8. MINDFULNESS – SOMETHING COMPLETLY DIFFERENT
Introduction and definitions
Much of the time, about 80%, we do not think about thinking, we just act automatically (no thinking is necessary). For example, if we wish to leave a room in the house in which we happen to be in, we do not give it a moment's thought. We just proceed to the door, open it and walk through it. However, things we do for the first time are different. They usually need thinking about.
Mindfulness aims to awaken us from our automatic thinking and put ourselves more often in the position of seeing things as if this were the first time. Ellen Langer, who is an expert on mindfulness, believes that we should try to start each new day afresh, seeing everything in a new light. This implies conscious observation which requires that we place ourselves firmly in the present. This is not what it was (the recent past), or might be (the near future), but what it actually is. You can train yourself to do this by, for example, picking up an object which you are used to seeing all the time and actually examining it. Which colours does it have? Can it still be used as it was intended to be used? Is it in a place where it can be easily found if it is needed? etc. After thinking about things you can move on to people. This helps you to realise that although you may have only seen the person in question yesterday, a lot will have happened to them since then. How curious are you about how they are? What are they intending to do today etc.
Mindfulness is about shaking ourselves out of our dream world to attend to reality.
What are the advantages of mindfulness?
First and foremost, mindfulness enables us to get more out of our lives in the most simple of ways. Pay attention to the things which otherwise would just pass us by. You can experience this by being aware how many times you notice something once your attention has been triggered. That something was always there but, up to now, you hadn’t been aware of its presence.
Secondly, mindfulness reduces stress because we are not running ahead of ourselves and we are content with where we are at this moment. This boosts self-awareness and confidence.
Thirdly, mindfulness helps to ensure that we are critical of our own opinions. Are they based on substance, and if so what are the facts? Or are they just convenient? How damaging could they be if they were incorrectly held?
Fourthly, mindfulness helps us to adjust our behaviour so that our thoughts are more transparent. In any event, we should be conscious of the relationship between our thinking and our behaviour.
How do we know if we are being mindful?
A simple test is conscious breathing. Are we aware of taking in air and releasing it again? Which parts of our body are being used in this process? How long can we remain aware of our breathing? Mostly not very long! So one of the ways to improve mindfulness is to gradually try to expand this period of consciousness. Whilst we are doing this we are not thinking of anything else and we are able to recover from previous exertions.
There are lots of checks you can make to see if you are paying attention. Given that for a large part of the time we are ‘switched off’, distracted, back in the recent past or ahead of ourselves in the near future. Try to recognise these moments and to judge whether you benefited from them (opportunity for relaxation) or actually suffered from them (missing something which may prove to be important).
Running is virtually an automatic process until we realise we are not moving smoothly any more or the person we passed some time ago is now ahead of us. How did this happen? Train yourself to focus on things in the near distance and not on the horizon.
Make a point of moving around, even if only a few metres away. The distance which you have created from your previous position helps to produce greater clarity of thinking and to remove any current restrictions on your thinking.
We are missing a lot in life because we are not mindful enough. In fact, our minds are made to wander. They wander quite a long way quite quickly in what is an ingenious process. Wandering is the default status. To stop this requires an act of conscious will such as recording your thoughts on paper. This tells us how difficult focusing can be. Ask the champions in any sport who are the ones who have largely mastered the art. It can be the difference between winning and losing, given the speed at which everything happens. It requires conscious training.
We tend to see this moment (the present, being mindful) only in the context of continuity, which is not always helpful. Look at animals (your pets if you like), they enjoy moments to the full and are only too happy to revisit them. In fact, they may experience stress when their habits are restricted.
It is only being in the moment that any future moment may be one of greater understanding, clarity and kindness, one less dominated by emotions.
Hopefully you are now aware that just a small departure from our usual automatic state could be enormously profitable. Plan certain times during the day when you reflect on how mindful you have been and, may be, on how you could improve on this.
Life is a battle between the search for efficiency and having the chance for reflection, between effort and recovery. It pays to think regularly about this balance.