I’ve written a lot about why people should cultivate mindfulness, but not so much on how to actually be mindful. This is both normal and strange for me – I’m used to writing about abstract concepts, but when working with my clients, there’s a lot of focus on the practical. So today is less abstract, more practical.
Unfortunately, mindfulness is often bandied about as a ‘woo-woo’, pseudo-religious panacea. Let’s be clear. Mindfulness is nothing more than paying attention voluntarily, without the usual barrage of internal judgements and comments that accompany our observation of the world. It would be great if this skill was simple but, for most of us, being mindful is a struggle.
It’s easiest to illustrate how most of us are absent from our lives with an example. Think back to how often you’ve been driving (or sitting on a train or bus) and noticed that you have no visual memory of the preceding five minutes. You were obviously there (and in the process performing a very complex behaviour), but you were lost in your internal world, thinking about something else. As such, you didn’t take in any of the visual information associated with driving (i.e., you didn’t encode it to memory). There are two scary outcomes to this behaviour: i) you were a really dangerous driver and, ii) that part of your life effectively didn’t happen. When you’re on autopilot you’re not encoding memories of your life and if you don’t encode memory, as far as you’re concerned, that part of your life didn’t happen (you have no ability to recall it later). You were absent…
Most of us are absent for a large portion of our lives, even when we want to be present. Sadly, for many of us, even if we want to pay attention, we’re more likely to get distracted by internal thoughts or sensations. Instead of enjoying time with our partner, we might be thinking about work. Instead of appreciating a good meal, we’re watching television…
Being mindful gives us options. It allows us to choose when and how we focus, without the usual internal distractions. Of course, very few of us can be mindful all the time – there’s plenty of times when daydreaming can be effective as well – but learning to be present when you need to be, or when it’s important that you are, is a skill that can make the difference between wandering through your life and actually living it.
Cultivating mindfulness is just like learning any skill. It requires daily practice. Mastering mindfulness is really a two-parter: learning to pay attention and learning to avoid falling victim to internal thoughts and sensations. I’ll break down the techniques below.
The simplest way to bring your attention back to the present moment, is to do a brief ‘grounding’ exercise. Grounding, as the name suggests, is about coming back to earth when you notice yourself wandering mentally. The simplest grounding exercise (called the ‘mindful breath’) is really simple. Take a deep breath in through your nose, following the passage of air in your mind’s eye, hold it for a few seconds, and then let it go (again following the passage of air in your mind). This little exercise is often enough to refocus your attention to what you were doing before you became distracted.
Other grounding techniques are just as simple and quite effective. ‘Notice three things’ involves closing your eyes briefly and noticing three things you can hear, then three things you can feel. Next, flick open your eyes and notice the first three things you see. Similarly, you can quite literally ‘ground’ by pushing your feet into the floor for five seconds and paying attention to the feeling.
Getting into the habit of using a grounding technique when you notice that you’ve drifted from the present moment is a great way of training yourself (and your attentional focus centres in your prefrontal cortex) to come back on command.
Mindfulness of a neutral experience
The easiest situations in which we can learn to be mindful are those that don’t provoke a lot of mental commentary (or ‘labelling’). These ‘neutral’ situations are neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but are usually relatively mundane, and preformed on a daily basis while you’re thinking about other things. Activities like brushing your teeth, showering, driving, or walking to the train station, often fall into this category.
To be mindful during a neutral activity, make the decision that you’re going to be mindful before you start. It helps to remind yourself regularly (a sticky note on the door for walking or in your car for driving, for example), otherwise you’ll most likely default to your habitual behaviour. It’s also useful to give yourself a time limit to begin with. This is easy for toothbrushing or showering, but harder for walking and driving, so it can help to pick a landmark to indicate starting and stopping the exercise.
Once the activity starts, pay attention to the sensations associated with your actions. Notice the colours, sounds, tastes, smells, and feelings. Your mind will most probably wander, so whenever you notice that it has, deliberately refocus your attention on the immediate sensations. Because your mind will wander often, there’s little to be gained from mentally commenting on how bad you are at this, or how boring it is, or whatever it is your mind wants to distract you with. Instead, simply notice you’ve wandered and refocus, even if you have to do it every few seconds (to begin with).
By learning to be mindful (voluntarily) in situations where your mind is likely to wander, you’re preparing yourself to be better able to stay present when your mind is almost guaranteed to wander (e.g., during unpleasant experiences).
Mindfulness of pleasant experiences
The ridiculousness of the human condition is that we often wish for more pleasant experiences (for instance, looking at the clock at work on a Friday afternoon and daydreaming about after-work drinks) but, when we get there, we’re distracted and unable to enjoy the moment. Our minds pull us away from the experience even though we really want to be present.
Learning to be mindful during pleasant experiences requires being able to recognise them when they’re happening. Many of us are so caught up in our internal processes that we just don’t pay attention to what’s going on around us. Getting better at noticing pleasant experiences happens when we pay attention to our situation. Ask yourself “is this where I want to be right now?” or “am I enjoying myself?”. Once you’ve noticed what’s going on you’re better able to choose to be present. Of course your mind will interrupt you with thoughts about work, or what you need to do tomorrow, or that thing you still need to finish. Your job is to decide to be present, and then notice the interruptions and (and gently) return your attention voluntarily to what’s going on around you.
A great way to improve you ability to notice pleasant experiences is to think about three pleasant things that happened during your day as you’re falling asleep each night. Doing this helps you encode the experiences as long-term memories which, in turn, makes it more likely that you’ll be aware of pleasant experiences when they happen.
Mindfulness of unpleasant experiences
For most of us, unpleasant experiences, including the so-called ‘negative’ emotions (like sadness, anger and anxiety) are to be avoided at any cost. In these situations, we’d much rather be elsewhere than experience what’s going on. In doing so, however, we’re training ourselves to avoid anything that doesn’t seem pleasant, and missing out on important parts of our lives. Most of us learn a lot more when things aren’t going well than we do when things are easy, but only if we pay attention.
Learning to be mindful of unpleasant experiences is about recognising that just because we feel bad, things aren’t necessarily that way. I’ve written a lot about how our ‘negative’ feelings are just the result of limbic system activation (here). We’ve evolved to pay attention to these feelings so that we can avoid danger but, in the modern world, they’re often activated inappropriately, or in situations where there’s no physical danger.
Being mindful during unpleasant experiences requires paying attention to what’s going on, and focusing on a chosen action irrespective of what your mind is telling you (things like “this is soooo boring”, or “I can’t stand this”) and the urges resulting from your emotions (usually getting away from the present moment). Athletes usually get this notion – they’re often in pain during an event, but are focused on a chosen activity (performing well) despite the thoughts and sensations associated with that moment. In other words, despite the distractions of unpleasant sensations, their performance requires them to stay present.
Practice your mindfulness of unpleasant experiences by starting with easier tasks, like staying present through mild frustration or boredom, or focusing on the task at hand for a chosen period of time when you’ve got an itch or when you’re hungry. No-one’s asking you to become a Zen master but, with practice and over time, your tolerance for unpleasant sensations will increase substantially. You won’t need to be distracted (or to distract yourself), and you’re less likely to interpret the situation as ‘bad’ or ‘terrible’. Instead you’ll be better able to focus on a meaningful choice (such as focusing on a speaker even though he’s really boring, or completing a task when you’re tired or hungry) instead of attending to your distracting thoughts and sensations.
Meta-awareness and defusion
The practice of noticing when your mind has wandered is sometimes called meta-awareness. Meta-awareness is essential for mindfulness because we can’t be mindful if we aren’t aware that our mind has wandered! Every time you notice that you’ve strayed, and then refocus your attention on the present, you’re activating your meta-awareness. Defusion is a similar notion: noticing a thought or feeling without attending to it (i.e., getting distracted by it or ‘fused’ to it), and then detaching (or ‘defusing’) from it by returning attention to the present moment.
A great defusion exercise is to carry around a piece of paper and a pen for the next few weeks. On the front side include room for writing down thoughts. On the back, write the following: 1) “Ah, my mind is trying to distract me again”, 2) “Thanks mind…”, 3) “Now what was I doing?”. Whenever you notice that a thought has taken you away, immediately write it down on the paper (e.g., “I can’t do this”) – if you’ve already written the thought down, place a tick next to it. Then turn the paper over and read the little script above to yourself. Finish with a quick grounding technique (see above). With a couple of week’s practice, you’ll be much better able to identify the thoughts that routinely drag you away, and at interrupting this process by noticing and returning your attention to the present moment. You might need to write down a lot of thoughts, and repeat the exercise over and over again, but every time you do it, you’re increasing both your meta-awareness, and your ability to refocus your attention.
By practising meta-awareness and defusion we give ourselves a substantial number of options that aren’t usually available to us. Instead of being distracted without even being aware of it, or getting stuck to a thought or feeling, we’re able to maker a conscious choice to detach from whatever has distracted us, and to reattend to the present moment. It’s unlikely that we’d want to do this all the time, but being able to attend to our lives, when we want or need to, allows us to choose how we live our lives: here, mindfully, or somewhere else…