Christmas is around the corner. For something that used to be so awesome as a kid it’s amazing that, for many people, Christmas isn’t fun at all – it’s a stress-filled hell, stuffed with nightmares… So this week, I thought I’d write about being present without dwelling on the thoughts that can drive us to distraction.
I’ve talked a lot in my various posts about ‘mindfulness’. It’s an interesting term – because, in itself, it’s nothing particularly special. Unfortunately, like most things that have become popular, it’s been turned into something of a Frankenstein’s monster, with so many wonder-claims about its amazing powers ranging from genuine, to pseudo-scientific, to full on hippy madness. In reality, mindfulness is simply focusing one’s attention voluntarily. That’s it. It’s another way of saying purposeful concentration, or deliberate heedfulness, or intentional scrutiny (I love thesauruses). So why the big fuss?
It turns out that humans are a bit scattered. I’ve written a lot already about how we’re not really here – not only are we highly manipulated by our “don’t eat me” limbic systems, even the thing we call “me” doesn’t really exist (that is, the self isn’t a consistent thing, rather it’s a collection of software modules strung together to give an illusion of consistency). As a result, we’re constantly victim to our thoughts, feelings, and urges. We like to think we can control them (all part of the illusion), but we can’t – they come and go as they please, themselves the product of various brain centres and unconscious software modules that operate largely independent of any ‘central command’ (assuming there even is such a thing).
There is, however, one thing that humans can control (with a bit of practice): what we pay conscious attention to. In fact, we can become extremely good at it with enough training but, alas (again), most of us don’t pay much attention to what we pay attention to. We find our concentration wandering ‘uncontrollably’, we get distracted at the drop of a hat, we let our thoughts, feelings and urges (and our thoughts, feelings and urges about our thoughts, feelings and urges) distract our focus. Worse, we assume that this is inevitable, and this assumption gets us in trouble. It means that we actually believe that our thoughts, or feelings, or urges, are real. And the more we pay attention to those things, the more real we make them. These self-created loops (in my experience) are often the cause of a lot of our distress. We’ve created a painful reality out of fiction, and paid so much (inadvertent) attention to it that it becomes our world.
Even more interesting in the fact that we like to define ourselves by our memories (that is, we are the sum of our recalled experiences), but a lot of the time, we’re not recording these memories because we’re not paying attention! When was the last time you were driving and realised you had no visual memory of the previous few minutes? Your mind was elsewhere, distracted by your (uncontrollable) thoughts, and you weren’t paying attention (in itself pretty scary). We don’t encode what we aren’t aware of (that is, what we’re not paying attention to), so when your mind is elsewhere you’ll only encode your daydreaming, not what’s actually happening. In the case of the fictional realities we create when we pay too much attention to our thoughts and feelings, we end up encoding memories specific to these illusions, at the expense of the rest of our experiences. No wonder we’re so good at making ourselves so miserable.
So, coming back to mindfulness – or paying attention voluntarily. It’s nothing more that choosing where and when to focus. Unfortunately, if it were that simple it wouldn’t need people like me to bang on about it, so let’s look at the steps in mindful attention. First, you need to be paying attention to your world. This means, monitoring your internal (thoughts, feelings, urges) and external (sensory input) sensations actively. It’s actually quite tiring doing this (it’s a lot of information, which is one of the reasons humans are also really good at filtering out large amounts of sensory information), so you’re not going to be able to monitor everything. Start by learning to be aware of the things that most often distract you (like worries, or sensations like pain or anger). When you notice them, your job is to acknowledge that they’re trying to distract you, and then to focus your attention back on the present.
Turns out mindfulness has another element to it – it’s not just focused attention, but focused attention on the present moment. That shouldn’t be so hard, really. After all, without getting too metaphysical, as far as humans are concerned there is only now (and now)*. The past is simply a product of our imperfect memories and the future is fantasy – and both of these are just products of our big brains. Dogs have no past and future, they are perpetually present but, interestingly, not mindful (because they get distracted so easily). Just like dogs, we can’t help ourselves – we are constantly distracted, not just by our environment (like our furry fiends), but by our big brains.
In order to focus on the present, we need to be in the present, which means we need to be be focusing on/paying attention to it. The easiest way to learn how to do this is to practice ‘grounding’. Here are some really easy grounding exercises:
1) Close your eyes. Take a deep breath in through your nose, hold it at the top of the breath, and then let it out forcefully through your mouth – pay attention to the breath throughout.
2) Press your feet in to the floor as hard as you can for 5 seconds. Notice how it feels.
3) Close your eyes. Notice three things you can hear, then three things you can feel. Open your eyes and notice the first three things you see.
Easy? Good. So, putting it all together. (i) Pay attention to your world, (ii) notice when you’re becoming distracted and, (iii) bring yourself back to the present moment using a grounding exercise. Now repeat several million times. Oh yes, I should probably mention that you’ll always get distracted, that’s just the way it goes. You will, however, get a lot better at noticing when you’re distracted, and bringing yourself back. After a while, simply noticing the distraction can be enough to bring you back.
Living a mindful life is nothing more than paying attention to the potential distractions in your life, and deliberately choosing to refocus your attention on the present instead of becoming distracted. The reason everyone’s become so excited about mindfulness is that, as it turns out, this deliberate action is incredibly helpful. It actually provides us with a way of living that means we’re not victims to the various thoughts and feelings that bombard us. Even if they’re highly distressing, we can choose to acknowledge they’re there, and then shift our attention back to the present moment (even if we have to do this over and over again). Neurologically, in doing this we’re literally reprogramming ourselves (changing both the software and the hardware by rewiring our brains). By choosing to focus our attention on the present moment, and not on our unpleasant thoughts and feelings, we reinforce our ability to focus, and diminish the strength of those distractions.
So, it turns out that, especially at Christmas, it’s not the thought that counts, it’s the present…
* “No ‘and then'”