As children, we may have heard the word mindful, in the context of, for example, “be mindful that I need you back early to help” or “be mindful of that stray dog” – and so we come to associate it with ‘remembering’ and, to a degree, with ‘alert caution’. And indeed, there is a portion of both within mindful practice and mindful living, especially if we take caution to be attentive.
But it is not about filling your mind with situations or factors that need attending to – that approach is having a ‘mind full’ of thoughts and to-do lists. No, being mindful is simply to be present, to be aware. Not self-aware in a self-conscious way; there is no need to analyse and react. It is about experiencing the moment, being truly yourself in that moment, in the context of being fully alive and participating in what you are doing or where you are.
You may respond to what is going on, you may feel the experience of it, but you don’t have to react. You can be you, you can be – you do not have to ‘act’ or ‘become’ anything – your true self gets to experience the moment and you get to be, in that moment, your own true self. Mindfulness is alertness to the present moment … but in that present moment you truly live. No daydreams, no hang-ups – pure life as it happens.
Mindfulness is more than a stress management technique, although it is globally popular as that. You can utilise mindfulness to catch your breath, to slow the pace and find some inner peace, but it offers so much more – spiritually, psychologically and even impacts positively upon physical health.
The modern world is fast-paced and stressful. When we charge through life reacting to everything, we are all about the reactions and the experience, not the true reality. Mindfulness slows the charge and allows us to respond rather than react, to witness in the present rather than moving between past recollection and leaping forward to make sense of our lives and ourselves.
Caught between forward planning and nostalgia – where are you right now? Are you actually living your life? Or are you mentally flicking back and forth without ever truly taking in the experience? Fast forward, rewind, fast forward, rewind, pause a bit, fast forward again – are you experiencing your life and yourself as a film? Are you playing over the same tired dramas and stresses, are you brainwashing yourself in the process? Is it all in your head – the mind full?
There is an alternative – being mindful.
Being mindful is simply being aware of what it is you are doing while you are doing it. You are reading now. The words on this page are understood by the language centre of your brain. You are conscious and sentient. You are standing, sitting in your favourite chair, on the commute home, lying on your bed, sitting under a tree. Whatever your surroundings, wherever you are, you have just cognately scanned it or opened the file of it.
How about doing that with your other senses. Are your feet on the ground? If so, feel them make contact with the solidness of the floor or earth.
How is your back against the chair? Experience how the chair supports you. You are a physical being in a physical reality – you are engaged in the mental process of reading and responding to the words, but your reality is that you are alive, a part of the living world.
Take a breath, feel the air as you inhale it through your mouth or nose and experience the exhale.
Take a deliberately deeper one – don’t worry if people are nearby, they are caught up in their own worlds. That breath, that process of breathing, is what keeps you alive and it is also the easiest way to switch on mindfulness. Coming to your senses is what helps you come to your senses.
There is no delusion or fast forwarding when you take the moment to become aware of the breath in and the breath out. No matter how stressful the day, or where you physically are, those breaths are life, real life. Mindful life.
Being aware and alive in this moment, as you read on and breathe naturally, means you are well capable of being aware that you are sitting, walking, running, listening to a friend, smelling a rose, cooking a meal or even washing the dishes. It’s all life, every moment of it is your life. Why ignore it for the clutter of random thoughts and your fantasy film?
The brilliant thing is that when you engage with life on the mindful level you experience more of life. It is not that dishwashing becomes a Zen experience every time, but living through the chore (as well as the treats) gifts a sort of mind control. Returning to the smell of the rose or the warm dishwater focuses and sharpens the mind/body/spirit so that when emotions or stress arise you can return to yourself and not get swept away by it all.
The overwhelming bits of life will not be so overwhelming; or better yet, we can make the overwhelming experiences be the awe-inspiring ones, instead of the devastating or distracting ones. Those thoughts that arise are not suppressed, they are noticed and moved on from, and there is no judgement. Just acknowledgement and acceptance.
I want you to try a trick – really try hard to focus and act accordingly. There is only one thing I am asking: Do not think of a polar bear. Do not under any circumstances picture in your mind a polar bear. Go!
So what did you do? Just like everybody else, your mind pulled out the polar bear snapshots. Your brain can not stop thoughts, but you can choose to not linger. If I had said “look, there is a polar bear”, you may or may not have glanced over, you may or may not have given it some thought, you may have looked – noticed and acknowledged – and then continued about your business.
That is how mindfulness works – OK, there is a polar bear. Next. OK, I am feeling a bit sad. Next. OK, I am anxious. Next. No need to dwell on anything. Next. This does not mean you become flippant or deadened, this simply means that you can filter out the noise and nonsense – so that instead of distractedly thinking about the to-do list, you can recognise that the polar bear is picking up speed and you can remember how to start the snowmobile.
When you have thoughts, notice that you have thoughts, and then return to being aware of what you are actually doing. When you are emotional, just notice the emotion – don’t try to deepen it and don’t try to push it away – just come back to awareness of what you are doing.
Your mind has a tendency to drift, but mindfulness is not the constant vigilance required to watch out for that stray dog. It’s not that you have to be ‘on’ 24/7, but that you can switch on when you need it. If you drift you will catch it and come back to the task in hand. You will be more efficient, which is why many companies send their employees on mindful courses, but think-tanks and pseudo-sweatshops aside, this new efficiency is all about you getting the most from life. From your life.
To live to your full potential is to live – to really live. We often confuse living with doing and not being.
Parties, adventures, action – by all means pack your life full of wonderful experiences, but remember to experience each one. Mindfulness brings life to sitting on your front doorstep, to washing your hands, to taking the dog for a walk – imagine what it will do for traversing the steppes, showering beneath a waterfall or watching the wolves watching you. Mindfulness hones your grasp on reality and so deepens each experience. You don’t have to circumnavigate the world to feel you have lived a life – being in the world is an adventure in itself.
Being there as the seasons change in your back yard is as amazing as seeing a leaf unfurl or change colour anywhere in the world, because with mindfulness it is you and the leaf experiencing reality in the moment – a location is not necessary to bring awe into the equation.
Your full potential means really being there; being present, alert and awake to the life happening around you. Be there for your child’s birth, be there for your parents’ death, be there for all of your life – that is living – joy, pain, experience – that is life. That is living up to your full potential.
Fiann O Nualláin has trained in the Institute of Integrative Counselling and Psychotherapy and works as a horticultural therapist. This extract is from his new book By Time is Everything Revealed, published by Gill Books, €12.99.