Mindfulness is a topic that you see and hear a lot about on social and regular media nowadays. It is often lauded as a panacea for the troubles of the modern world. Panacea or not i would certainly argue that if everyone practised a bit more Mindfulness then all of our collective lives would probably be a bit better. So, you have heard of it, you have seen my biased praise for it, who knows you may even be thinking of practising it. But if you are planning to take part then surely the first question you need to ask is… just what is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is one of those beautiful all encompassing words that can mean so many different things to so many different people. For some people it conjures up hippy types sitting in a cloud of joss-stick smoke, lost in deep meditation. For others it is about becoming one with universe and the self. For others it’s about changing the way we look at the world and how we think about it and our place in it. Some might see it as a lonely practice, were we sit in silence, still, with the eyes closed and the mind distant. The internet is awash with meme’s telling us to, “Be in the now,” to “live for the moment,” and not forgetting, “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf them.”
Now there is nothing wrong with any of these things but they do sure make it hard when you are trying to pin down what Mindfulness is and even harder still if you are thinking of practising it. Particularly as none of them actually describe what being mindful is at all.
As i have said, Mindfulness can mean many different things to many different people but if you are trying to understand it, practice it or to explore it in any kind of meaningful way then you need to know what it is, and not a lot of different ways of knowing what is not.
What many perceive as Mindfulness and the reality of what Mindfulness is often reminds me of Plato’s cave allergy. It is impossible to understand what the out side world is really like if all you have ever experienced of it are the shadows thrown by your fire onto the cave walls.
In fairness you should not blame yourself if you are unsure of just what Mindfulness it is, for while it has been around for over 2500 years and has been increasing in awareness and popularity in the west since about the 70’s the professional bodies that promote it have only recently come to a definition that everyone seems happy with.
Well the official definition is.
“Mindfulness is the Self-Regulation of attention with the use of an attitude of Curiosity, openness and acceptance.” (Bishop et al., 2004)
We will unpack this sentence a little further as we carry on but if i could sum it up in just one word, that word would be Awareness.
So what is awareness? It could be argued that simple by writing this piece i am ware of what i am doing and therefore I am being mindful. But, if, as i write these words my mind is thinking about what i plan to do afterwards or i am re-running through my head something that happened to me in the past then i am not being Mindful at all. I am being unmindful, unaware. I am running on Autopilot. Being Mindful is not simply doing something. It is being actively aware of what you are doing as you are doing it.
Autopilot is the opposite of Mindfulness. If i can offer you an example of both of these states; they might look like this.
In one scenario you get in your car to head off to see your mother. You pull out of your driveway and 30 min later you arrive, with no memory of having made the drive. This happens to us all and it it a perfect example of operating on auto pilot. Because the journey is very familiar to you and you are a confident driver, your mind has wandered off to think of other things as your body did the driving.
Now one example of making the same trip but mindfully would look like like this. You pull out of the driveway and turn onto the road. You notice the tress and how green they are as you pull away. You see Mrs Grogan carrying her shopping home. In the distance a seagull rides the thermals as it hovers over the distant buildings. A small child in a bright red t-shirt is learning to ride a bike on the side path, his smiling father, encouraging him on… and so on. As you change gear you are aware of the difference in speed and the way the car moves through the scenery.
Now, there is nothing wrong with Autopilot. In fact all our days would feel very busy indeed if we went from sun up to sun down fully mindful of everything we did. The trick is to notice when we have slipped into autopilot and then being able to decided whether we are happy to stay there for a while or if perhaps we would be better being mindful? For example if the child on the bike had lost control and veered out onto the road we would clearly have been better off if we were being mindful as we drove.
It is interesting to note that our minds tend to roam quite a lot. Typically our mind will wander every 1 to 10 seconds, (Stern 2004 p.245). So that means that even when we are being mindful our mind will start to slip into auto pilot every few seconds, in which case the task of being mindful is not about entering a sate of mindfulness but is in fact of being aware enough to notice when we are no longer being mindful and then returning to it. This is the, Self-Regulation of attention, part of the our official description above and gives us the first step to understanding mindfulness. It is the self-regulation to notice when our attention in the here in the now and when it is not.
This leads us onto the next question. Why bother to be mindful at all?
As we have seen already we spend most of our lives in autopilot and that being in such a state has it’s benefits so why bother with Mindfulness at all. Well one issue with always being in autopilot is that being in autopilot is merely to exist while being in a state of Mindfulness is to live. This is also sometimes referred to as as the states of Being and Doing. Being Mindful is to be in a state of Being, while being in a state of Autopilot is to be in a sate of Doing.
Another downside of Autopilot is that while our body is in “doing,” mode our mind is normally somewhere in the past or the future.
The reason creatures develop memory is to learn what can harm and cause suffering so as to be able to avoid it in the future. Because of this when we do let out minds drift to the past we tend to hone in far more often on the negative things that have happened to us and the negative things we have done, far more often that we do the good things we have done or experienced. As the bodies defence systems has no knowledge of time the body experiences these remembered sufferings as current sufferings.
Likewise, when we drift our focus into the future, it is more often that we are anticipating difficulties, arguments, jobs we will have to do but don’t what to do. Traffic jams we anticipate being in. Meetings we have to prepare for. Juggling time and chores so that you can collect your child from school, meet Margaret for coffee, collect the dry cleaning, making that appointment with the bank and finishing that project for your boss. Even if you are thinking a lot about something good that is coming your away this can cause suffering in the now, (more on this point in just a moment).
When we are living in the future we are taking the sufferings from the past and seeing them in the future. This creates anxiety.
So if the living in the past is living with pain and suffering and living in the future is living with the anxiety and fear of the suffering to come, then suddenly Living in the now, or being Mindful seems like it might have some benefits.
We can simplify this idea a little further by giving an every day example. Let’s say you are cutting the grass… a job that almost demands a state of Autopilot just to get through it. If you allow your mind to live in the past as you cut the grass, dwelling on some past hurt or pain then the cutting of the grass becomes a source of suffering. If while you are cutting the grass you are only focused on getting the it done so you can go inside to watch the football, then you are creating the idea that happiness is only in the future, so therefor the now of cutting the grass is not a state of happiness, it is a chore to be endured and is therefore a source of suffering. However if you cut the grass just to cut the grass. if you can just be present in the moment of the grass cutting then there is no suffering, (and guess what, the grass still gets cut).
This mindfulness as we cut the grass is achieved by applying the second half of your Mindfulness definition to the process of cutting the grass, Curiosity, openness and acceptance. You could apply this by being curious about how you would cut the grass. Would you be better starting at the top of the lawn or the side. Are there obstacles to navigate? Would it better to tackle the job from a particular direction to save time or might it be more fun to explore a more random approach? Are you curious about the smells and how they change as you cut the grass, or the patterns that appear in the lawn by your choice of direction. Are you open to these different options and to the idea that the grass needs to be cut so we should do it. Are you accepting of the job and our responsibility to doing it.
Think about that for a moment. We have looked at three different ways of cutting the grass, two of which offered suffering and one that did not. Either way the grass was cut and either way we got to watch the football match, but only being mindful offered us happiness during both.
Some people make the mistake that practising mindfulness and trying not to live in the past or the future means that we should never plan for the future, because to do so is live in the future and therefore to suffer. Or that we should never think about the past because it is nothing but pain and suffering, but this is not the case.
Planning for the future is a wonderful thing but living with the belief that happiness lives there is not. When we live like only the future can bring happiness then we crate a state of suffering in the now, because it is not yet the happy future. This tends to crate a constant state of suffering because when we get to the future, even if we get the thing we had been dreaming off we immediately create yet another future where we have something new to go after. So the future that was to be happy becomes just another state of suffering and the happiness that we are after is in the future again. (Here is a little tip. This is a happiness that can never be reached. It is always forever, one dream away from us).
As i have said, planing for the future is a good thing but your happiness should never depend on it. By practising mindfulness we can learn to be happy in the present moment and in every step or moment along the way to achieving that goal we are after. Whatever that future dream you have is, you will only get there by taking steps towards it. Each step will be a moment in your life. If you can be mindful as you take each of these steps then you will find happiness at every step along the way and will also be happy when you reach that goal and beyond.
Likewise. To never learn from the past is to make the same mistakes over and over again. But, to live in the past is to suffer the past mistakes afresh again and again and again… and this will not save you from future ones either. Better to learn from the past to create new ways of living in the now. That way you are less likely to make the same mistakes again and less likely to suffer the old ones again, again and again. We all makes mistakes. The trick is to learn from them and leave them behind, because life does not happen in past in only happens in the now.
Practice make perfect, as the saying goes, and while we never seek to be perfect in our mindfulness (mindfulness is a pursuit, not a destination) we do seek to practice the habit; because a habit used is a habit formed. I have given you one example of how you might approach cutting the grass in a mindful way but i would like to add two, very easy mindfulness exercises that you can try anytime; which only take a minute or two and when practised can start to build a habit of Mindfulness.
This is a very simple exercise and can be done at any time. It simply asks that you see if you can notice when you are in Automatic Pilot and take note of it. You may decided upon noticing that you are in AP, to spend a few moments being more mindful about what you are doing or you can just take note that you have been in a state of AP and carry on as you where. The purpose of this exercise is simply to start noticing just how often you are in AP.
This exercise can also be done at anytime of the day. For example if you are sitting at your desk as you read this, reach forward and pick up any small item in front of you (a pen, for example). Now look at it. Examine it. What does it look like. Describe what you see. Roll it in around in your fingers. What does it feel like. Is it hard or soft. Sharp or blunt. Does it have different surfaces? Look at it with one eye, then the other. If as you are doing this you notice your mind drifting to something else simple bring your attention back to the object and continue your study. You could do this for 2 minuets, 5 minuets or however long or short a time you like. As an alternative you could find yourself standing at a bus stop. You could spend a couple of minuets just looking around being curious about what you see. As i said, this could be done anywhere and at anytime.
The thing to remember about these sort of exercises is that they are not about where your mind was when it was in AP, or what the object is that you are looking at now, it is about noticing it. Focusing on it and when the mind drifts away bringing it back to the focus of your attention.
Now these are basic Mindfulness exercises but they do represent what Mindfulness is and it is from small seeds that great tress grow.
If you would like to to learn more about Mindfulness you can contact us for some one to one mindfulness coaching or you could join of form a mindfulness group at your work place of club. Check out our MBSP page to learn more about how you might do this or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org