“An average human looks without seeing, listens without hearing, touches without feeling, eats without tasting, moves without physical awareness, inhales without awareness of odor or fragrance, and talks without thinking.”
– Leonardo Da Vinci
I have to admit, I felt a slight sense of writer’s block coming on when I thought about writing this blog. After all, what could be written about presence or mindfulness that hasn’t already? There are countless books and multiple magazine outlets solely devoted to the topic.
You have probably heard that it’s good for us; that people who practice mindfulness experience less stress, anxiety and depression; that they are better equipped to regulate their behaviors and respond to their emotions; and that they experience overall higher levels of well-being. They also have physical improvements such as weight loss, improved sleep and stronger pain tolerance.
However, I feel that mindfulness often remains this vague concept for many of us as we attempt to “be mindful,” but have this nagging sense that we “aren’t doing it right.”
And what the hell is wrong with us anyway? Why is it that as we drive to work, we are thinking about our first task of the day? Then when we start this task, we are thinking about lunch. Then when we are eating lunch, we are thinking about whether we did the first task right or reviewing our options for dinner. On and on this goes, until we get home, go to bed and dream of being elsewhere while we sleep. Madness!
Or maybe not. Like most human quirks, looked at through the lens of evolutionary psychology, we can see this tendency as a probable human adaptation as opposed to a moral failing. And who doesn’t need one more good excuse to let ourselves off the hook for something?
Think back to the savannah 150,000 years ago or in your favorite episode of Lost, if you prefer. You are far from camp, you have secured food, you are hunched over your meal and you know that there are scavengers about, most bigger, stronger and faster than you. Is this an occasion for mindful eating — slowly chewing your food and giving your full attention to each bite? Not if you don’t want to be mindfully eaten yourself!
You will be scanning, listening, hypothesizing on what caused that twig to snap in the brush. You will be thinking about where you could secure food later, your standing in the tribe and what that sky predicts about the weather later this evening. Of course, the mind being what it is — “a don’t get killed machine” — these traits are perfectly suited for survival. Not so much for contentment.
Fast forward to today and most of us aren’t in danger of being eaten. However, don’t tell the mind because it has a job to do and damnit, it’s going to do it well. The mind finds other things with which to be pre-occupied and that leaves us in what Eckhart Tolle describes as the human condition: lost in thought.
Granted, our high-tech world supercharges this machine. The constant stimulation of our lives often leaves us with a mind on our hands that is comparable to a parent trying to wrangle a 6-year-old after a sugar-filled birthday party — this way and that, up and down, all over the place. At least that’s how my mind is most of the time.
So what exactly is mindfulness? It might be helpful to start with what it is not. It is definitely not relaxation or distraction. Those things can be helpful coping strategies used in moderation in the right instance, but mindfulness is something different. I think it’s simply being awake for what’s happening in the moments of our life with a sense of curiosity, acceptance and compassion as opposed to aversion. Sometimes relaxation happens and sometimes the object of mindfulness becomes more intense.
Another somewhat misleading statement for me is that of the “mindful person.” Mindfulness, to me, feels more like a sense because, after all, the “person” is part of the content upon which mindfulness shines its light.
However, maybe the most important misconception about mindfulness is that the goal is to “stop thoughts.” For example, people often feel they aren’t being “mindful enough” or “meditating right” because their mind is “over-active.” Fortunately, calming the mind is not even necessary, as an over-active mind can be as much the object of mindfulness as the apple you are eating or the anxiety that is arising.
So why develop this skill? Well, besides all the health benefits, acknowledging what’s here, while it’s here, IS the key to changing behavior. It’s the mental rep that helps strengthen the muscle that allows us to expand and become aware of the space that Victor Frankl referenced when he stated, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space,” and within that space lies our freedom. From that space, our choices emerge and if the quality of our lives is determined by our choices, then we better damn well get acquainted with that space!
A secondary benefit of this type of wakefulness is that it allows us to take a break from our “don’t get killed machine” that is always scanning for danger even where there is none. It allows us to “zero out” to the rest of what consciousness is like.
We can think of the aspects of being awake, a.k.a. conciousenss, akin to rooms of a house. Mindfulness is about expanding to ALL of the rooms of the house. We are not trying to board up the mental room, i.e., prevent thought from arising, because that will only happen when we are dead. However, the mind is a consultant, not a dictator, and it is far saner if it is not given attention 24 hours a day. Therefore, we can spend time in other rooms, with other emotions, the body and worldly sensations.
As we strengthen this muscle, we develop the ability to tune into what’s actually happening right now as opposed to just our interpretation of what’s happening. We then can choose our direction as opposed to our direction being chosen for us by old, unhealthy habits.
So that leads us to the question how do we actually do any of this? After all, It’s easy to get heady about a practice that is mostly geared toward getting us out of being lost in our head. In Part 2, we will get into just that.
If you feel asleep more than you are awake, then reach out to talk about how therapy can help.