‘Mindfulness means intentionally paying attention, in the present moment, in a non-judgmental way. Once you stand back, you don’t try to make things different, it’s not even about relaxation but about witnessing whatever’s going on without the usual critical commentary.’ That’s Ruby Wax’s take. Russ Harris says: ‘We connect with the world directly, rather than being caught up in our thoughts. We let our judgments, complaints and criticisms come and go like passing cars, and we fully engage in the present moment. We see our thoughts for what they are and let them go. We make room for our feelings and let them be.’
Ruby makes the distinction between doing and being. ‘The ‘doing’ mode drives us on to achieve things in our lives, while the ‘being’ mode ‘has no voice, it’s just directly sensing something, and being in the eye of the experience’. It’s what psychologists call flow, when you’re completely absorbed in something ‘without added running commentary’. You’re totally immersed and involved, and thoroughly enjoying the experience. Ruby finds it when she’s scuba diving. For me it might be when I’m taking photographs. For you it might be gardening, playing the piano, running, hide-and-seek with your grandchild, painting the kitchen wall, performing on stage. ‘In this mode, the mind isn’t flipping between the past and the future, it has nothing to do, nowhere to go, so it can start to settle and slow down from the high-speed chaos, noticing what’s going on in front of your eyes at that moment and experiencing thoughts as passing phenomena that arise and disappear.’
There are many books on mindfulness, and you can probably find an eight-week course running near you which will give you the tools you need if you really want to get into it. Both Russ and Ruby’s books contain many different types of exercises which encourage a mindful and accepting awareness. There’s a wide variety so you’re bound to find something that makes sense for you. I’ve limited myself to a few here which are brief and easy to explain.
Russ offers Breathing to Connect: ‘Take ten slow, deep breaths. For the first five, focus on your chest and abdomen; connect with your breathing. For the next five, expand your focus, so that as well as being aware of your breathing, you’re also connecting fully with your environment; that is, while noticing your breathing, also notice what you can see, hear, touch taste, and smell.’ You can do this exercise for a while if you’ve got time to spare, and you might just take three or four deep breaths if you’re waiting in a queue or sitting at traffic lights.
Part of the process is to notice how our minds distract us from focussing on the present. That’s okay. It’s what our minds do. Both Ruby and Russ suggest we might name or label thoughts as they come up. ‘I’m never going to get that essay in on time’ could be named as ‘panicking’. ‘I bet he earns more than me’ could be labelled as ‘comparing’. ‘I wish I could afford to take the kids to Disneyland’ could be ‘longing’. ‘The laundry needs doing’ could be ‘planning’. If we can notice these thoughts for what they are and return our attention to the present, they’re not really a problem – we try not to get caught up in them, but we just let them pop up and pass on through.
Russ encourages us to recognise that our minds are trying to help us, trying to keep us safe by alerting us to potential issues that we may need to think about. So he suggests we adopt the practice of thanking our minds for their input. When we find ourselves thinking ‘It’s about time I finished clearing out the garage’ when we’re trying to enjoy a relaxing bath, we can literally say ‘Thank you, Mind’. We acknowledge the thought, and let it be, without having to do anything about it.
If you’d like to be more in tune with physical sensations and how they’re related to your feelings, you could try Ruby’s exercise on emotions. ‘Focus in on a predominant feeling and notice where an emotion arises in the body and explore into the core of the feeling, the edges, pulsing, throbbing or stabbing. Notice how eager your mind is to create a story out of a feeling, which might not even have anything to do with the feeling. Stick with the feeling, and skip the running commentary.’
If you’ve found some of this interesting you could read more at http://bemindful.co.uk and http://www.everyday-mindfulness.org. You could have a look at The Happiness Trap or Sane New World or any of the other host of books on mindfulness. In times of anxiety I find it helpful to think of myself as being more than my feelings, thoughts and sensations. I try to see myself as the sky, containing all the weather that comes and goes – sunshine, fog, clouds, storms, heat and frost. None of it lasts. It all passes.
Whatever you’re doing this Christmas, you might find some time here and there to set aside worries about the future and regrets about the past, and focus, however briefly, on the present. It could make a difference to your life.
I leave you with an apple I noticed that was just crying out to be gazed at. And a few words from William Carlos Williams:
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white