultant in both commercial and private settings. With a relentless belief that we are what we think, his mission is to show people that change is possible, demonstrating actionable steps through a lived experience.