Mindfulness has become part of everyday conversation. In case you’ve missed overhearing it, Wikipedia defines mindfulness as “moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, characterized mainly by “acceptance” — attention to thoughts and feelings without judging whether they are right or wrong.” Mindfulness meditation research points to health benefits from living in the moment, neither imagining what is ahead nor preoccupied with the phantoms of yesterday. Yet most people can’t, don’t, or are too busy to meditate. We live as if distracted by flies at a barbecue. The insects are replaced by the latest text message, our supervisor’s criticism, or a baby who just pooped. With all this happening, mindfulness meditation seems indulgent.
Americans, in particular, believe they must be going somewhere, anywhere but where they are. Our country condemns stasis in the name of progress, however ill-defined. Even our anger is directed at action, though it keeps us stuck. Someone who is mindful, by contrast, chooses a destination worth reaching and tends to find the ride interesting if not joyful; tolerable at worst.
Today I’ll suggest three simple exercises to buy you some mindfulness. I’ll be like the grocery employee who offers free samples, hoping you’ll enjoy the product and purchase more for yourself. Best of all, you won’t have to meditate, a procedure you might have tried and given up because of little time or frustration.
First, a word about the meditation I won’t be illustrating. The technique is a means to an end. The goal is to help you flourish and become enlivened, not to get divorced, quit work, or spend your days with eyes closed in a trance. Meditation makes your marriage, job, and everything else less troublesome if it succeeds in producing mindfulness that transfers from a quiet, private exercise to the rest of your life. I will offer examples of a more direct way to arrive at the same state. You aren’t required to choose one path to mindfulness, but life satisfaction can be enhanced by any and all methods that get you focused:
- Eat a meal alone. Try your home, a park bench, or a restaurant, although the first alternative probably will be easiest. It should be quiet to the extent possible. Turn off the TV and smartphone. Give dinner enough time after preparation. Look at the food. Examine it as if you had a microscope handy. Think about its arrangement on the plate. Appreciate the colors and shapes, the aromas and the temperature. Close your eyes and take a bite. Feel the texture with tongue and teeth. Chew slowly. Sense the taste. Be still. If you do this for even a few seconds, you will have eaten mindfully. Nothing but the meal and its qualities should be in your thoughts. Try not to compare this repast to anything in your history of dining.
Most of us tend to eat at speed. We simultaneously converse, anticipate the end of our lunch break, drift toward the events of yesterday or tomorrow, and pass through multiple disconnected emotions and ideas that start in Cleveland and end in Istanbul in 15 seconds time. The common way of eating is mindless, a term associated with Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer. Fueling the body becomes another job done daydreaming, like shoveling coal into a furnace while our brain is somewhere else. We move to the next task as distracted as when we ate. Our brain buzzes with car horns and flashing neon. Sleep alone stops the light show.
- Wad up some paper or find a small rubber ball and use a waste basket as a target. You are going to shoot baskets in a home-made version of basketball. The goal is not to become a champion or even to test yourself. Concentrate on the task. Focus on your grip of the ball or its substitute. Let the texture of the projectile inform your touch. Notice how the arm and hand are positioned. Sight the target. Watch the ball fly into the basket or rebound away. Sense your body as you bend to retrieve your throw. You might even hear a joint pop. Repeat. Think of nothing else, not even the previous shot. Care not whether you succeed in scoring. This is about the process and not the product. Slow down so the act fully absorbs you.
- Find a place free from the press of events. Think of someone you dislike. Consider all the negative adjectives you apply to them. Be as specific as possible. For example, words like hard-headed, foolish, demanding, etc. Now search for a different way to describe the same person, considering terms that are less pejorative but no less accurate. Can you recognize hard-headedness as another way of saying strong-willed? How about substituting optimistic for foolish, or acknowledging that a demanding human sets a high standard of performance?
The idea here is get out of the mindlessness groove and think afresh. Evolution led us to make quick judgements about who is on our side and who isn’t, who might be fun to share a lunch with and who might want us to be their lunch. When sticking to our preconceived notions we are living mindlessly, says Ellen Langer. The habit leaves us encumbered, unable to learn new things or correct errors with facility. Our world becomes a set of automatic answers and inflexible reactions, bypassing thought and reconsideration. Instead, try to look at anyone you know well and find something new about him or her. You might be surprised by what you discover.
I don’t want to overwhelm you. Any of these exercises is informative if done mindfully. No multitasking allowed. Mindfulness should enliven you. Observing the world in a new way is interesting. A fresh perspective is good for your brain and your relationships. Therapists sometimes role play with their patients, in part to give them practice in handling troublesome people, but also to take another perspective. In a difficult bond between parent and child — a bond like bondage — it can be enlightening to take your own role and then switch to the other’s role.
A psychiatrist I used to know often told his patients, “Learn or burn.” He didn’t mean it, of course. He wanted to emphasize their need to save themselves from the self-inflicted errors contributory to unhappiness. Abe Lincoln said:
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves…
I’d take Lincoln’s writing out of its Civil War context by writing the last sentence this way: “We must disenthrall ourselves” every minute, every day.
If your life is not what you wish, I’d say mindfulness, not wealth, is the more attainable, more satisfying alternative to the self-imposed slavery of pre-conceived notions and routine thought-spinning. An interesting life is in the mind of the beholder.
The top image is a symbol created by Mmm Daffodils to signify the “wise mind” concept used in DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy). It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.