THINKING & MINDFULNESS
Mindfulness is something we all have a general sense of, but is not necessarily something we could easily articulate. Like trying to describe an uncommon color (try taupe or cyan), it is difficult to express although we might know when we see it. So what is mindfulness in a nutshell? Fundamentally, mindfulness is the simple act of bringing your conscious awareness to what is occurring at the present moment. That’s it! Just the observation of whatever it is that arises from moment to moment. This includes physical sensations, emotions, and of course, what is going on between your ears. While it is simple, it is not always easy. We are easily drawn into the stories our minds are telling. We can become fully immersed in the emotional experience that accompanies these thoughts. The tendencies of the mind are to rehash past experiences and emotions, both the positive and the negative, as well as project into the future, determining the best way for you to reproduce pleasurable experiences and avoid those that caused discomfort or pain. (That is actually very generous of our minds isn’t it?) Being able to learn from the past and extrapolate into the future are very valuable abilities, however, when these become the predominant mental patterns, we are at the whim of whatever it is our minds are seeking or avoiding. Mindfulness brings our conscious attention to these mental patterns and allows us to disentangle our present experience from whatever thoughts and attached emotions happen to be comprising our mental chatter.
THE EXPERIENTIAL PRESENT
When the mind is wholly absorbed in the mental chatter, (what Buddhists call “the monkey mind”) it interferes with our ability to bring our mental faculties to the present moment and be in the Experiential Present. The Experiential Present is comprised of Being, Feeling, Doing and Thinking. While Being, Doing and Feeling are necessarily bound to the present moment, Thinking is not. We’ve already examined how and why Thinking tends towards continuous preoccupation with past and future as well as the resulting mental feedback loop of avoidance and seeking. However, Thinking also impacts the other three elements of the Experiential Present. Let’s begin with Doing.
When the monkey mind is absorbed in the past or future, it draws your awareness from the Experiential Present and interferes with your ability to focus on whatever task is at hand. For example, if someone slips into the parking spot you were waiting for, as you drive off and circle the parking lot looking for the next one, you are so preoccupied with the arrogance and rudeness of the spot stealer, that you completely miss the car leaving the spot right next to your office. The present Doing was compromised by your Thinking being stuck in the past. (It is likely the spot stealer was likewise preoccupied by Thinking and did not notice you were waiting for the parking space to begin with!) Not only has unmindful Thinking hampered the present opportunity, but you continue to experience the negative emotional states associated with the past incident.
The emotional states we experience comprise the second part of the Experiential Present. The mind-body-emotional connection facilitates emotional, physical and even chemical (hormonal) responses to our thoughts. These tangible effects often go unnoticed as we are so ensconced in Thinking. For example, you may notice that your pulse increases and you feel slightly nauseous and anxious when thinking about your upcoming performance review at work. Elevated heart rate, diminished appetite, increased levels of cortisol… These physical and emotional responses not only impact your experience of the moment; over time they can have adverse effects on your health. Our mind-body-emotional connection is so complete that the physiological stress response of the body is the same (varying in degree of course) whether you are actually in a hostile situation or whether you are simply imagining or remembering one.
While mindfulness yields positive results on the practical aspects of Thinking, Doing and Feeling, Being is (for lack of a better term) the spiritual component of the Experiential Present. Being is the experiential state when Thinking, Doing and Feeling are all aligned in the present moment. It is a sense of connection with all that is and a complete acceptance of the present moment.
Now that we have defined the various aspects of the Experiential Present, it is time to get mindful! As was stated at the beginning -“Mindfulness is the simple act of bringing your conscious awareness to what is occurring at the present moment.” Effectively, mindfulness can be practiced at any time. It does not require you to sit in any particular posture or recite a mantra. You can practice mindfulness while driving in traffic, while walking, while eating. As long as you are bringing conscious awareness to what you are thinking, feeling and doing, you are being mindful. Initially, you will notice that it is quite difficult to stay focused. Your mind WILL drift off and you will become completely absorbed in your thoughts. This is not a failure. This is the opportunity to bring the awareness back. The success is in the “noticing” that the mind has drifted and in the “returning” to awareness, not necessarily in the “staying” in awareness. Like anything, it gets easier to do with a little practice and you may want to supplement your day to day mindfulness practice with a mindfulness meditation to help establish the practice.