Mindfulness – A Better Way of Thinking

We live in an incredible age. We can expect to live longer and healthier lives than was  ever possible for any of our ancestors and technology is accelerating at an ever increasing rate. However, the speed of change means a significant disconnect has opened up between the world evolution prepared us for and the world in which we live.

To make matters worse we have a default way of thinking that is ill equipped to bridge this gap and as a consequence we often feel dissatisfied and disappointed despite living in a world of plenty. There is another way of thinking that can bridge this gap and which can help us make sense of the disappointment we often feel for no apparent reason.

This way of thinking is called mindfulness, and this article aims to look at it in a different light so we can gain a deeper understanding of what it is and how it can open up a path to a richer and more fulfilling life.

The disconnect between us and evolution.

Within living memory households had neither electricity nor running water. We now have every possible household  convenience to liberate us from the drudgery of cooking, washing and cleaning. In two generations entertainment has gone from radio, records and cinema to an on-demand streaming output of digital content that includes, television, music, and film and has added games, apps, and social media to help us fill every moment of our day. We live in the age of the consumer and technology has put a sophisticated smartphone in everyone’s back pocket.

However modern life has other challenges, paradoxically we live in a world in which more people die by their own hand than through war, terrorism and murder. We have never before lived in a world in which we are connected 24/7 by our smartphones to everyone and everything. We are bombarded by information, advertising, emails, messages and notifications all clamoring for our attention.

Our world has also changed dramatically, we are now largely an urban society, families are often fragmented and the emergence of social media and instant messaging changes our relationships and the way we interact. The constant demands on our attention undermine our ability to focus, we lose sight of what is important and we can easily be led into a world of distraction that is shallow, unfulfilling and addictive.

Stress now affects one in every five of us to an extent that it negatively impacts our mental health. It can manifest as anxiety or depression, two different conditions both corrosive to our happiness, health and well-being.

This is not a world that evolution prepared us for, our ancestors had to compete for scarce resources with limited information in close knit communities. Human brains  evolved over millions of years and developed potent cocktails of chemical endorphins as a stimulus and reward to keep us focused on satisfying our basic human needs.

But in our modern world of plenty, a world in which most of our evolutionary needs are met, we still seek the pleasure of the reward in the absence of the need. We have replaced ‘needs’ with ‘wants’, but pleasure dissipates quickly and once one want is satisfied another soon appears to take its place. The constant demands on our attention, the continual carrots that are dangled in front of us, distract us from what is important and what gives life meaning. And without meaning, purpose and direction we can find ourselves lost, bewildered and at times deeply unhappy.

If our greatest aspiration in life is to be content and happy, then it is imperative we understand how to bridge the gap that has opened up between the world evolution prepared us for and the actual world in which we live. To do this we must first resolve two significant problems.

  • We don’t fully understand how our minds work
  • We have a default way of thinking that doesn’t serve us well.
Why we don’t understand our minds.

Isn’t it incredible that we spend 16 years in full-time education without ever learning how our minds work? Why is this?

We don’t learn how our minds work because our society and education have never placed any importance on doing so. It simply hasn’t occurred to us that our minds might not be the free thinking entities they appear to be.

We believe that our minds are logical, rational and free thinking. They are the centre of our Universe, the starting point from which we look out at the world. We don’t fully understand how mind and body are connected, but our religious and cultural beliefs have instilled a belief that mind and body are somehow separate.

This belief does not allow for the possibility of hidden biases in our thinking, nor does it teach us to be vigilant of the strong evolutionary needs and instincts that drive our thinking and behaviour at a subconscious level. It engenders a one directional way of thinking, one that thinks without ever questioning our thoughts.

Our default way of thinking

It is counter intuitive to imagine that the earth revolves around the sun, every morning we see the sun rise and fall as it moves across the sky. It is only when the rotation of the Earth is explained to us that we understand that the perception of the sun moving around the earth is an illusion.

In many regards the belief that our minds are logical, rational and free thinking is also an illusion.

We look out from our minds in the same way as we look out from the Earth, as if we are at the centre of our own private Universe. But what if our minds are no more than an illusion created by billions of chemical and electrical interactions between cells within our bodies. What is the consequence of our thoughts originating from cells which form an unbroken chain linking back hundreds of generations? What if the perception of our logical, rational, free thinking mind is also an illusion?

When we consider the full implications of a mind and body that acts as one, we create the opportunity for a whole new way of thinking. It no longer serves us just to think in one direction, we also need to be curious as to where our thoughts come from and what purpose they serve.

We can now think in two directions, outwardly at our thought, but also inwardly back at where the thought comes from.

Let us consider these two different concepts in more detail;

  • Mind and Body are Separate
  • Mind and Body are One.
Mind and Body are Separate

Dualism is the belief that mind and body are separate, and for most of us it is our default way of thinking. So where did this come from?

Many of us believe that we have a divine soul that is separate from the body and which will receive its reward in Heaven. But there would be little point of our soul getting to Heaven if it arrived there and didn’t know who it was! We have invested our mind with the same sense of separate identity that is the defining feature of our soul.

The philosopher Rene Descartes supported the belief of a separate soul when he proposed his concept of Cartesian Dualism. This considers the mind, or soul, as an ethereal substance, distinct and separate from the body but which interacts with the body at the pineal gland. This proposes that the mind controls the body, but that the body can also influence our otherwise rational mind, such as when our emotions take over.

The concept of a separate mind and body is so deeply entrenched in our psyche that we fail to see how deeply it influences our thinking.

It tends to reinforce a belief that we are uniquely different from the rest of the animal kingdom. We watch with fascination the bizarre behaviour of animals and not for one moment do we consider that our own thoughts and behaviour may be equally bizarre driven by similar evolutionary instincts.

We consider ourselves to be logical, free thinking and with the exception of matters of the heart, to make rational decisions based on our information to hand. This belief is so strong that most of us take it as a self evident truth, one that is so obvious that we don’t need to question it. We implicitly trust our reasoning and the experience upon which it is based.

The deep flaw with this one-directional way of thinking is that we never really question why we think or feel the way we do. We do not allow for the fact that our thoughts and behaviour are often driven by evolutionary needs and instincts buried deep within our psyche.

As a consequence we never benefit from the deep liberation of knowing that we are not our thoughts and feelings. We appreciate that hunger and physical pain are signals from our bodies, but somehow cravings and moods become much more personal. We identify with our emotions, “I am happy”, or “I am sad”.

But what if thoughts and emotions are just ‘stuff’ that happens to us. Wouldn’t stress, cravings and difficult emotions be much easier to deal with if we thought of them in the same way as we think of physical pain, as something that happens to us. Not something that is us.

Mind and Body are One

One of the most amazing recent discoveries in science is that life started just once on Earth when a single cell pulsed into being. Two billion years later and every living thing on the planet; bacteria, plants and animals all share a single common ancestor.

“…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
On the Origin of Species (1859) – Charles Darwin

There are now several fields of science engaged in gaining a greater understanding of our minds. Psychology is the science of behavior and mind and cognitive neuroscience investigates how psychological functions are produced by neural circuitry within the brain and body.

Materialism is the philosophical and scientific concept that matter is the fundamental substance in nature and that our mind and consciousness are part and processes of our body. To put it more succinctly, mind and body are one.

The concept that mind and body are one allows for the possibility that our subconscious mind may be constantly scanning for threats and seeking to satisfy needs. Suddenly understanding our mind takes on a whole new imperative, what other forces or motives are underlying our thoughts and decisions? What hidden biases in our thinking do we need to consider and make allowance for? Are we constantly being driven to satisfy ancient evolutionary needs that are out of sync with our modern day circumstances?

Two directional thinking allows us to insert a curious observer into our thinking process. Not only does this allow us to question why and where our thought comes from, but it also allows us to make more considered decisions based on all our options.

A Better Way of Thinking

Allowing ourselves to consider mind and body as one opens up a real opportunity to bridge the disconnect between the world evolution prepared us for and the world in which we live. An opportunity that can lead to a happier and more fulfilling life.

We can learn to understand our minds are not as free thinking and rational as we believe. That there are hidden biases in our thinking processes, and that we have inherited ‘ancient fires’ from our ancestors that drive our thoughts and behaviour.

Considering our mind and body as one is not mutually exclusive of a fundamental belief in a divine soul, it just re-frames our thinking in a context that allows a healthier understanding of our mind and how it works. A mind and body that are united can still be the seat of a divine soul.

The most significant consequence of considering mind and body as one is the importance of nurturing all aspects of our well-being. If our thoughts and moods originate in our bodies, then we can fully appreciate the connection between a healthy body and a healthy mind. We can fully understand the importance of taking care of all aspects of our health; physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual.

Happiness and contentment are states of mind, and our first priority must be to find a way to develop resilience and positive emotions. We also need to find a healthy way to deal with stress and negative emotions.

The answer is a two directional way of thinking, a way of thinking that we otherwise know as mindfulness.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness can be thought of as many things; a multi-faceted diamond, a key to open many doors, a state of being, a path, an energy, a strategy, and a tool.

In essence mindfulness is bringing our attention to what is happening in the present moment, at it’s very core is the energy of a relaxed, but focused attention.

“Mindfulness is the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
Jon Kabat Zinn

The state of awareness that we cultivate is detached, curious and compassionate, it is as if we have invited a trusted, wise and kind observer into our minds to watch what is happening.

This two directional thinking can replace our default way of thinking that never seeks to understand why we think the way we do. We now have a thinking tool that not only looks at our thoughts and emotions but also looks back to see where they came from.

This practice of alert awareness brings insights, and it is through these insights that we can make life changing choices about what is important to us, and where we want to invest our limited time and precious attention.

The practice of mindfulness if developed over time can be deeply transformative, we operate on auto-pilot most of the time and our reactions are purely instinctual based on a life time of acquired programming, beliefs and habits.

What mindfulness does is to take us off auto pilot and allow us to recognise that at any time, in any situation, we always have choices on how to act. We learn that not only can we choose our words and actions, but with practice we can also choose our thoughts and emotions, this is deeply liberating.

Putting it all together

Our world has changed so dramatically in the last few generations that a disconnect has opened up between the world that evolution prepared us, and the world in which we live.

This disconnect is challenging our happiness and mental health to such a degree that in a world of plenty we often feel dissatisfied and disappointed without knowing why.

Our difficulties are compounded because we have a default way of thinking that assumes our thinking is always logical, rational and without influence or bias. We cannot see that on many occasions the tail is wagging the dog, that our thoughts and behaviour are often driven by hidden evolutionary needs and instincts. Our thinking is one directional only, we think but without ever questioning our thoughts.

If we allow for the fact that our minds are part and parcel of our bodies, and that they contain millions of years of evolutionary baggage, then we can change our perspective and the way we think.

If we introduce the practice of mindfulness we can insert a curious, kind observer to watch our thoughts. This two directional style of thinking not only follows our thoughts, but also looks back to understand where they came from.

The insights we gain from a better understanding of our mind, thoughts and behaviour allow us to make better choices. Choices which can bridge the disconnect between the world evolution prepared us for and the world we actually live in.

Ultimately, it is through a greater understand of ourselves that we find peace and happiness and open a path to a richer and more fulfilling life.

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Mindfulness – A Better Way of Thinking

A Sprinkling of Self Compassion

Mindfulness tends to focus on the transitory nature of thoughts, but the real heavy lifting in mindfulness is when we start to tackle our emotions and deal with stress. If we think of stress as an umbrella then we will find anxiety and depression sheltering beneath it.

For the real challenges in life mindfulness can take us so far but at some point we need to reach out for help. However, as a practice mindfulness is wonderful in helping us to care for ourselves through self compassion and mindfulness practices like RAIN.

Emotions

While thoughts may come and go, emotions feel more like states of being. We identify with them to such an extent that we think of ourselves as them, “I am happy” or “I am sad.”

Robert Plutchik gave us a wonderful way to visualize emotions, with his ‘Wheel of Emotions.’

2000px-Plutchik-wheel.svg

Plutchik considered there to be eight primary emotions; anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, trust and joy. The three main features of this model are:

  • Each primary emotion has a polar opposite, joy with sadness, anger with fear.
  • Each primary emotion has a scale of emotional intensity, joy ranges from serenity to ecstasy and anger from annoyance to rage.
  • Primary emotions blend to form secondary emotions, together anger and distrust create contempt, while joy and trust create love.

Our experience of others suggests that we all have a trademark emotion, some people seem to have a naturally happy disposition while others are more grumpy. We also seem to feel emotions at different intensities, the same trigger may barely ‘raise an eyebrow’ in one person while another may ‘spit the dummy’.

One thing is for certain we are very attached to our emotional states when we feel good we feel wonderful, but when we feel bad we are convinced that our whole life is miserable, at these times it’s very difficult to remember, “this too will pass.”

Stress

Thoughts and emotions mixed together can blend powerful cocktails such as anxiety and depression. While these are very different states they are the opposite sides of the coin we call stress.

A little stress can be good for us if it motivates us to get things done and indeed some people have the ability to thrive on it, rather like the organisms which flourish in highly toxic deep sea vents! However, stress becomes a problem for us when we begin to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope, and this is often the trigger for anxiety or depression.

Anxiety

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.”
– Mark Twain

While Mark Twain’s quote is witty and has a ring of truth, there is nothing amusing about anxiety. Anxiety is characterised by a state of inner turmoil which can vary from unease to a constant loop of deeply debilitating worry. There is an important distinction between anxiety and fear, fear is an emotional reaction to something that is happening now, while anxiety is worrying about the future.

Depression

“Depression is the most unpleasant thing I have ever experienced. . . . It is that absence of being able to envisage that you will ever be cheerful again. The absence of hope. That very deadened feeling, which is so very different from feeling sad. Sad hurts but it’s a healthy feeling. It is a necessary thing to feel. Depression is very different.”
 – J.K. Rowling

Depression is typified by a loss of interest and motivation. It can feel like an overwhelming sadness or as if the very life has been sucked out of you. The Dementors in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books are metaphors for depression and are based on her own experience of depression.

 

The felt experience of Life

Our experience of life is felt as a subtly changing landscape of emotional states. How important then to be aware of the basic palette of emotions from which our emotional landscape is painted.

It is estimated that one in five of us suffer from emotional stress at a level that is causing anxiety or depression. That’s a lot of people and although we live in a connected world it’s predominantly a world of ‘image’ which discourages people from sharing their suffering with others. As a consequence we suffer in silence, not only is this isolating but it reinforces the sense that something is wrong with us, that we are somehow different from everybody else.

If only we knew that the human condition is to suffer and if only we could see the amount of hidden suffering in the world. At our core we are social animals and stress is toxic, especially when it’s hidden and internalised.

It is my own experience that mindfulness can only take us so far, that there are times and challenges when we need to reach out for help. This may be a trusted friend who can advice or simply listen, or it may be the professional advise of a trained and compassionate counselor.

Self Compassion and Self Care

One of the strongest practices in mindfulness is practicing self-compassion, this is deeply nurturing and healing and a leading exponent is Kirstin Neff, her 20 minute TED talk is a great place to start.

Another wonderful practice when we catch ourselves in the company of difficult thoughts and emotions is the RAIN practice and is explained in much more detail in this post from Tara’s website , however the RAIN acronym stands for:

  • Recognise what is happening
  • Allow it to be just as it is
  • Investigate with a kind curiousity
  • Non-identify. These thoughts and feelings are not who you are, they do not define you.

This is just a toe in the water when it comes to learning about our emotions, stress and the states of anxiety and depression. However, as our experience of life is felt how important it is to learn how to cultivate our good emotions and disassociate ourselves from the bad. This is something that mindfulness can help us with.

A Sprinkling of Self Compassion

A Place of Patience

When I run after what I think I want,
my days are a furnace of stress and anxiety;
if I sit in my own place of patience,
what I need flows to me, and without pain.
From this I understand that
what I want also wants me,
is looking for me and attracting me.
There is a great secret here
for anyone who can grasp it.

Rumi

Over the last few weeks this poem has had a profound influence on me. Even though it was written over 800 years ago it speaks to me with a clarity, urgency and vitality as if the ink was still dry on the page.

It perfectly describes our two modes of existence, we are either running after what we think we want and suffering for our efforts, or we can choose to sit in our own place of patience and allow what we need to flow to us, without suffering.

Our own place of patience is mindfulness.

If mindfulness is a skill then meditation is how we learn the skill. It’s best to make meditation a regular daily habit, and the easiest way to form a habit is to make it something you enjoy.

The Setting

Find a quiet and comfortable space to create a setting for your meditation, similarly find a quiet time in your day when you will not be disturbed to build your meditation habit.

“Habit is a cable; we weave a thread of it every day, and at last we cannot break it.”
Horace Mann

A meditation cushion, a zafu, is ideal for meditating. It allows you to sit in a comfortable cross-legged position with your back straight. In the absence of a zafu use a couple of cushions to give you some height off the floor which makes it easier to sit cross-legged. A chair is perfectly OK, however you need to sit with your back erect and not resting against the back of the chair, this is easier said than done as it’s easy to lean back in the chair to take a rest, or ease discomfort.

It helps to have an object to focus your attention on while meditating, so a small statue or a picture is ideal. I also like to light a candle and burn a small incense stick, this creates a sense of ritual and adds a spiritual element to my practice, it’s also very cosy!

I can honestly say that my morning ritual brings a wonderful sense of peace to start my day.

Insight Timer

I use an application called Insight Timer on my mobile phone to start and end my meditation sessions, I’ve found this to be a great help in building my meditation habit. Insight Timer allows me to time my meditation sessions and to start and finish them with the wonderful sound of a meditation bell.

I can add intermediate bells during my meditation session to bring me back to awareness and this also gives me a sense of how much time has elapsed. All my meditation sessions are recorded and I get a gold star every time I complete ten consecutive days, and I love gold stars!

There are hundreds of guided meditations available on Insight Timer with many eminent spiritual teachers. There are also many interest groups you can join, and you can even make ‘meditation’ friends.

The Practice

Meditation is sitting with alertness, for something that seems so simple its actually incredibly hard. It is only when we start meditating that we become aware of our ‘monkey mind’, the tendency of our mind to go swinging off by itself chasing after random thoughts.

In my blog on The Watcher I spoke about four elements of mindfulness; arrival, presence, focus and insight. Every time our mind wanders we have to keep bringing it back to ‘arrive’ in the present moment. This calls for great patience and Rumi’s description of mindfulness as ‘our own place of patience’ is a wonderful description of what we are trying to achieve.

For me, I know I am in a state of mindfulness when the Watcher is present. This is when I comeoff automatic pilot and I am able to look at my thoughts and emotions with a detached and self compassionate curiousity.

Be as awake as a person walking on high stilts, any misstep could cause the walker to fall. Be like a medieval knight walking weaponless in a forest of swords. Be like a lion, going forward with slow, gentle, and firm steps. Only with this kind of vigilance can you realize total awakening.

Thich Nhat Hanh

The Gateless Gate

In mindfulness the constant chatter of our thoughts and emotions can be imagined as a gate blocking us from our state of natural awareness. When we calm the mind we can pass through the gateless gate and arrive in presence.

The simplest way to calm the mind is to take three long breaths, inhaling and exhaling and allowing the mind to settle so you can arrive in the present moment. It can also help to focus your attention on an object of meditation; a picture, a statue, the flame of a candle, or just a spot on the floor about a yard in front of you.

When your mind is calm there are many exercises you can do to develop your ability to focus. One exercise is to count each breath until you get to ten, and then start again at one. Every time your mind wanders start again at one. You will be surprised at how difficult it is, and at the number of times you find yourself at 16 or 17 blissfully unaware that your mind is miles away.

 

Experiencing the Present Moment

A Universal practice in mindfulness is to examine with self compassion and curiousity our experience of the present moment.

To do this ask yourself four questions:

  • What am I doing now?
  • What emotions am I feeling now?
  • What am I thinking now?
  • What are my senses experiencing now?

This is a mindfulness practice that you can use at any time of the day, not just when you are meditating, which is why the first question is to ask yourself what you are doing right now? Where are your going? What are your actions or behaviour?

Emotions are what provide the colour to our day and we are strongly attached to them. Mindfulness is so important in allowing ourselves to remember that we are not our thoughts and emotions, they are just things that happen to us, things we experience during our day.

Behind every emotion is a thought, sometimes it is buried so deep its not always possible to spot it. We can think of an emotion as the shadow of a thought, if we can see the shadow we may be able to spot the thought that casts it.

It’s a wonderful exercise when you are meditating to run through your senses; what you can see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Spend a few precious moments with every sense perception, it can add a richness and vitality to your experience of Now.

Your own place of patience

Taking time to meditate every day is the most positive action you can take to build your own place of patience and bring more peace and joy into your life.

What do you enjoy most in your meditation habit?

 

A Place of Patience

Hooks

Hooks

I sit and cast out my hooks,
And each time I slowly reel them in.
Again and again I throw them out,
Hooks of need, desire and longing.

Until eventually a hook catches.
I pull gently and sometimes it falls free.
But at some point a hook holds fast,
And then….. my hook pulls me.

The above is a simple poem that I wrote to express an important insight I gained through observing my own behaviour. The things we become attached to, the objects of our addictive behaviour, are simply the objects that get caught in our hooks. If it wasn’t them it would be something else.

It isn’t our bad habits and addictions that require our attention, instead we need to understand what drives us to keep endlessly fishing. Deep down in our subconscious is a need that was never met and most likely will never be satisfied.

Though I’m quite pleased by my modest effort, I think Rumi expressed it better when he said:-

When I run after what I think I want,
My days are a furnace of distress and anxiety.

If I sit in my own place of patience,
What I need flows to me, and without any pain.

From this I understand that what I want also wants me,
is looking for me and attracting me.

There is a great secret in this for anyone who can grasp it.

Rumi

Hooks

The Weather Systems of the Mind

When we learn to sail it helps to learn a little about the weather, when we practice mindfulness it helps to know a little about the internal weather systems of our mind. Here are the essentials to help you sail with the elements and not do battle against them.

Nature

We are a link in an unbroken chain that extends back to the earliest humans and far beyond that to the very beginning of life on Earth. It has taken millions of years for our brain to evolve and it has done so in stages. Rick Hanson identifies three key stages of development; the reptilian, the mammalian, and the primate.

Associated with each of these three stages are basic needs; the need for safety, the need to be satisfied, and the need for connection with others. Strong negative emotions are instinctively triggered if we are deprived of any of our basic needs, sometimes we can see and feel the vivid colours of these emotions without understanding where they come from.

Nurture

We believe what we see.

One of life’s greatest challenges is that others just don’t seem to be able to see things as clearly as we do. It’s a mystery!

In reality we all see life through invisible ‘judgment glasses’, we just don’t know they’re there. Judgment glasses are great because they allow us to make decisions, hold opinions, and generally they give us certainty in life. Some people have the ‘black and white’ variety, while others have the ‘shades of grey’.

There are so many factors that go into manufacturing our own judgment glasses; parents, peers, education, environment, society, media, culture, to name just a few. While we can’t remove our glasses, we can remind ourselves to take a more searching look.

Emotions

When we look through our judgment glasses a thought bursts into a rainbow of emotional colours. There are the strong reds and violets of anger and fear and also soft pastel blues and greens of joy and calm.

Whatever we look at provides a kaleidoscope of emotional colours. It might be something someone said yesterday or twenty years ago, or it may be thoughts about meeting someone later today. Whatever it is it has a colour.

Sometimes the brightest colours we see are when we look at our own actions and behaviour, our expectations and achievements. These are strong colours and we don’t always like what we see.

We forget they are only colours.

The Negativity Bias

A strong evolutionary trait is to remember the bad and forget the good. Rick Hanson expresses it wonderfully when he likens bad experiences to Velcro and good to Teflon. The bad sticks and the good slides off effortlessly.

The negativity bias has done a wonderful job in keeping our ancestors alive, and by extension assuring our own existence. However, it does mean that our judgment glasses have a tendency to be always scanning for threats and to give preference to the bad over the good. Negative emotions don’t fade so quickly and tend to played back, again and again.

Problem Children

It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to live a life without experiencing some form of trauma. Many things happen to us in childhood which we can’t remember let alone understand. We remain vulnerable as adolescents, young adults, and throughout our lives to trauma; bullying, rejection, loss, failure. It’s a long list.

When we experience trauma it can leave a trapped emotional state that always remains with us, surfacing unexpectedly throughout our lives. This is not easy to deal with, particularly when we don’t know what it is and where it comes from.

Our instinct is to escape from these unpleasant emotions, and that can lead us down the road of distraction, bad habits and addictions.

Sitting among the breakers

Anyone who has sat and watched their thoughts for more than a few minutes is aware that they come and go like waves on a beach. They form out to sea and as they enter our consciousness they crest and break over us, then dissipate and wash away. They follow endlessly, one after another.

Every now and then a thought comes along that is so powerful that it picks us up and carries us away with it. These are the times when we are lost at sea, when are in the grip of a thought and emotion so powerful that it triggers an instinctive or habitual reaction that we might regret later.

Why we suffer

As we sit on the beach among the breakers, we paint every thought, ever wave, with an emotional colour. There are some waves we would like to stay and others we would like to avoid.

2,500 years ago a clever man in India had the wonderful insight that all human suffering comes from this wish to attract the thoughts we like, and to avoid the ones we don’t. We spend so much time either running after the things we want, or running away from the things we don’t. It’s endless, tiring, and extremely frustrating and as a consequence we spend a lot of time suffering.

Understanding our mind

Here again are the essentials on the weather systems of our mind.

  • every day we are driven to satisfy basic human needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection.
  • every thought we have is interpreted and judged by a lifetime of experience.
  • every judgment is felt in our mind and body as an emotion.
  • negative thoughts stick and replay again and again.
  • our mind and body never forget a trauma.
  • thoughts come and go like waves breaking endlessly on a beach.
  • we are constantly running to or from our thoughts.
  • we suffer from our constant running.

Knowing a little about our mind can help us sail with the elements, and enjoy a more peaceful passage than being battered by tide, wind and swell.

The Weather Systems of the Mind

The Watcher

Blaise Pascal lived in 17th Century Paris and famously said…

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Perhaps if he was alive today he would have added…

“without looking at his smartphone.”

In fact, Pascal’s seventeenth century room would also have been missing; a computer, television, radio, stereo, newspaper and some magazines. Though perhaps there was a book lying temptingly open on the coffee table.

In our 24 hour connected world, how on earth can we ever develop the ability to sit quietly in a room alone?

Fortunately, there is an answer to this dilemma… The Art of Mindfulness.

There is a common misconception about mindfulness, too often it is associated with the image of a meditator sitting on a beach caught in the golden rays of a beautiful sunset. Such imagery conjures up images of guaranteed serenity, happiness and contentment.

In reality mindfulness is just as much about being with our negative emotions as it is about being with our positive emotions.

Mindfulness

There are four key attributes to mindfulness; arrival, presence, focus and insight.

Imagine a classroom in a primary school full of noisy, excited children. The teacher is absent and the noise level has reached a crescendo. A kind and curious teacher enters the classroom and after a few ‘shushes’ even the loudest voices are silenced.

Arrival

In this analogy the classroom is our mind and the children are the many thoughts and emotions that constantly clamor for our attention. The arrival of the teacher is when we quieten our minds and return to the present moment. Our breath is constantly available to us and after three long in-breaths we can begin to still the mental chatter in our noisy minds.

Presence

Mindfulness is our underlying natural awareness, its what happens when we take our mind off auto-pilot and direct our attention to what’s going on around us and within us.

I like the analogy of a kind and curious teacher because mindfulness is the ability to watch our thoughts and feelings as if they are separate from us. Instead of defining ourselves by them, we encourage a compassionate and curious presence to observe what’s going on inside our heads. This presence is the arrival of the Watcher, our very own kind and curious teacher.

Focus

Mindfulness requires us to focus and stay alert. Again and again we will find our mind drifting away, clinging to a particular thought. Mindfulness requires us to constantly guide our mind back to awareness. It can be exasperating, but every time it happens just remember to smile at the unruly nature of your mind. Its no different from the patience required with a classroom of over active children.

Sometimes mindfulness is like being stuck in a revolving door, we have to keep constantly arriving back into presence.

In the same what that a kind and curious teacher will keep an eye on the troublesome children in a classroom to try to understand their disruptive behaviour. So we use mindfulness to focus on our own negative patterns of thought, feelings and behaviour, to try to understand their cause and meaning.

Insight

Insight is the fruit of mindfulness, it’s the ‘aha’ moments when remaining present, curious and focused leads to a greater understanding of who we are. It’s these moments that have the potential to make real and lasting change possible and permit healing to take place.

How long can you keep the class quiet?

In our age of distraction mindfulness allows us to develop the ability to still and observe our minds, it’s a deeply nourishing practice for mind, body and soul. It provides a sanctuary in which we can enjoy the times we feel good and take care of ourselves when we feel bad.

As we get to know our very own kind and curious Watcher we will learn much about ourselves, we may even gain life changing insights that will allow a little more serenity, happiness and contentment into our lives.

Mindfulness is a practice, and the real challenge is to make it a way of life that we bring into all the precious moments of our day. But as any teacher will tell you, there is only so long that you can keep a classroom of children quiet.

How do you define mindfulness? What would you add?

 

The Watcher

Public Enemy #1 – Immediate Gratification

PublicEnemy

Jim Harter, Chief Scientist at Gallup may not have set the Internet alight in his TED Talk on Well-Being, but 13mins and 29 seconds into his 15 minute talk I had an ‘Aha’ moment.

Jim’s book, ‘Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements‘ recommends we take a ‘Holistic’ approach to our Well-Being by nurturing five dimensions of our life.

  • Career – Enjoy what we do.
  • Social – Connect with friends & family
  • Financial – Earn enough
  • Physical – Keep active
  • Community – Engage in our community

It was when Jim identified the Well-Being ‘blockers’ that I had my ‘Aha’ moment.

‘Immediate Gratification’…..gets in the way…… Boy, doesn’t it just!!

WhatGetsintheWay

To the best of my ability I try to plan and watch my days. And almost every day I get tripped up by that old chestnut, ‘Immediate Gratification’. If I am tired, hungry or feeling down it’s pretty much a dead cert I’m going to fall.

We all know what’s good for us, and we all devote our good intentions to gazing at the golden rainbow on the far horizon. Instead we should be looking for the snags & snares that lie hidden in our next step.

Before we start nurturing the Five Essential Elements, we should find a ‘methadone’ replacement for our own personal ‘Immediate Gratification’ hit. After all, the pursuit of pleasure is hard wired into the human condition, its neural pathways are the super highways of our brain.

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Jim wasn’t the first person here.

Life in this mundane world with its craving and clinging to impermanent states and things is unsatisfactory and painful.

Buddha, The First Noble Truth – 500 BCE

While Jim calls it a ‘blocker’, I believe it’s ‘Public Enemy Number One’, it’s the barrier we need to climb over to get to the other side.

Public Enemy #1 – Immediate Gratification

The Axis of Failure

FailureChurchill

There is so much written about success, so much advice offered it makes change sound so easy. Why then do we bomb, botch, bungle and bust every time we try to change?

The simple truth is……. change just isn’t that simple!

I have become rather tired of failing. I fail often and I’m starting to realise that most of us do. It’s about time we redressed the balance and gave failure the credit it deserves.

It doesn’t do us any good to constantly overestimate our ability to change and underestimate our ability to fail. Because when we fail, as we usually do, we get deflated, disappointed and downright depressed.

“Know your enemy”
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

It’s about time we got to know our enemy. If we want to make real change in our life, the kind of change that can turn our life around, then we will inevitably come face to face with the combined forces of failure. These are the tanks and infantry that form ‘The Axis of Failure’.

I’ve identified 5 Agents of failure and 5 Anchors of failure.

The 5 Agents of Failure

These are the mechanisms of failure, the bumps and ruts that dislodge us and throw us off the wagon of change.

1. Desire

Change often involves an attempt to suppress what Rick Hanson refers to as the ‘Ancient fires of Desire’. The problem with fighting these fires is that they are never quenched and are prone to reignite at any time.

2. Sparks

The flying embers that reignite the ‘Ancient fires’. These are the triggers, the snakes in our path that send us sliding back to our old behaviour.

3. The Great Escape

We meet Stress daily in all its manifestations. Most of us have developed a quick escape route to dull the pain and numb the suffering. Often this is just the behaviour we are seeking to change

4. Tired & Hungry

I read once that we make our worst decisions when we are low. There is no greater enemy than lack of sleep to overrun our blockades and crush our resistance.

5. Stormy Weather

Anyone who observes their thoughts and feelings will know that our moods change constantly like the weather. Low moods lower enthusiasm, motivation and resilience.

The 5 Anchors of Failure

When we fail these are the anchors that keep us stuck in our distractions, bad habits and addictions.

1. Craving

The itch, the hunger, the recurring thoughts that leave us unsettled and distracted until finally we give in.

2. Smoke & Mirrors

We have an impressive ability to deceive ourselves. It’s why the first step in the Noble Eightfold Path is ‘Right View’. The ability to see things for what they really are, not what we have convinced ourselves.

3. The Country Drive

It never ceases to amaze me how I am constantly taken for a ride by my subconscious mind. It starts with an innocuous distraction, and progresses by hidden twists and turns right back to the very behaviour I’m trying to escape.

4. The Cuckoo

What keeps us stuck in our old behaviour is far stronger than the fledgling we wish to nurture and grow. It often feels like a cuckoo clamouring to be fed and intent on dislodging the small fledgling from the nest.

5. The Whirlpool

When we fail we find ourselves back at the epicentre of a whirlpool and in danger of being submerged. It takes a lot of time and effort to work ourselves away from the vortex to a place where the waters are calmer.

“I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem”
– William Blake, Jerusalem

The wish to change is not just admirable, it genuinely holds out the promise of a better, richer and more joyous life.

However, the next time we fail as we surely will, we need to recognize the magnitude of our struggle and appreciate the strength and arsenal of our foe.

Then with a kindness and compassion for our efforts and striving, with a renewed gaze on our objective, once more its time to gather up our resources of strength and enthusiasm, and fight on.

The Axis of Failure

No Sticky Distractions

Attachment

In my last blog I asked, “what is the one thing that will change everything in your life?” Well for me the answer is simply ‘No distractions!’

In this digital age distractions have become a constant background noise, but I want to be more specific and talk about ‘sticky’ distractions.

‘Sticky’ distractions are our attachment to virtual connections, the connections we make when we email, message, post, comment, like, ping, nudge, wallop, whatever. It might be social media, it might be online games, it might be web communities or mobile apps. It’s when we put ourselves out into the virtual world and wait for something to come back in return. It’s attachment, albeit virtual!

It’s also extremely addictive, Dr Judson Brewer of UMass Medical School believes Facebook is more addictive than Crack Cocaine. (1m 25s)

The problem with these ‘sticky’ distractions is that they create a ‘peace wall’ that  hide us from stillness. They are cyber pied pipers leading us off on a merry dance down the back alleys of fantasy. They block off the few opportunities we get to discover a place of peace and quiet in which to spot what is elusive, but most important in life.

Why the hell are sticky distractions so damn addictive? As a leading Neuroscientist and Sociologist (not!) I have come to the conclusion that it’s not just our brain that talks to us but it’s also our body. And as our sole purpose as a fully paid up member of the human race is to protect and further the species, we are rather drawn to the social and the sexual through our connections with others.

Up until the introduction of the World Wide Web by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, connections pretty much required a face to face communications format. (OK, I admit I’ve conveniently forgotten Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone age from 1876 to 1989). However, the reality is we can now pretty well connect with anyone else on the planet, quote ‘FaceBook friends’, unquote.

When we connect our human drives and desires both conscious and subconscious with the internet, ‘wham’ the whole world suddenly becomes wired. Add a few social psychologists into the mix to design sites, games and apps that become progressively more addictive and suddenly you have more ‘sticky’ distractions than you can wave a wireless mouse at.

I’d like to say that the design of hooks and snares to make websites progressively more addictive is insidious, in fact I think I will. When we are presented with a gallery of our friend’s smiling faces who will miss us ‘if we leave’, it does tug on our heartstrings but it’s just another snare to modify our behaviour.

The problem is I do love my distractions, if only they weren’t so …… well addictive! But as much as I enjoy being distracted I find that when I finally drag myself away, I feel a little bit empty, a little bit queasy, and a little bit disappointed. I regret I didn’t spend my time doing something a bit more fulfilling. It suddenly feels like a waste of time and when it becomes a habit, it feels quite despairing.

I have been journaling more recently, which is a wonderful way of observing my behaviour, moods and emotions. And I’ve discovered that when I go through a period of no distractions I am much happier and strangely I even become a fun person to be around.

Wolf Singer describes the brain as lacking any decision making ‘coherence center’, like an orchestra without a conductor. It seems to me that when we allow ourselves to follow ‘sticky’ distractions we just get a cacophony of noise. But when we stop the distractions we create a stillness in which we can play beautiful music. We nourish our very souls.

By stopping our ‘sticky’ distractions we create time to deepen our relationships with our significant others, to strengthen our friendships, to discover our own inherent creativity, and to enjoy the sights, sounds, and tastes of the world we live in. We raise the tide mark of our own personal happiness and we become more resilient in dealing with the challenges of Life.

It’s why for me, the one thing that will change everything is ‘No Distractions’.

At least No ‘sticky’ Distractions.

No Sticky Distractions

The One Thing that Changes Everything

one

What is the one thing that will change everything in your life?

The one thing that will make everything else possible. The one thing that is blocking everything else from happening. It might be one thing you have to stop. It might be one thing you have to start. Whatever it is, it is the one thing you should focus on every day until it is so firmly stamped within you that it runs through you like a stick of Brighton Rock

Why focus on just one thing?

Change is practically impossible. Up until now we have spent the whole of our lives weaving the individual strands of our habits and behaviour until we have fashioned a cable that is so strong, fixed and unrelenting that it is almost impossible to change. This is the science of Neuroscience, the finding that the brain is moulded by experience to repeat experience.

If you are a relatively representative member of the human race then you won’t have a lot of time to focus on change. You probably have to work, study, juggle a family and social life, eke out some time for yourself, relax and grab a few hours sleep. Strewth, when do we ever get time to do anything new, let alone make real and lasting change in our lives?

We forget our reserves of energy are limited. We might be a morning person, or a night person, but few of us are a whole day person.

And yet! Our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. We start the New Year with great aspirations of all the resolutions we will achieve. We fill up our planners with ‘To Do’ lists. We live under the fantasy that if we put it down on paper we can do it, all of it! I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I still toil under the illusion that one day I will finally get it all done. Of course I never will.

Then come the excuses. I was too busy, I was too tired, I had to deal with such and such. OK, I might have been a little over optimistic.

Then come the recriminations, the harsh words from the inner self critic, the depressing sense of failure. The feeling that I’m just not good enough, I’m too lazy, I’m just not motivated, I’m disorganized, I need to be more focused, I need to be more disciplined.

It all leads to a mild sense of despair. The ‘To Do’ list starts to feel like a ship’s anchor. The New Year’s resolutions have quietly and discretely vaporized. It’s depressing, disheartening, discouraging, it weighs on us. Why can’t we change?

Stop!

We have to break the delusion that change is easy if only we apply ourselves. Once we accept this there is only one conclusion.

We should focus all our efforts and energy on one thing only.

For each and every one of us there is one thing that makes everything else possible.

You know what it is!

Tear up the New Year resolutions. Forget everything else. Devote every day to the one thing that will change your life. Give it every ounce of your energy, every fibre of your motivation. Keep it in your focus in those few mindful moments that are the gift of a day.

And be kind to yourself! Remember, motivation and energy don’t last all day. You will fall off the wagon. Your motivation and commitment will wane. But in those few lucid moments you will know in your heart and soul that it is worth the effort. It is worth starting again and again and again.

Do it!

What is the one thing that will change your life?

The One Thing that Changes Everything