Through coaching, counselling or psychotherapy we often discover patterns in our thoughts, feelings and behaviour that cause us problems. These can include anxious feelings, panic attacks, negative thoughts that take us in a downward spiral, explosions of anger or rage, feelings of jealousy and envy, and many other patterns where combinations of thoughts, feelings and actions appear outside our control. The question which naturally arises when we identify one of these patterns is “how can I stop doing it?”. Sometimes just noticing the pattern can be enough for us to change, but if it has been established for a long time this is not so easy.
This is where the technique of mindfulness can help us to gain control over our unruly thoughts, feelings and actions. It is a state of calm and clarity, a slightly detached state of self-observation. It is not some esoteric state achieved only by the few - I suggest that we have all had experience of it at some time or other. Often a new situation, such as going on holiday to a new place, a sudden shock or a rapid change in our circumstances can propel us into a state of mindfulness. Compared to our normal everyday consciousness, mindfulness feels like waking up. The world appears fresher and clearer, as if a fog has lifted from in front of our eyes. Colours are brighter, we notice things that we’d not seen before, all our senses are sharper.
To get a clearer idea of what mindfulness is, it helps to compare it with our normal state. We spend a large part of our waking lives in a world of daydream or reverie, as desires and fantasies succeed one another on automatic pilot. Say I’m walking across a marketplace, worrying about the state of my bank balance, when I catch the wonderful aroma of roasting coffee coming from the nearby food shop. I start imagining myself drinking coffee, which connects me to a memory of a time when I was on holiday, sitting on the terrace of a cafe, perhaps looking at some breathtaking scenery. For a while I might enjoy replaying the memories, but then I might start to feel dissatisfied because I really want to be there on holiday, instead of having to work. And so the thought patterns go on and on...
If you take a few moments during an average day to observe yourself, my guess is that you will be able to spot the same sort of chains of thoughts, feelings, fantasies, memories and associations. Observe long enough, and you will notice that they fill a large part of your waking life. And if you can remember to keep observing, rather than getting absorbed in the daydreams, you will be experiencing the state I am calling mindfulness. It is as simple as that!
Except that it it isn’t. Try to do this exercise for any length of time, and you will discover that what sounds very simple is the hardest thing in the world. The following quotation describes the problem clearly. It is taken from P.D. Ouspensky’s, In Search of the Miraculous in which the author describes walking at night through St Petersburg (Ouspensky uses the term self-remembering for mindfulness):
“I was once walking along the Liteiny towards the Nevsky, and in spite of all my efforts I was unable to keep my attention on self-remembering. The noise, movement, everything distracted me. Every minute I lost the thread of attention, found it again, and then lost it again. At last I felt a kind of ridiculous irritation with myself and I turned into the street on the left having firmly decided to keep my attention on the fact that I would remember myself, at least for some time, at any rate until I reached the following street. .... I reached the Nevsky still remembering myself, and was already beginning to experience the strange emotional state of inner peace and confidence which comes after great efforts of this kind. Just round the corner on the Nevsky was a tobacconist’s shop where they made my cigarettes. Still remembering myself I thought I would call there and order some cigarettes.
Two hours later I woke up in the Tavricheskaya, that is, far away. I was going by cab to the printers. The sensation of awakening was extraordinarily vivid. I can almost say that I came to. I remembered everything at once. How I had been walking along the Nadejdinskaya, how I had been remembering myself, how I had thought about cigarettes, and how at this thought I seemed all at once to fall and disappear into a deep sleep.” (author’s italics)
What this quotation makes clear is that mindfulness needs constant effort and attention. As soon as our attention slips, we fall back into the chain of associations and feelings that keep us asleep. There are various tricks we can use to remind ourselves to wake up. A regular practice of meditation or relaxation helps to calm the mind and make us more aware of it’s tendency to wander. Writing up a personal journal in the evening is a way of reviewing the day and noticing the occasions when we got caught, and it helps us to “wake up” at least once a day! Posting notes to ourselves at strategic places as reminders can help. I used to do a lot of motorway driving, an activity which was almost guaranteed to set me daydreaming. I trained myself to be mindful each time I passed under a bridge – quite a revealing experience as I would often “wake up” without any idea of where I was!
What are the therapeutic benefits of mindfulness? The main one is that it helps us to deal with the self-destructive patterns of thoughts and feelings. By allowing us to become aware of the pattern when it first arises, we have a choice whether or not to follow it. We can stay with the feeling that arises, perhaps watch it transform into something else, and thereby gain insight into what’s behind it. Through gaining control over the mind, we loosen the grip of habits and replace them with calmness and clarity.
Ouspensky, P.D, In Search of the Miraculous, Arkana 1987 (1st edition by Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949)