It could almost be said that too much has been said about mindfulness; that it appears so often, in the form of articles, presentations, books, phone apps, courses, that its all-pervading presence is a distraction. The problem with this is that distraction is exactly what mindfulness is not about. So I am going to say – at least to begin with − forget about mindfulness, and we’ll work on not being distracted.
It is a truism that the modern world has far more distractions than former times, when the pace of life was slower, when information was not instantly available worldwide and when the choices which were presented to most people most of the time were quite limited. But if we are honest, it is really just passing the blame if we retort, “It isn’t my fault; it’s because there are too many things competing for my attention. You can’t expect me to keep focused on one thing.” That is projection. Because the choice to attend to this or that, or even nothing at all, is ours alone. The cause of the distraction is not the extraordinary range of possibilities available to us but whatever it is about us that means we avoid making decisions, or, when we have decided and are set on a course and then see something else we want, we waiver. It is not difficult to detect what is happening − we always want the best we can get, but not just that, even when things are moving along nicely for us, if something appears which is faster, bigger, funnier, sexier, we have to check it out, just in case we might be missing something.
To avoid being distracted we need to understand how we think… because in our thinking patterns and what lies beneath them is where we will find the answer. So we’ll start with a paradoxical question. What does it take to satisfy you? I could have asked, “What does being satisfied feel like?” But the two questions are really different sides of the same coin. So take something very mundane. Eating chocolate. You take one chocolate and eat it. Do you want another? You probably do. And another? Probably. But why? Will you get double the pleasure with the second one? If that is your reason, then you should consider the law of diminishing returns, because the second one can only possibly add fifty per cent to your pleasure and the third one thirty-three per cent, and so on. If you had only seen one piece of chocolate available and you had been asked after that piece whether you were satisfied, you would probably have said ‘yes’ because you would still have been savouring that piece. But if another piece had suddenly appeared, and you were asked if you wanted it, you would most likely have left off savouring the first piece and taken the second.
So, what does it take to satisfy you?
Eating is a good way in to mindfulness… in taking the second piece of chocolate, you were distracting yourself from savouring the first piece. Perhaps you want to wriggle out by saying that it wasn’t you; it was the person who offered you the chocolate. But you cannot get away from the fact that it was you who turned your attention away from what you were doing, namely, savouring the pleasant taste in your mouth. So, allowing yourself to be distracted broke into your mindfulness in that moment. Why did you allow your attention to be drawn? Because there might be something nicer or better, or simply more, around the corner.
There is a Zen saying: when you are sitting just sit; when you are standing just stand; when you are walking just walk… above all don’t wobble. It can be extended to any activity. In this context “just” is not solely about the physical action either; it extends to doing the thing without an attitude, that is, without bringing any particular guilt, desire, resentment, even indifference, to what you are doing. So, when you are savouring the taste of chocolate in your mouth, just do that. Don’t even feel guilty because you are on a diet and you are not supposed to have chocolate at all! That would be your ego getting in the way. We could say it is about respect − respect for the moment. This moment will never come again, and a moment identical to this one will never again appear, so it deserves our respect for being a moment in our lives.
Most people eat too fast to really taste what they are eating. Very few people take the time to savour. Try this for yourself next time you are eating a meal. Notice how long you are actually registering the taste of the food. When you find you are thinking about something, notice how that means that you are not conscious of what you are eating, but simply of the act of eating, which has become a background activity, like driving a car while you are talking to your passenger. If you need help to slow down eating, try setting down your eating utensils as soon as you have put the food in your mouth and do not pick them up again until after you have swallowed the previous mouthful. That will help in another respect too, because it will mean that you cannot start preparing the next mouthful before you have finished the current one. To help yourself experience just eating, give yourself time to register everything about what you are eating − the texture… the flavour… is there just one texture? Is there just one flavour? (In the case of chocolate you could try closing your eyes and not biting, just letting it dissolve in your mouth. And then, out of respect for the moment, say to yourself “that was good and it is enough.”)
Just one more thing about savouring: make sure that you note a flavour or a texture for what it is and avoid, if you can, a reaction of “that’s not very nice” or “I don’t like that.” This is not because we have to like everything equally, but because telling ourselves that we don’t like something will take us away from just eating and will have us make a judgement about the moment itself as well as what it contains.
So, the first step in mindfulness is not to get distracted.
Simon Cole runs a retreat centre in France, having worked in psychological health in the UK for over 20 years. Holder of a Masters with distinction and special award in counselling from Ripon and York St John, he is a senior-accredited counsellor, with experience in the Health Service as well as in private practice in Britain. He also developed and ran a progressive counsellor training programme to advanced diploma level at Carlisle College. He has long used mindfulness and meditation alongside his professional work and has formulated the Clear Space Meditation Path as an integrated model, incorporating established psychotherapeutic practices, to produce a western method for personal development and healing.
Stillness in Mind – a companion to mindfulness, meditation and living by Simon Cole, was published by Changemakers Books 28th November 2014.