Maria, in Paulo Coelho’s book, Eleven Minutes, records in her diary:
I spend all day …longing for work to begin, and, when I’m working, longing to get back to the boarding house. In other words, I’m living the future not the present. (p.34, emphasis added)
Recent neuroscience research shows that we spend more than 50% of our time either in the past or in the future – we spend so little time in the present.
The downside of spending so much time “living the future” is that we can develop anxiety because we are constantly concerned about future events that may never happen. We are also missing the opportunity to fully experience the present – to enjoy the beauty, relationships and positive experiences that surround us.
We also miss the opportunity to appreciate what we do have and be grateful for the many things that make our life enjoyable.
Living in the future can be precipitated by envy – we “want to have what they have got” and so we look to the future in the hope that we too will be like them.
One way to check whether you are living the future is to monitor your words:
I wish it was Friday
I can’t wait for the weekend
Summer holidays can’t come soon enough
If we find ourselves constantly expressing desire for the future rather than experiencing and enjoying the present, then we can stop talking this way – we have the power to shape our reality by choosing our words consciously.
The present moment is the only true reality. If we miss it, we miss so much that life has to offer and potentially harm ourselves and our wellbeing.
I suppose like everyone else you find it hard in your busy life to be still and yet being still is a gateway to happiness, creativity and calm.
Isabel Allende once wrote that “life is nothing but noise between two unfathomable silences”. In explaining these words, she went on to say:
We have very busy lives – or we make them very busy. There is noise and activity everywhere. Few people know how to be still and find a quiet place inside themselves. From that place of silence and stillness the creative forces emerge; there we find faith, hope, strength, and wisdom. However, since childhood we are taught to do things. Our heads are full of noise. Silence and solitude scare us most. (About the author, “The Sum of Our Days”, p. 4.)
As Allende explains, being still is about “being” rather than compulsive “doing”.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, in discussing his Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, describes how participants stand and do nothing, sit and do nothing, lie and do nothing – they clear their thoughts and just focus on being. The MBSR Program has proven over more than 30 years to be very successful in helping people deal with chronic stress, panic and many forms of mental illness that are often precipitated by busyness. Kabat-Zinn discusses the program and its origins in his book, Full Catastrophe Living.
Andy Puddicombe suggests that “all it takes is 10 mindful minutes” per day to achieve an increased sense of calm, clarity ad focus. He reminds us that we spend more time looking after our clothes, our hair and how we look, than in caring for our brain – the centre of creativity, energy and happiness. Puddicombe demonstrates how our lives have become an endless juggling act, not only juggling things-to-do but also our self-defeating thoughts:
There are many resources available to motivate you to be still or to show you how to achieve this. RMIT, for example, provides an audio resource on “sitting still” to help students cope with study and life stress. This is part of an online resource that covers “mindfulness and being present“.
Being still and doing nothing is a real challenge, but if you take the time out from your busy life to actually do nothing, for however long each day, you will experience real benefits for your health, well-being and happiness.
The basic idea is to write your responses to a number of stimulus questions without lifting your pen from the paper. Often there are three questions. These penetrating questions are combined with the three minute time limit to reduce the likelihood of “editing” – to get past your rational mind and allow your thoughts and feelings to flow unimpeded by self-censorship or the felt need for grammatical editing.
Given the time limit, you do not have time to form proper sentences or to worry about logical flow – you just write in a free form manner, akin to “speed writing”. Often this quick approach to journaling, involving a “stream of consciousness“, is used within the context of more formal daily journaling.
The surprise comes when you read what you have written. The process of 3 Minute Journaling invariably turns up some remarkable insights into your own motivations and behaviours and opens the way for greater self-knowledge, awareness of your environment and the feelings of others. In lots of ways it is a journey into yourself.
Some of my posts on this blog have flowed from using the process of 3 Minute Journaling before I sat down to write the actual blog post. You can use a simple idea or insight to start the process or alternatively write responses to two or three questions that have some relevance to you and that encourage you to explore some unexplored terrain or to go deeper into familiar terrain.
Below is an example of three stimulus questions used during the Search Inside Yourself Program in one of a series of three minute journaling sessions:
When I feel understood, I…
When I’m at my best, I…
What I really care about is…
These are penetrative questions that get to the heart of what motivates you and what you really enjoy doing and care about.
I have often used 3 Minute journaling within the context of a manager development program. One of the sets of questions I ask relates to the role of the manager in creating the culture of their workplace:
What kind of culture are you trying to create in your workplace?
How congruent is your own behaviour with that culture?
What kinds of messages are your words and actions giving?
3 Minute Journaling is a powerful process that takes so little time but provides rich results in terms of self-awareness. If you undertake it on a consistent basis, you are well on the way to growing the habit of mindfulness.
So often we walk from place to place, lost in our thoughts, unaware of what surrounds us and the response of our own bodies.
Mindful walking is the practice of bringing our attention, in the moment, to some aspect of our walking experience – and doing so for a purpose.
This approach to developing mindfulness is designed to enhance our awareness and clear our minds of clutter, self-defeating thoughts and anxiety.
You can practise mindful walking anywhere, anytime – walking during the lunch break, taking a walk on a beach or through a rainforest, walking to the train or shops.
There are many variations you can adopt for mindful walking. You can adopt an open awareness approach taking in the sights, sounds, taste, smells and touch that surround you.
Alternatively, you can focus on some aspect of your present experience when walking, e.g. the sensation of your feet on the ground.
The Internet provides numerous resources – text, audios and videos – on mindful walking. Here is one approach by Simon Paul Harrison that combines mindful walking and mindful breathing:
Mindful walking is often recommended for people suffering stress, trauma or anxiety. RMIT, for example, through their online counselling services provides a range of online resources, including an exercise sheet and audio for mindful walking, to help students deal with the stress of study and exams.
Isabel Allende, in her book, The Sum of Our Days, describes how she frequently lost herself and found contentment on a tranquil walk in a forest:
These walks are very good for me, and at the end I feel invincible and grateful for the overwhelming abundance of my life: love, family, work, health – a great contentment.(p.299)
Another approach to mindful walking is discussed and illustrated by Chuck Hall:
You can walk anywhere mindfully if you are conscious of the opportunity. You should find an approach, timing and location that suits you so that it can be a pathway to a sustained habit of mindfulness. Once you establish the habit of mindful walking using one approach consistently, you will find that you will automatically adopt mindful walking in other situations as your consciousness of the opportunities grows.
After learning about mindful walking, I decided to use a personal approach that suited me to grow my own mindfulness. On my morning walks around the tree-lined streets and along the river, I would tune into the sounds of the birds that surrounded me. This required turning off my thoughts, tuning out other sounds and paying attention solely to the sound of the birds. I became more aware of birds above and below me, in front and behind and on my left and right side.
Invariably, as I walked, the sound of the birds seemed to stop at some point. The reality was that my thoughts had come back into my head and I had tuned out from the sounds of the birds – I had lost focus. Once I cleared my thoughts and re-focused, the sound of the birds came flooding back into my awareness again, a concert surrounding me as the birds fed off each other’s sounds.
Mindful walking induces peace, calm, clarity and contentment and helps you grow in mindfulness.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, in his book, “Coming to Our Senses”, suggests that his call to awareness has to be interpreted both literally (being conscious of the senses of the body) and metaphorically (behaving sensibly).
He describes each of the senses as a terrain and discusses mindful eating in a section of his book called “tastescape” (“touch”, for example, constitutes the “touchscape”).
Kabat-Zinn argues that we often eat mindlessly, unaware of what we are eating, with limited consciousness of taste and texture (we are too busy talking or thinking about other things). He suggests that we have lost the fundamental purpose of eating:
Thus eating has has become increasingly separated from survival and maintenance of life in our consciousness. For the most part, we eat with great automaticity and little insight into its critical importance for us in sustaining life, and also in sustaining health (p.231).
In his Stress Reduction Clinic, he starts his training with getting people to eat a raisin slowly and sensuously because it brings participants into the moment, the present, and dispels all misunderstanding re the nature of meditation. He suggests that such an exercise increases “wakefulness”:
Eating one raisin very very slowly invites you to drop right into knowing in ways that are effortless, totally natural, and entirely beyond words and thinking. It is an invitation that is unusual only in that we tend to eat so automatically and unconsciously (p.230).
Not long after first reading about mindful eating in Kabat-Zinn’s book, I was travelling interstate and purchased a packet of “goodies” to eat, comprising almonds, pistachio nuts and cranberries. I decided to experiment with mindful eating as he describes the process.
I started with an almond and felt the ridged exterior and firm texture with my tongue and gradually bit into its firm surface. Slowly, I tasted the distinctive flavour of the almond and appreciated this sensation which tended to be short in duration. I followed this up with putting a pistachio nut in my mouth and felt the smoothness and wave shape of its surfaces. As I bit into the pistachio, I had a stronger sense of flavour than with the almond and this tended to last a bit longer. Lastly, I placed a cranberry in my mouth and felt its wrinkled and rough surface with my tongue. Biting into the cranberry was a very different sensation again – an explosion of flavour that tended to linger.
Normally, I would have thrown a handful of these nuts and cranberries into my mouth and, in the process, lost the distinctive sensations of differences in taste and texture. Kabat-Zinn suggests that we often eat with “stunningly little awareness of what or how we are eating, how fast we are eating, what our food actually tastes like, and when our body is telling us it is time to stop” (p.232).
He suggests that if we take time for mindful eating we can experience the rewards both physically and psychically:
If we slow down a bit, we can intentionally bring awareness to tasting anything we are eating, to be with this mouthful of food, and to really taste it, chew it and know it before we swallow it. (p.233)
Elsewhere in “Coming to Our Senses”, Kabat-Zinn explores the connection between our brain and our senses, as well as with our memories and awareness. To appreciate this, you just have remember the last time a bit of food evoked a distant memory.
Maintaining motivation to practice mindfulness is a Catch-22 situation: to experience the benefits of mindfulness, you have to practice it; to maintain motivation for your mindfulness practice, you need to experience the benefits. As you practise, you become more aware of the benefits and the benefits themselves increase.
However, the starting point is to believe that practising mindfulness will give you benefits that you value. Having started your practice then, you are able to experience the benefits and to use these to motivate yourself to continue.
I found it hard to maintain my attendance at Taoist Tai Chi classes because of work commitments but I had experienced enough of the benefits of Tai Chi to find a way to maintain the practice.
As I persisted with the practice of Tai Chi, I started to experience an increasing number of benefits that now form the motivation for me to continue the practice. These benefits that I value are:
Focus and concentration – these are essential skills for my work as a consultant and for my writing; they also help with playing tennis (my sporting passion)
Balance and coordination – this is a strong motivator for me because I have found over the years that there is a very clear link between my Tai Chi practice and how well I play during my weekly social tennis; I have written about this link elsewhere
Creativity – I noticed this benefit through my experience of greater creativity when designing workshop processes as part of my consulting practice; Google clearly values this benefit as it developed the Search Inside Yourself (SIY) mindfulness program which has been experienced by more than 4,500 members of their staff- the SIY program is now available to the public on a global basis.
Lower blood pressure – I inherited high blood pressure so anything that helps me maintain a lower blood pressure has many positive side effects
Flexibility – as I grow older, I find that my flexibility suffers. However, Tai Chi clearly improves my flexibility and I experience this on the tennis court and elsewhere; many older people throughout the world (e.g. in China) practise Tai Chi to gain this benefit, among others.
Calmness and clarity – mindfulness and Tai Chi, specifically, develop calmness and clarity and help me to manage stress
Reducing the symptoms of arthritis – this is a claimed benefit of Tai Chi which I had some skepticism about until I experienced reduced pain from arthritis in one of the fingers on my right hand when playing tennis; now I can play two hours of solid tennis without the pain recurring or impeding my capacity to play well
Reflective listening – Tai Chi and mindfulness practice generally are improving my capacity to listen reflectively, an important means of improving my valued relationships.
I think the moral of this story is that if you persist in the practise of mindfulness you will experience benefits that you personally value. Both the choice of mindfulness practice and the valued benefits will be influenced by your own lifestyle and personal preferences.
Open awareness is something that you can practice anywhere. It is basically being fully present through your senses.
From my lounge room and deck I can see Moreton Bay with Stradbroke Island in the background. I used to wake up of a morning and note the sunrise across the bay on my way to making a cup of tea in the kitchen. I would walk past what is an ever-changing view.
Now I am developing the habit of standing still and taking in the view for the few minutes while the water in the jug is boiling.
In this way I can practice open awareness – listening to the sounds of birds waking, watching the changing hues as the sun comes up, observing the breeze in the trees and sensing the weather.
I find that my body immediately relaxes and I am able to quickly drop into mindful breathing as a matter of course. So one mindfulness practice leads onto the next.
What you can do to develop open awareness is to link it to something that you do on a daily basis – a morning walk, the morning cuppa or coffee, the early morning bike ride. If you structure open awareness into your day, you will be more likely to persist with the habit and progressively build mindfulness. You will also find that you will more frequently stop what you are doing and become openly aware of your surroundings.
Have you ever been in a “conversation” where the other person was obviously not listening?
They may have been distracted by their own thoughts, looking at their smart phone or watching things going on elsewhere. While you are talking they could be keying on their computer, shuffling papers or doodling. One cue that they are not listening is the lack of listening non-verbals, e.g. eye contact, facing you, conversation encouragers such as a nod or smile.
The non-listener will interrupt, talk over you, try to solve your problem before they know what it is and direct the conversation to their own issue or story.
Of course, each of us engages in one or more of these behaviours at one time or another. The net result of the failure to listen is that the speaker becomes frustrated, annoyed and even aggressive in tone or posture.
When you really listen, you give the speaker the gift of affirmation – you affirm their existence, their worth and that you value them enough to pay attention to them (rather than to your own needs).
However, to listen reflectively you need to be present to the other person – to be mindful. You can reflect what the speaker is saying through summarising, paraphrasing and checking for understanding.
Reflective listening requires focused attention – a key feature of mindfulness. It is really a two-way street. The more you listen and focus on someone talking, the more mindful you become; the more you develop the habit of mindfulness, the more you are able to listen reflectively.
You have to learn to use your ears more and your mouth less so you can focus on the other person and what they are saying.
“Practice makes perfect” – a truism but particularly relevant to developing mindfulness.
People who know about habit forming suggest three basic steps to develop a habit:
focus on one small and simple behaviour
build the habit into your daily routine/structure of your day
frequently revisit your motivation (s) for growing the habit of mindfulness.
Start simple and develop more complex behaviours as you master an initial starting point. If you are trying to do something complex at the outset and trying to maintain the behaviour, you can easily become discouraged. However, if you start simply and achieve mastery, this will add to your motivation. You will avoid discouragement and frustration this way.
If you structure the new behaviour into you daily routine, you are more likely to be able to sustain the mindfulness practice. So if it is something you do first thing in the morning, then each time you wake up you are reminded to undertake the behaviour. One of the participants in the Search Inside Yourself leadership program decided to do mindful breathing whenever he put the jug on for a cup of coffee. I have started the practice of using open awareness first thing in the morning when I make my first cup of tea. Providing an inbuilt structure (timing & location) to a mindfulness practice helps to embed it into your daily life.
It is important to maintain your motivation when the going gets tough or there are things that distract you from your practice. One way to do this is to write down the reasons why you want to engage in the mindfulness practice. As you begin to practice, you will find that you will be able to add to your motivation list because you have experienced some positive benefits that you had not alluded to earlier in the practice cycle. Some people even develop a personal mantra to help their motivation, e.g. “be mindful, be my best”.
Mindfulness is within everyone’s reach but each person is different. So a particular mindfulness practice may appeal to one person and not another. You need to find somewhere to start (or extend) that suits your personal preference and lifestyle.
There are many pathways to mindfulness – mindful breathing, mindful eating, meditation, open awareness, reflective listening, yoga, and Tai Chi – to name a few. Start somewhere and grow mindfulness from that point.
Tai Chi is described as “poetry in motion” and is a popular pathway to the development of mindfulness. It builds the connection between body, mind and spirit.
I first encountered Tai Chi practice when, as a manager in the public service in the 1980s, I engaged a Tai Chi instructor to conduct training for myself and my staff on a weekly basis. At the time I felt extraordinarily uncoordinated but persisted with the practice in the weekly lessons, only to drop away as pressure of work took over.
In 2014 my wife and I undertook the beginners class in Taoist Tai Chi before going overseas to Europe. I think it certainly helped our fitness and presence of mind. More recently, I returned to the weekly beginners classes but was unable to maintain attendance and learn the full 108 movements owing to work commitments.
The Tai Chi classes provide social support and motivation to master the art of Tai Chi. However, I became discouraged with the classes because I could not keep up owing to my work-induced absences. However, I had really appreciated the benefits of practising Taoist Tai Chi, so I located a training video that takes you through the first 17 moves and now I attempt to use this video to practise Taoist Tai Chi on a daily basis. This video takes you through the steps very slowly with a clear explanation:
The advantage of this video is that the 17 moves take only about 4 minutes and they can be completed in sets of three or more repetitions. The creators of the video also provide a practice video for the highly recommended warm-up exercises.
As with mastery of anything, Taoist Tai Chi requires regular practice, ideally on a daily basis. The more frequently you practise, the greater are the benefits you can experience in terms of physical and mental health and the growth of mindfulness.
The significant degree of turning and stretching in each of the movements, combined with the adaptability of the form to suit individual needs, are just some of the factors that contribute to its focus on restoring, improving and maintaining health.
The specific health benefits they identify include:
improved balance and posture
increased strength and flexibility
alleviation of the symptoms of illness such as arthritis, high blood pressure and migraine.
Tai Chi, like mindfulness, develops calmness, focus, concentration and clarity.