A Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled - Ruby Wax (2016)
Chapter 2. Mindfulness: Who? What? Why?
Don’t just do something, sit there.
First, What It Isn’t
Before I start, I’d like to give you my personal list of what I think mindfulness isn’t.
1. Learning to be nice to people
2. Saying hello to your dishes before you wash them, or learning to love your soap before you wash with it
3. Standing naked in the rain and smiling inanely
4. Moving in slow motion so that everyone behind you gets into a pile-up
5. Becoming nothingness while sitting in your underwear
6. Seeing God and/ or Santa
7. A one-way ticket to nirvana or Burning Man (same thing)
8. Leaving your old skin behind and becoming a part of everything, only thinner
What It Is
Mindfulness is a way of exercising your ability to pay attention: when you can bring focus to something, the critical thoughts quieten down. We’re told, especially as children, to pay attention, but we have no instructions on how exactly to go about it. Go on: train your attention on something or someone and try to keep it there. You might for a few seconds, but after that it will flit away on to the next thing like a butterfly on heat. You probably won’t even notice you’re now focusing on something else because you weren’t paying attention in the first place. It’s not about paying attention to something outside but about being able to focus inside, being able to stand back and watch your thoughts without the usual commentary on them. As with any skill that has to be developed, you have to practise; it isn’t part of the human package. My definition of mindfulness is noticing your thoughts and feelings without kicking your own ass while you’re doing it.
I think of the relationship we have with our own mind as being the same as a rider with their horse. Sometimes the horse (the mind) wants its freedom to gallop or eat ferns and so it rips the reins out of your hands, dragging your arms out of their sockets as it does so. To bring mindfulness in: you feel like, if you jerk on the reins, your mind will probably resist you even more, but if you gently pull back on them, making that clicking cowboy sound with your tongue, and saying, ‘Whoa, boy,’ gradually your mind will slow down, obey you and then you can (horse) whisper, ‘Thank you.’ If your mind wants to run away with you and you violently try to pull it back, it will buck you off and bolt. If you treat yourself with compassion and resist obeying your demanding thoughts, they become quiet.
When you’re in observer mode, just witnessing your thoughts, they lose their power and sting as you begin to realize that you aren’t your thoughts. If thoughts were who you are, how would you be able to observe them?
When you’re purely watching, you’re circumnavigating words, thoughts, concepts and judgements. If you hold back your impulse to act on your thoughts, you’ll eventually notice that they keep moving, coming and going of their own volition; some heavy, some light, some adorable, some pornographic. All you have to do is sit back, kick off your shoes and watch that TV show called You without getting dragged into the story.
Mindfulness strengthens your inner observer, giving you an awareness of your own thought processes, as if you’re sitting above your thoughts, watching. It’s not dissimilar to when you’re watching yourself in a dream and you know you’re dreaming.
It sounds easy, but it’s not; your mind is desperate to snatch you back. It’s had you at its beck and call for twenty, thirty, ninety (however old you are) years; it’s not giving up that easily.
Think of your mind as a laboratory, and you’re investigating what’s on the table without having any preconceptions or making any judgement on it. Does a scientist have an attitude when they’re looking at a fly’s eyeball in the microscope? No.
When you use mindfulness, you learn to accept things the way they are without trying to change them. It is the gateway to the ‘shit happens’ school of enlightenment. Everyone wants things to be better, but they mostly aren’t, so what are you going to do about it? Have a hissy fit? This is a hard one to swallow, but swallow it you must if you want to go to sleep at night. As the observer, you witness the good, the bad and the ugly without giving a running commentary on whether you like what you’re seeing or not. Once you start doing that, you’ve lost your seat on the sidelines and will be sucked back into the crossfire of words.
Here’s a little metaphor to help you understand your thoughts. Picture your mind as a bottle of clear water with sand at the bottom. When it’s agitated by thoughts or feelings, it’s as if you’ve shaken the bottle: the sand disperses and the water is now murky. When you hold the bottle still, the sand settles, just as your mind settles when you watch thoughts rather than reacting to them. As I said, you can’t think your way out of an emotional problem; the effort it takes to find out why you feel the way you feel always makes things worse. It’s like being trapped in quicksand: the more you struggle to get out of it, the deeper you sink. You have to accept that you can’t stop the thoughts, but you can stop what happens next.
If we run away from our shadows they will follow us, but if we run toward them they will run away. (I’m sure someone once said that.)
For those of you who’ve tried to study mindfulness but found having to look into your own mind – especially when it’s a pigsty – too torturing or boring to do every day, I understand completely. The problem is, even if you aren’t aware of the toxic thoughts in your head, they’re still there. You can run, you can hide, you can wish them away, but they remain. You may believe you’re having a hunky-dory time, with the perfect kids/ wife/ teeth but, someday, if you don’t look into the darkness in the basement of your brain, it will erupt spewing lava everywhere. If you don’t deal with it, you’ll keep slinging your mess over everyone else and blaming them for creating yours.
I have this lifelong mantra: ‘Who can I blame?’ If there’s something I don’t like about me, I will find an unassuming person, pin my crap on them then give them hell and whip them like an old, defunct mule. I’m extremely accomplished at pointing my finger at someone for making me furious rather than U-turning the telescope on to myself to see who is actually the culprit. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I treat everyone around me the way I treat myself. We project the stuff in our minds not just on to our family and friends but on to the whole planet. I assume everyone’s out to get me because I’m probably out to get them. We are the real enemy to ourselves; everyone else is decoration.
You can’t learn mindfulness by taking a pill (I, who love pills, only wish you could); nor can you thrust yourself upon a reiki master/ dog whisperer/ juicer every time you feel your mind declaring war. No one can help you except you, and only you. The big yawn about this is that, as with any other skill, you have to practise it in order to break old habits. It’s the only way you’ll be able to get off cruise control and start to notice the scenery, smell the roses, taste the chocolate and hear the cry of a she-wolf.
It takes gallons of willpower for you to get yourself to sit and practise but, to be honest, I don’t love lugging myself into the shower every day either. (Sometimes I skip it; don’t tell anyone.) Even when I’m brushing my teeth, I’m not having the time of my life. Look on the discipline of sitting and practising each day as a personal achievement, as I do … after giving myself every excuse known to man for not doing it: my house is on fire, I have to find my missing sock immediately … especially if the house is on fire.
Every morning I hoick myself up on to a chair to practise mindfulness, and it’s torture, having to listen to the maelstrom of madness in my head. It feels like someone’s switched on a gigantic leaf-blower and is scattering my already insanely scattered thoughts. I’m usually berating myself to get up and do something important rather than sit there like a doorstop. Each morning begins with a list that goes to infinity and beyond of things I have to do, not just that day, but for the rest of my life. There’s not much of a tune, but here are the lyrics …
Glue chipped soap-dish, defrost turkey, think about Ebola, find phone, email everyone about something, re-shellac shellacked nail, write this book, check lump on cat … I could understand if I had something really important to think about, like I needed heart surgery, but to think about re-shellacking my nails is unforgivable. Those are the things I have to do … but some things are impossible, like call Kim Jong-un the North Korea guy and tell him to pull himself together. I have lost more than half my life immersed in these lists. They continue no matter what I’m doing, when I’m on stage, during sex … they never stop: Why didn’t my mother let me get a real Christmas tree? I should get a fake one. My bra had those foam cups in it: where did I leave them? I will never forgive Dagmar Stewart for stealing my Barbie’s cocktail dress when I was eight. I want bratwurst with mustard. When did I last go snowboarding? Did I dream it or was I really in a plane crash in Bavaria, or Fort Lauderdale, when it landed in whipped cream? I have to buy shampoo, I hate my feet, is it too late to join the Royal Ballet, was I an orphan?
So why do I stay on the chair if I have to listen to all this horror?
Sometimes I’ll only notice one inhale or a few exhales during the whole twenty minutes of sitting before the usual soundtrack – Get up, you idiot, and order a bathmat – starts blasting. But each time I manage to pull my attention away from the distractions and back to the breath, it feels as if I’m holding on to a flag pole in order not to blow away during a raging storm. Sometimes I can actually sit back and watch the storm upstairs, as if I’m watching a TV show, and even if the show is awful, the lines are awful and the characters (usually just me) are awful, I do get some distance. It’s so much less painful when I feel as if I’m watching a horrible situation rather than being in one. And this is what gets me up on the chair each day, knowing that this muscle that pulls me back from the fray is getting stronger every time I go from the anxious thoughts to a breath. Mindfulness is the only thing I know to do that can dig me out of despair and give me even a few moments’ break from my brain.
Training That Brain
If you’re thinking, ‘I still can’t do it’ as in ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ (you being the dog), I ask you to answer these questions: Did you come out of the womb knowing how to slam-dunk a basketball? Did you automatically know how to speak Swahili? Cook a barbecue? Pole dance?
No, you did not. Everything you do except excrete, eat and breathe, you have to learn by rote. We need to exercise what’s in our heads just like we do any other muscle. Why is there so much resistance when it comes to mental exercise?
There are very few of us who enjoy going to the gym and doing endless repetitions of sit-ups. This is a waste of a life, if anything is. You want health? Take a walk. When I came to the UK thirty years ago, people weren’t even brushing their teeth; now they’re in the gym every day of the week, pumping.
It is rare for me to go to the gym nowadays, because if I see other people doing fifty sit-ups, I have to do a hundred with a 5kg hat on my head. I’m mindful that I have this Rottweiler gene that kicks in when I’m among other people; even if they’re top athletes, a part of me wants to grab the pole and vault higher. I can’t even watch the Olympics – I would destroy myself trying to hurdle the coffee table.
This is one characteristic I could really hate myself for, but since practising mindfulness, I recognize that this is part of who I am and I have begun weaning myself off self-flagellation. Now when I exercise in a class I keep my eyes shut and just focus in on my body.
Compassion: Hold the Punishment
For me, one of the hardest parts of practising mindfulness is getting to grips with self-compassion, which is the bedrock of mindfulness.
I don’t even like discussing the ‘C’ word, because it’s the last thing you want to give yourself when you’re thinking negatively. You’re furious at yourself for being sad or anxious when you have everything and can order a takeaway Swedish meatball at four o’clock in the morning while other people are fighting for their lives in war zones. The last thing you think you deserve is kindness. Also, when I hear of people being kind to themselves, I picture the types who light scented candles in their bathrooms and sink into a tub of Himalayan foetal-yak milk.
When I went to study mindfulness at Oxford, I asked my professor, Mark Williams, about my aversion to self-kindness, and he said that when I sit down and practise mindfulness, even if it’s just for a minute, that alone is being kind to myself. And if you’re kind to yourself, then you’re in the right mind to pass that kindness on to others. Just giving myself a break from the constant list-making and self-bullying, he said, is compassion.
I know I sound nihilistic, but I do try to make peace with my pessimism. Even in childhood, my thoughts were never cuddly and warm. They were mostly unforgiving; I know no one is as cruel to me as me. I’ve always lobbed grenades at myself. If I try to stop, the thoughts only get more persistent. The only way I have to ease the situation is by practising mindfulness, and now I have done so for many years. When I do this I feel like I’m doing mental sit-ups, going from breath to thought, thought to breath, so that the watcher becomes easier to access. Sometimes I notice only one inhale or exhale in the twenty minutes and, just as I start to enjoy it, my mind sabotages my attention and I’m back to the usual soundtrack: You forgot to order the bathmat, you moron.
We all have a watcher: it’s when we suddenly become aware of our thoughts or actions. ‘Oh, look, I’m biting my nails,’ or ‘I’m tasting food rather than gorging on it.’ Mindfulness is the only thing I know to do that can dig me out of despair and can give me even a few seconds of time out from me.
How to Do It
Hold your horses. In Chapter 5, I’ll be giving you my six-week training course and implanting the ‘how to’s of mindfulness into your virgin brains. You will learn how to notice when your mind is on the rampage and bring it back to a state of calm and clarity in order to be able to make better decisions and, as a bonus, to take a trip to the present. For me, to be able to bring myself from a busy-brain state to equanimity is the most rewarding thing I can do for myself. And I think that holds true for you, too.
Just like learning any other skill that takes practice, it doesn’t just come by crossing your fingers. Mindfulness exercises aren’t difficult in themselves – in fact, they’re often pleasurable – the hard bit is that you have to do them every day, even if it is for only a few minutes, to reap the benefits. Before you roll your eyes, let me remind you that whatever you’ve learnt in your life you’ve learnt it through repetition, including the ability to read this word. Eventually, you will be able to use mindfulness whenever you need it in your daily life, but first you need to build some muscle to strengthen your ability to focus.
So you begin by focusing in on what’s going on in your mind. (You check the weather outside, now you’re checking it inside.) If it’s nice and breezy, have a great day and get on with what you’re doing. If you notice high gusts of critical thinking or storms of stress moving in, intentionally move your focus to one of your senses (sight, taste, smell, hearing and touch).
The point of this is that as soon as you’re focused on a sense the gabbling mind automatically becomes just background noise, because you can’t be focused on a sense and thoughts at the same time. The human brain just can’t do it; it’s either one or the other. Focusing on the senses keeps you grounded while your thoughts jump around you. With practice, you will build your ability to shift your mind intentionally when distractions arise.
I think that becoming mindful is a result of intentionality. Once you have made the effort to shift your focus intentionally, you’re immediately in the present. You can’t listen to a sound tomorrow or yesterday, it’s always now, and when you’re in ‘the now’, there are no critical thoughts, just feelings. This ability to focus on a sense works as the anchor for you and for your practice of mindfulness.
What keeps me practising mindfulness, even if I’m not in the mood (and, believe me, that’s often), is the fact that I understand the impact it has on the brain and therefore on well-being. With sit-ups, you’ll see the results: you’ll have some ripples down your front, and that keeps you going. With mindfulness, each time you practise, you’re building up an area in your brain that corresponds with your ability to pay attention. Your thinking mind will beg, scream and tantalize you, trying to drag you off wherever it wants, but if you can keep focus the benefits are biological, psychological and neurological. Boom! I bet you never connected all those with paying attention. If you want to be happy, learn how to pay attention.
No one describes attention as well as Dr Daniel Siegel, who combines brain science with psychotherapy and shows us how to tame the mind and create a happier and healthier life for ourselves.
He says, ‘Focused attention helps us to see the internal workings of our own minds; to be aware of our mental processes without being swept away by them; to redirect our thoughts and feelings rather than being driven by them. Paying attention enables us to get off autopilot and moves us beyond the reactive emotional loops we can trap ourselves in. By developing the ability to focus our attention on our inner world, we’re picking up a scalpel and resculpting our neural pathways. How we pay attention shapes the structure of our brains.’
I truly love this man Siegel. I got to talk to him once in LA. We arranged to meet at a vegetarian restaurant. I got there early and was so nervous I tried out various tables and chairs to find which would be best to meet him in. I tried to calm down and when he came in I stood up and knocked over the water glass. I then handed him his book to sign, completely soaked, the print smeared, and tried to pretend it hadn’t happened.
The Golden Fleece of practising mindfulness is the skill of paying attention. I know it sounds easy but, trust me, we don’t automatically know how to do it. We can only pay attention to something for, on average, about 1.2 seconds and then our eye, driven by our mind, flits to something else. Our minds aren’t built to linger; we keep flitting: it’s the mission statement of every cell in our bodies to keep checking our surroundings for possible danger, otherwise we wouldn’t be here, we would have been on some kebab millions of years ago. Remember: our brain has no idea the caveman days are over so, God bless it, it’s still vigilant for predators.
How many sunsets have I missed while staring right at them? If I see an American bald eagle or my kids doing a school play, I want to be able to tear my mind away from the soundtrack of mundanity and focus on the only thing worth watching on earth at that moment. Even my cat Sox can focus. He can stay riveted on a piece of string for days on end. So I sit there practising mindfulness each day just to do what my cat does so naturally.
To be able to shift attention at will is my solution to how we can live better, be happier and stay healthier, because it means we are now in control of this magnificent and complex pile of a trillion cells, rather than being run ragged by it.
I knew a man whom I believed was at the pinnacle of success, someone in the Fortune 500 who sat on at least fifty prestigious boards. He ended up having a heart attack, and when his wife went to visit him in the hospital she found a woman tending to him with a sponge … who turned out to be his other wife, who had three children. These types of people believe themselves to exist way above us pitiful mortals, and above the law. They’re completely unconscious of their behaviour; living their life detached from any overview. Usually, these people are brought to their knees by their own hubris. Had this man learnt to pay attention, he would have become conscious and been aware that, someday, the two wives would meet and sue his pants off.
Attention works like a muscle – if you don’t use it, you lose it – so to keep it on top form you need to practise, practise and practise again. A well-honed muscle of attention helps us to keep our eye on the button, to make the right decisions even amidst all the incoming stimuli and emotional turmoil of our lives.
In 2006 the word ‘pizzled’ came into existence. It’s a combination of ‘puzzled’ and ‘pissed’ and is used to describe the feeling people get when someone whips out a phone mid-conversation and starts to talk to someone else. At that time, people felt upset about this type of behaviour; now, it’s completely normal. What all this free-flowing digital information consumes is our attention and, ironically, it causes its decline.
If the mind can’t pull itself out of endless loop tapes, we may find ourselves suffering from anxiety disorders, obsessive behaviours, depression or general helplessness. The skill of disengaging our attention from one thing and moving it to another will help you find the road to happiness.
Often, our attention isn’t on anything; it’s just shooting the breeze. Mind-wandering itself isn’t the enemy by any means; the question really is: what is it wandering away from? If you’re caught on a rumination jag, it’s not useful; you’re chewing over something that will never be swallowed. If, however, you’re mind-wandering and moving toward a light bulb of insight, then it’s a gift.
With a clearer, calmer mind you can think more creatively and productively. When your thoughts cause fear or anxiety, your mind gets clogged up and so you grab for safety and live on autopilot, deadlocked in your narrow view of the world.
This is something I read somewhere (I can’t remember everything): if you repeat your thoughts, they become an action. If you repeat an action, it becomes a habit. A repeated habit creates a fixed persona. A fixed persona becomes your destiny.
When your mind is freed up you can access the many sides of you; we’re much more multifaceted than we realize, which makes life richer, but unpredictable; we never know which side of our personalities will come to the fore. In certain situations I become shy and blushy; in others I’m a bulldozer, sometimes a tongue-tied teenager. With mindfulness you become more aware of which particular role you’re playing in the moment and then decide if you want to play on or reconsider and change tack. Ultimately, we’re the sculptor and the sculpted with regard to our brains and therefore our identities.
Actors know how to use this to their advantage. They fill themselves with the thoughts and feelings of the character they are playing and even if they, as a person, are nervous, they will overcome it by becoming the character. I know an actor who, when you talk to him, has a terrible stammer but, on stage, he becomes Henry V: no stutter, and running England.
Who We Are
Whenever we pay attention to something, whole cascades of chemicals fire into action, while the neurons wire up to new partners in that neuronal dance that never stops. (I’ll discuss this in Chapter 3.) Every millisecond, we shift our attention, and in that millisecond our brain has a complete makeover and changes shape; the mind is in a continual state of shape-shifting as we morph from one state to another.
Luckily, we come equipped with an autobiographical memory (the file we carry of all the experiences we’ve ever had), so it can give us pretty quick feedback on who we were yesterday and other important information such as our favourite colour, the name of our first cat, etc. If you didn’t have that, you’d be like the guy in the film Memento, having to look at the tattoos on your arms to figure out who you slept with the night before and whether you’re male or female. The autobiographical memory is the story of you so far. (Memory is not accurate but, even if the details are dubious, it’s still the only life story we’ve got.)
Before any thought comes to our minds, our body has already reacted, either through the sympathetic or the parasympathetic nervous system. It takes milliseconds for our minds to translate what any emotion or feeling might mean. The translation happens after the feelings have been shunted to the memory files to check if you’ve had a similar feeling in the past, whether it was dangerous, and what you did. It’s not always accurate, because no situation is exactly the same, and your memory is not dependable: it makes things up. Ever witnessed an accident? Not only does it seem like all the witnesses were on different planets but your own report on what happened will change slightly every time you open your mouth. Sometimes you get a thought in your head that’s been instigated by a feeling and you can’t make a conscious connection as to why. Ever get a stabbing feeling in your stomach that makes you feel nauseous, and all you’re doing is sitting in your car, backing out of a parking space? You’re racking your brain, trying to figure out why you’re getting this fear rush, when nothing’s really going on. What might have happened is that your memory went off piste because of present associations with things from the past (your memory can’t really tell time). You’ve flipped because your memory remembers you being in a car park when you were six and Daddy by accident left you in the car and went on holiday. So now you’re sitting there in an unrelated car park at the age of fifty-seven and your teeth are chattering with fright. In actuality, when we think we know how we feel, for example, betrayed or guilty, it may just be a digestive problem or wind. Our minds try their best to come up with an explanation in spite of our dodgy memory file. It’s like playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey: you’re blindfolded and just guessing where to jab it in. Women will relate to this, as they know from experience that when they want to twunk an arrow into the head of everyone at work it might not have anything to do with what those people have done but is probably because those nasty monthly hormones are rearing their heads again. When a blues singer sings the blues about her man skipping town with her money and her mother being a hooker and her father a hog, it might just be acid reflux.
You’ll never know what’s really going on inside you. Even if you have a living autopsy done on yourself, no one will ever get to the bottom of ‘you’ … unless they’re a proctologist.
You have various other kinds of memory, which are stored throughout your brain so you can remember how to use certain skills and know how to react to certain situations. Each time you learn or experience something new, the neurons make connections which reflect that experience and release chemicals which trigger particular feelings. It’s these feelings that help you remember the experience. That is how memory is laid down. If you smell turkey and suddenly feel warm and tingly, you can go to the filing cabinet marked ‘turkey smell’, play the video back of Grandma stooped over the oven on Thanksgiving and relive the whole experience; all of this little mind-movie switched on by a simple smell. Get on a bicycle and your motor memory will take over, informing every part of your body of what to do. You don’t ever have to consciously think about it.
So where we direct the spotlight of our attention defines who ‘we’ are in that second, and whatever we imagine or experience becomes a physiological reality on our neuronal map, and that is who ‘we’ is. Every feeling, be it fear, love, lust or hate, is expressed in our neural wiring, and therefore in the chemicals which result from these connections. If you’re in Hawaii but your mind is still working late at the office, that is the place your mind resides: in the office – so you may as well still be there. Or if you’re in a cinema, watching a chase scene, the wiring of your brain manifests a pattern of terror and thrills that produces rivers of adrenaline. After a minute or so you shove some popcorn into your mouth and your attention refocuses, signalling to the saliva glands to start pumping, and in this second your whole being is the essence of salt and crunchiness.
So what this all proves is that when you recognize that your mind always leans to the negative, you can learn to shift it intentionally to something more positive or fulfilling. You’ll have moved to Happyville. So there you go. The next time you think attention is just an abstract concept, think again: it’s as real as you are.
In the Zone
Being ‘in the zone’ is said to be one of the greatest feelings we experience. It’s when we’re in one, single-minded, pinpoint focus; all other distractions fade into the background and we’re working at our optimum, in the present. And, best of all, the critical voices are hushed. Bring out the confetti and the party hats.
In the zone, you feel as if you are cocooned in that complete concentration (which only lasts a limited time before you start to think about the urgency of watering that plant). All those usual niggling nags of the ‘to do’ list fade into the ether. I live for that sensation when, instead of feeling like an old sack humped over a computer banging out random words, I feel the computer and I are one, working together towards a common goal.
People say that being in the zone feels effortless, liberating, superhuman; you stay focused because, each time you achieve a little more success in whatever it is you’re doing, your brain releases a hit of dopamine. It’s that leap of joy in your heart when you splash into the pool after doing a double-back, jack-knife triple somersault off the high-dive board with both feet perfectly pointed. It’s not the actual swan dive that gives you the kick, it’s the hits of dopamine that give you the buzz. The swan dive actually hurts like hell.
Sometimes, writing this book, I get into that gloriously liberating zone where everything flows and I don’t have to keep using the thesaurus to find the exact right word. I love that state so much I won’t let go, even though I might be so tired my eyes are shutting and my mind is mush. I’m trying so hard to be aware of when I might be hitting the tipping point, when I might go from being inspired into a moron state, and end up writing gobbledegook. It’s always hard for me to stop and be nice to myself, because there’s still a little voice saying, ‘You’re so lazy! You’ve only worked sixteen hours! What’s wrong with you?’ I keep forgetting that, if I rest even for a few moments, I’m able to work better and longer and even dip back into the zone.
So with mindfulness, you become aware of awareness. This state is not to be confused with being in the zone, where you’re so concentrated on a single activity you have absolutely no awareness of the outside world; you’re completely lost in the task at hand. When you’re in the flow, you can’t be reflective and take time to notice where your mind is or to make a decision to take a break.
So if you really crave for the ‘in the zone’ experience, the question is: how do you keep that single-minded focus while staying aware of your inner state? I don’t think you can be on both planes simultaneously, unless you’ve done thousands of hours of meditation, like those monks who can sing two notes at the same time (those tones that sound like they’re burping). The ideal state would be to be able to be in the zone yet notice, even for a hair’s breadth of a second, when it’s time to pull out, to give yourself a pause to re-energize your brain, by taking a walk, a bath, watching TV, kicking a football, going out shopping or, if you’re really gung-ho, doing a three-minute mindfulness exercise (see the six-week mindfulness course in Chapter 5).
The most important thing is to not bash yourself over the head when you notice your work is getting wobbly: the whole point of mindfulness is the noticing, rather than the getting it right.
Back to the Benefits of Mindfulness
I wrote in Chapter 1 about some of our human gifts, such as being able to perform on autopilot, also being a curse. Practising mindfulness is simply a way to break out of autopilot and train ourselves to do something that isn’t a natural gift; we aren’t born with the facility to focus, to calm ourselves and become present at will. If you can do this naturally already, put down the book, call the Dalai Lama’s people and tell them you’re the next one.
I hear you say, ‘What about people who have minds that don’t drive them at all? The ones who lie around all day on the sofa like sea slugs, watching Geordie Shore. Are these people the next Dalai Lama, too?’ No. Even though they are on the sofa, they are probably not present on the sofa and their minds are ruminating as much as the obsessive home decorator or eBay addict. The liers-down, you might just find, also have a nagging voice inside telling them to get up off their ever-expanding behinds. They’re probably drinking and gobbling potato chips to dull down or blank out their critical voices.
Laboratory testing can measure exactly how much stronger the mind becomes with practice, and it demonstrates significant improvements over a relatively brief period of time. Dr Amish Jha has applied computer-based testing to measure the attentional performance of a group of medical and nursing students at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, before and after an eight-week mindfulness-based training course. The class taught these students to use mindfulness to manage stress, enhance their communication skills and cultivate empathy.
After the training, testing revealed that those students who were taught mindfulness could intentionally direct and focus their attention more quickly than a matched group of those who were not.
Other experiments undertaken in Dr Jha’s lab have demonstrated that practising mindfulness for as little as twelve minutes a day improves the ability to resist distraction.
An enormous benefit of mindfulness is that you get a free ticket to that rare destination: the present. Okay, I hear you say, ‘What’s so great about being in the present moment? What if I don’t want to stare at a butterfly wing or hear the single ting of a wind chime? I have places to go, people to meet.’
Being present can’t be understood through cognition, it’s a felt experience; you feel through your senses, not through your thoughts. Simply to sit with your eyes closed and breathe probably seems like the last thing on earth you’d need, or have time, to do. You might think that by the time you’ve flossed your gums, done some ab crunches, taken a shower, moisturized, toasted toast, had sex with your boyfriend (notice I didn’t say husband; later in life, you can skip that bit) you’ve used up half your day and it hasn’t even started yet.
So when people speak of being mindful or present, it’s usually thought of as being pretty low down in the hierarchy of needs.
On the face of it it seems that nothing is really useful about being in the present, so we don’t visit it much. We don’t really know how to be present except when something out of the ordinary happens, for example, your house is on fire or a seagull lands on your head. Sometimes we find ourselves having an ‘aha’ moment when we wake from the daydream and have a sudden insight, a revelation, when the doors of perception are thrown open for a blip in time. No one really knows how to make an ‘aha’ moment, but you know an ‘aha’ moment when you have one.
MBCT teaches you to be able to come into the present when you choose to, which is no easy feat. Try it now? See? You’re all over the place, probably not even reading my book; sometimes even I’m not concentrating now, writing it: I’m looking out of the window, thinking about things like I have to call my friend Dagmar Stewart who I haven’t spoken to since kindergarten … then suddenly I have no idea what I’m typing.
And yet the present is where everyone wants to be. If you don’t believe me, let me point out that the reason you plan a holiday or an event for months in advance is to experience it ‘in the moment’. But when you get to your dream hotel or tent, your mind will probably be on something else: ‘Why did I spend all this money? Why didn’t I go on a diet? I look like Moby Dick. I forgot to feed the hamster. This isn’t as good as I thought it would be. I bet it’s better someplace else.’ You spend a fortune on a wine that costs more than the annual GDP of Bolivia to relish its woody undertones but your mind is somewhere else so you miss the whole experience, and now you’re urinating it out without having tasted it. So much of what we do in our everyday lives is to achieve an experience, a taste, smell, sight or sound in the moment. So when people say, ‘I don’t really care about being present,’ remind them how much money and time they’re spending to get there.
If, when you’re asked what’s the best time of your life, you can answer, ‘Now,’ you’ve arrived.
I’m going to finish this chapter with a quote from Stephen Sutton, a teenage cancer victim who said, ‘You have 86,400 seconds today. Don’t waste a single one.’