Type ‘mindfulness’ into a search engine and you will probably be greeted with images like this…
In the media, mindfulness is equated with a zen-like state of bliss and relaxation. But while mindfulness practice can sometimes deliver this, it isn’t confined to the peak experiences of our lives. Mindfulness is meant to be part of the rough-and-tumble of our messy, tedious, frustrating, frightening real-world experiences. As the Buddhist saying reminds us “before enlightenment, the laundry. After enlightenment, the laundry.”
So while mindfulness can involve gazing wistfully at a beach or smiling serenely at a sunrise, it can also look like this...
We can be bored or stressed or angry, and still be mindful of that. That doesn't sound quite so appealing, does it? Why on earth would we want to pay more attention to the sad / mad / bad parts of our life?
Well, because mindful awareness helps us to make better decisions. Our default setting tends to be to view the world through a narrow lens of our own agendas and expectations, and to react automatically to our whirlwind of thoughts and emotions. Life happens at a fast pace, and this autopilot mode is a great way to conserve mental energy. It is not, however, the best mental state in which to make wise, considered decisions.
When we cultivate a state of awareness we have a better chance of seeing what is really happening around us, and maintaining a sense of perspective between our own issues and those of others. With this clarity, we have a much better chance of crafting an astute and appropriate response to the situations we find ourselves in. When we step back and notice our thoughts and emotions, we can make a conscious decision whether to act on them or not.
Viktor Frankl wrote:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies
our growth and our freedom.
Mindful awareness occurs in that space, and gives us the enormously powerful tool of choice - choice in our attitude, our words and our actions. This concept is beautifully and powerfully articulated by David Foster Wallace in his commencement speech, This is Water.
Cultivating mindfulness in the rough-and-tumble of life
The nature of a default or autopilot mode is that it will always be running unless it is consciously over-ridden with another option. Practicing mindful awareness, then, has to be a deliberate and on-going action. Sustaining it is difficult in a world full of distractions and frustrations, so here are a few tips to help you along:
1. Dedicated practice
Learning a new skill requires concentration, so practicing in a quiet space is a good idea at the beginning. Using a mindfulness CD or app can help you to build your mindfulness skills to the point where you are ready to try them out in more challenging situations.
2. Getting distracted is a good thing!
When I'm teaching mindfulness skills to people, they often say "I'm hopeless at mindfulness, I keep getting distracted!" It is normal for your mind to wander or to get hooked into autopilot mode; the skill of mindfulness is being able to notice that this has occurred, and gently redirect your attention back to the desired focus. Every time you get distracted, it provides another chance to work your 'mindfulness muscle'. If your mind wanders 100 times, gently bring it back 100 times - that is the most valuable part of the training.
3. A little bit often
Once you have the basic skills of mindfulness, the next step is to cultivate the habit of mindfulness. Try to practice as often as you can, in as many different situations as possible. This can be as simple as:
4. Remember to practice
The biggest challenge to changing mental habits is remembering to practice the new skills. Our poor brains slip into the old autopilot patterns so easily that the new information doesn't even cross the radar; we forget to remember our strategies. Think of ways to help yourself remember to practice: alarms on your phone, pop-ups on your computer, wearing your watch on the opposite wrist to usual, leaving a sticky note on the kettle.
Do you have any other tips for cultivating mindfulness in the rough-and-tumble of real life? I'd love to hear them.