“It is our mindlessness that imprisons us. We get better and better at being out of touch with the full range of our possibilities, and more and more stuck in our cultivated-over-a-lifetime habits of not-seeing.”
John Kabat Zinn
My heartfelt wish, therefore, would be for you to gain even the smallest insight from this post to help you ‘see’ more clearly and increase your range of possibilities.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be simply defined as a mental state that’s achieved by focusing attention on the present moment. This can be outwards (on what we see, hear, smell,…) or inwards (on our thoughts, emotions, body sensations, …).
Being absorbed in a great book, noticing the signs of spring or basking in the wonderful feeling of warm sunlight are examples of mindful activities.
You can be mindful in any moment, if you consciously choose to engage with what you are focusing your attention on.
Professor Ellen Langer, who has been researching the western approach of mindfulness since the 1970s, suggests that to be mindful we need 3 components:
- Self-regulation of our attention: practicing self-control to override our habits or automatic responses
- External stimuli that we can focus on (the meditative Eastern approach includes internal stimuli too)
- And consciously engaging with this stimuli in a creative and curious way.
For example, a friend VERY kindly brought me 3 creme eggs back from Australia. I really love creme eggs and it’s basically impossible to get them in Switzerland. So they are really valuable to me! Eating them mindfully therefore REALLY helps me to stretch out the enjoyment.
So using Professor Langer’s components, here’s the process I followed:
- I’m normally doing something else while I’m eating, so I had to practice my self-regulation and consciously not work or read the news on the web while I ate my creme egg today.
- The external stimulus was the delicious creme egg.
- I was curious about: how the foil wrapping gets around the egg in the manufacturing process, where it was made, the wonderful smell, how many chemicals they needed to use to get the white and yellow of the yolk, and of course without any other distractions I was easily able to savour the gorgeous flavour… etc, etc….
Because of the increase in enjoyment I was able to gain through this process, it is something that I’ll definitely be doing more often (especially when I’m lucky enough to have creme eggs!).
What do you think of this process?
What’s a recent mindful activity that you were engaged in?
How can increasing our mindfulness benefit us?
I think the question is, how can it not?!
Studies have shown that once participants practiced mindfulness regularly over a period of around 8 weeks, results included:
- Increase in beta activity in the brain, leading to more wakefulness
- Increase in alpha and theta brain waves, leading to increased relaxation
- Growth in grey brain matter in the areas that are linked to attention, cognition, self-awareness, introspection, regulation of emotions and behaviours
- Inducing a state of physical rest
- Strengthening of immune function
- Improvements to learning skills and creativity
- Decreased sensitivity to pain
- Improvements in skin conditions such as psoriasis
- Improved sleep and reduced fatigue
- Lowered symptoms of psychological distress such as anxiety, panic, depression, anger, substance abuse
- And from the positive psychology perspective, improvements to wellbeing, including increased:
- psychological wellbeing
- quality of life
- positive emotions
- sense of control, autonomy and independence
- improved relationships
- … and more!
In contrast, what is mindlessness, and why is it also important?
Mindlessness is where we rely on habits or automatic thinking to perform a task.
Think about your day so far… in which situations were you in autopilot mode?
To be mindful all the time is impossible! Many researchers have found that mindless tasks free our limited conscious attentional capacity up for activities that really need them – so there are definitely benefits to being mindless some of the time.
How can we spend less time being mindless?
For many of us, reducing our mindless moments and increasing our mindful or intentional ones to achieve more in our lives is a challenge.
The point at which we can stop these mindless moments that we want to reduce is in the moment in time where our habitual processes kick in. For example, mid-afternoon at work, you feel a natural energy slump, head to the coffee machine and eat one of the biscuits that’s right next to it. This has become a mindless activity or habit each afternoon that is hampering your goal of eating less sugar.
To be aware of what triggers you to eat that cookie is the first step – the mid-afternoon coffee to beat your energy slump. This is where you have the chance to practice your self-regulation, let your conscious mind kick in and make a healthier, mindful choice, say to walk around the block to recharge your energy instead.
You can also plan mindful moments in your day. Perhaps do a morning meditation, or simply set the intent to observe new things when you go for your daily walk.
Which mindless moments would you like to stop?
What mindful moments can you plan into your day?
Something to ponder…
“Most of our suffering, psychological and physical, is the direct or indirect effect of mindlessness.”
Professor Ellen Langer
– Try the meditations from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center
– Watch an interview with Professor Langer
– Get in touch for my support to create and embed mindful practices into your life