Let’s try a thought experiment. Grab a coffee, or a cup of tea just how you like it. Close your eyes and allow yourself to breathe easily, to relax…
Now cast your mind back to a strong memory – your first memory as a child… a loving moment… a painful moment. It really doesn’t matter what it is, but recall it, and linger with it for a while. What does it feel like? What do you see in your mind?
Don’t you find that the memories, whether good or bad, are collected into moments captured only in fleeting glimpses? No matter how hard we try to recall each detail and recreate the pace of the passage of time, the mental images seem to be static, like a series of photographs rather than a movie capturing the flow of detail and time.
Maybe this is about practice – that with more focus and training we can stitch these images together to make more of a memory narrative. And I expect that there is good science behind our brains behaving in this way – to preserve more information in snippets than is possible with a longer ‘recording’. I feel that some investigative journalism is required here… some ‘slow’ journalism, perhaps?
Nevertheless, all the more reason that we should value and learn how to be present in each moment, to have true presence of mind no matter how everyday, good or unpleasant the activities we are engaged in. We should learn how to savour the humdrum, the ‘business as usual’, certainly the good and perhaps most importantly the bad – to reflect and learn about ourselves more deeply.
It takes some time and persistence, but the benefits of a calm brain are numerous and essential. Look for times where you can practice these techniques – they occur in surprising places.
So, some thoughts around how we can enhance this present-ness. Mindfulness currently has a huge buzz, with good reason in our fast paced lives. But the spirit of mindfulness can be invoked in many simple ways – it is not necessary to embark on a Buddhist retreat in the search for methods to attain peace. We should weave mindful practices into everyday life – it should not be an ‘other’ activity. It takes some time and persistence, but the benefits of a calm brain are numerous and essential. Look for times where you can practice these techniques – they occur in surprising places. For example, a while ago, during a period when my brain was frantic and not coping with things at all I made a lot of progress by listening to guided meditation when on the train to work. Which reminded me of this great story of someone in deep meditation on their commute.
Anyway, here are some thoughts around building mindful practice into everyday life:
Get up a little earlier and find a space where you can focus undisturbed for a period of time. Spend the time sitting in silence, with some guided meditation, or read some pages of a book. This is your time, use it in ways that bring peace to your mind. Even 30 minutes spent like this once a day can make you feel you have discovered the secret to beating the world’s busy-ness.
Not everyone’s cup of tea, exercise is of course great for the mind. It’s good to experiment with what works for you. For me, it’s running – and running as part of my commute so that it is time-efficient. I don’t want to go to a gym (or prioritise the time for gym-going) so this really works for me. It also kicks off all of the wonderful endorphins that help clear my head and get into quite a meditative state during the run. I find being creative looking for gaps in your day like this really helps – not all activities need to chew into your evening, for example… try and find which activities work best at which part of the day – and on any given day the activity and timing might change, depending on your energy levels.
As per the morning ritual above, I find reading a very calming activity. By its very nature, reading helps focus the brain on something ‘else’, often to the complete exclusion of everything else.
For meditative reading I love to read printed books, and usually not work related. The transportation into another world, or another person’s life experience feels good – it can be escapist or enlightening, or maybe both…
Being very conscious of ambient noises as you travel through your day is a good way of picking out a focus to keep in the ‘now’. Walking through a park on the way home from work, there are often calls of frogs, birds and… trains. It’s really not important what the sound is, but focus and awareness is the key.
Stop, Look, Listen, Smell
Related to the above comments around sounds, mindfulness techniques are used in the military to bring back focus in high stress situations – the senses are used to sequentially calm the brain and body so that decision making and judgement are not compromised: “When the heat, weight, and fatigue take your focus off moving in silence and invisibility, take a SLLS break—Stop what you are doing. Look around. Listen to your surroundings. Smell your environment.”.
I’m arguably not being melodramatic in saying that meditation and mindfulness have on more than one occasion brought me back from the edge. In recent years I spent 10-15 minutes every day using the ‘Headspace’ app (many other guided mindfulness apps are available, depending on your taste). These apps typically have an ‘entry level’ programme that scales up to an advanced level. Often the entry level will involve nearly constant guidance in terms of focus and timing of different stages of meditation, and as the level of proficiency increases, the guidance diminishes until there is virtually no instruction at all. It’s quite remarkable how you just know when 10 minutes are up even without any guidance whatsoever. I found that 10-15 minutes every day over 6 months got to an advanced level. Worth paying a subscription fee for a year, in my opinion.
Getting ready for work, time with kids
With all of the above things in play over a period of time, I have found myself making some really healthy decisions. No longer is getting up and going to work a frantic rush, but a mindful exercise in itself. If the kids get up and start demanding milk and toast I’ll often find myself taking the time to be with them and enjoy it rather than yelling that I have to go to work and running out of the door. Sometimes I’m 10 minutes later to work. That’s later, as usually I’m early anyway (or have spent the previous evening on a call, so who’s counting). The upshot is that I’m happier at home and at work, so everyone wins.
there is a foreign man… surrounded by sounds, who looks around and sees ‘angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity, he says “Amen and Hallelujah”
Finally, presence can be found in that most everyday of activities – walking. Wherever you are, even on a commonplace street, in the park or walking to the station… look up and be a tourist in your own town, see things you haven’t seen before and wonder. Remember Paul Simon’s ‘You Can Call Me Al’ – there is a foreign man… surrounded by sounds, who looks around and sees ‘angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity, he says “Amen and Hallelujah”’.
We should revel in such simple rapture every day.