People tend to get a bit stuck, thinking that in order to practise mindfulness, they have to sit a certain way, or achieve a blank mind, or a particularly relaxed state. Mindfulness is a way of being aware of our experience as it actually is, in the present moment, and to bring a warm, non-judgemental, and curious approach to this. The more formal ‘sitting practices’ where we observe our breath for example, lay a bedrock of experience, from which to bring mindfulness to our moment by moment experience of the ordinary and the everyday.
We get an idea of what our experience is in the present moment through our senses, taste, touch, sight, hearing, smell. This is our primary experience of the world around us. Our minds then tend to get involved with this basic sensory information, and provide thoughts, worries, judgements, to go along with the sensory information, and alongside this, our emotions develop, so we might feel anxious, or excited, content or dissatisfied. This is our secondary experience, which shapes how we respond, think, feel and behave. We can use mindfulness to notice this and to make choices about our responses.
How does this work?
So, we see a cold windy wet day outside, and our minds will forage around in our memories for experiences which link with that sensory information. If we’ve had experiences of that type of weather which are unpleasant, our minds begin to throw out thoughts about avoiding exposure to the outside, and maybe also thoughts which increase the attractiveness of staying indoors. On the other hand, if we have experiences of launching ourselves, wrapped up into the weather, and enjoying a good walk, our minds might draw on those experiences and produce thoughts about how good we might feel after a walk, or how it looks worse through the window, and might not be so bad when we get out. this affects our behaviour – and we might end up with a bracing walk, or a an afternoon in.
So where does mindfulness come in?
All of the above processes, sensory information, and our responses to that in terms of thoughts, emotions and behaviour happen quickly and on automatic pilot. We often don’t even notice what’s happening. Practising mindfulness – focussing our awareness gently on what our experience actually is, in the present moment gives us a chance to notice, our thoughts and habits and then to make a choice of how we actually want to respond.
Lets go back to the example of the wet weather and the thoughts of whether to go for a walk or not. What if our New Year’s resolution is to improve our health by going for a walk for twenty minutes each day, and we are feeling really motivated to do this.
We notice our resistance to going out, our minds are telling us it will be unpleasant. We want to go and complete our resolution for the day, but we treat the thoughts about how cold and unpleasant it will be as though they are facts and we don’t go. Our mood might be a little downed by that, we might have a sense of disappointment with ourselves.
Or, we notice the thoughts, and we say to ourselves, that these are just thoughts, we don’t know how wet, or how cold it is, but we can wrap up. and walk for twenty minutes and see how it is. We go out, we stay mindful, noticing our moment by moment experience we notice the feeling of the wind against our coat, and the movement of our body walking, without judging these things, we notice the raindrops on our faces, we allow ourselves to be curious about how it feels, and we complete the walk. We get home, having done what we intended and having experienced the wind and rain in a new way – not as something to automatically regard as unpleasant, but just as an experience about which we can be interested and curious.
So practising mindfulness can create a space in which we notice ourselves being pushed around by our thoughts and habitual ways of responding to things, and once we notice we can pause and make a conscious choice about how we want to respond.
How might this apply to your New Year plans for yourself?