Background to Mindfulness

Our mind is a great time traveller. Our thoughts bounce between reflection and replay of the past and planning and forecasting the future.

This storytelling mode of our mind sacrifices our time in the right now. This time right now, or present, is an already filtered state as our brain doesn’t have enough bandwidth to consume full input from all of our senses. Our brain has to filter out and discard what it believes is unimportant to allow it to process what it believes is essential.

Mindfulness, or purposeful attention on the present, increases the amount of incoming information the brain processes when compared to our default semi-daydreaming mode where the brain is flicking between storytelling and the task at hand.

The past is already gone, the future is not yet here. There’s only one moment for you to live.

Buddha

It’s also great to know that the brain isn’t good at differentiating between what it is happening right now and the story it is playing. Memory isn’t video storage system, the brain replays events re-building the scene each time we recollect.

This replaying is crucial as our mode and lack of distance from our thoughts can bias our recollection. Our backstory has a tendency to either make us believe we were the victor or victim of a circumstance.

The present moment

Our habitual mode of thinking can be illustrated in a few ways.

Ask yourself

  • Have you ever driven to work, yet don’t recall the journey, or passed through an intersection and then thought ‘was that light green or red’
  • Being in a conversation and then suddenly lost track of what someone was saying
  • Eaten way more than is comfortable and felt ill
  • Had an argument and not knowing what caused it
  • Walked into a room and forgot why we went there

Another question is ‘when were you last in the shower?’ Hopefully actually standing in the shower wasn’t too long ago, but when you were in there were you feeling the warmth of the water, were you smelling the scent of the soap. Or were you planning a busy day, replaying that irritating text exchange?

In each of these scenarios, we robbed ourselves of the opportunity to fully absorb what has been said, heard, smelt or felt. But why is this important?

If we are not fully ourselves, truly in the present moment, we miss everything. When a child presents himself to you with his smile, if you are not really there—thinking about the future or the past, or preoccupied with other problems—then the child is not really there for you

Thich Nhat Hanh

The sum of our habits

Without awareness, we act habitually. Habits either support our growth or constrain us.

Mindful awareness allows us to recognise our thoughts and make a conscious rather than a habitual response.

We can choose to rage at the driver that cut us off in traffic, or choose to enjoy the rest of the journey. Without mindful awareness we will be in a rage without choosing to be, with mindful awareness we can choose whether to be in rage or not.

The latter choice will avoid the same story being replayed and ruminated over for the rest of the day. Don’t panic – we aren’t saying you should spend your life being a push-over, we suggesting you should at least be in control of your reaction. Choose your action.

2 thoughts on “Background to Mindfulness”

  1. One of my favorite activities is running the wooded trails surrounding the Gettysburg Battlefield. My best strategy is to get out early in the morning before the horse-tour companies start up their tours. They think they own the trails and are vocally upset when someone tries to walk past them. But getting up early to run detracts from my enjoyment, so I usually delay the run until after dinner (at least in the summer). Still, I encounter riders at times and while not every interaction goes badly, it always taints the rest of my run with an on-going conversation in my brain with the horse-people. I simply have trouble letting it go. Saturday evening, for one of the first times, I let (forced) the encounter leave my brain and was present for the rest of the run. It wound up being one of the most enjoyable runs I can remember. It’s funny, that thought-loop is so painful to endure, but it’s right where I place myself nine time out of ten. Good post. It will help remind me to stay focused on the present.

    • Active meditation, running, juggling, walking works well for many people. I believe the trick is to be ‘in’ the activity. If you are running, run. When I run its amazing how many times ‘paying the bills’ or ‘replaying that disagreement’ can consume your run.

      You are very lucky to be out on the trails, I encounter potentially grumpy and impatient truck drivers each morning on my run.Then again they are just trying to get through their day too 🙂

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