By Georgina Hooper
This is an extract reprinted with permission from Leaping Hare Press, an imprint of The Quarto Group.
Mindfulness at its very core is an elegantly straightforward two-part practice. The first part is amplifying awareness of the internal mind and body, as well as the external environment in the present moment. The second and very vital part of mindfulness is the element of choice that we have in what and where we direct our attention to. This choice is one that is made constantly. In the face of each new thought and every sensory experience, we choose where to point the spotlight of our attention.
In making the wise choice for ourselves as students we are often choosing to tolerate discomfort and boredom or delay the gratification of pleasure or fun. That is the thing about choice: as we grasp something, there is always something that we let go of. With mindfulness, we are making our choices consciously, with awareness and intention. When we make a wise choice for the use of each moment, directing our attention to that which will help us in our pursuit of scholarship, we empower ourselves for success in our study. This might be choosing to wait until the end of the lesson to tell your friend your exciting idea, or refusing to respond to the tantalising pull to check social media on your phone in the middle of writing an essay. But it might also be delaying thoughts about what to eat for lunch, or ignoring the internal chatter about something that happened yesterday, last week or last year. These choices are never-ceasing, but with practice, it will become easier to let the distractors pass by without responding to them.
Robert J. Sawyer once eloquently stated, ‘Learning to ignore things is one of the greatest paths to inner peace.’ This beautiful statement was exemplified for me when in seated meditation during a yoga retreat in Thailand. The conditions for my success in mindfully focusing could not have seemed better but, 2 minutes in, I had an itch. A tickle on my nose, now a hair brushing my face, an annoyance on my arm. I thought to myself, ‘Is that a mosquito?’ My mind flitted backwards and forwards, contemplating whether or not I should break my pose and brush away the annoyance. But by then I had already lost my focus.
When we sit with the intention to focus our mind, no matter how determined we might be, little itches will want scratching. But the power of distractions often lies in the ‘mental maybe’ that we allow them. Rather than simply observing the irritation and dismissing it, we ‘to-and-fro’ with the idea of scratching the itch that plagues us. The mind is like my 4-year-old child: if she thinks there is a possibility of ice cream, she will keep asking for it. The only way to firmly address the tugs of our attention is with a firm and certain ‘no’.
A MATTER OF CHOICE
We are constantly faced with the choice to come back to focus. Setting an intention to do so, we are empowered to direct our attention positively. The key is to be diligent in continuing to make the choice to positively focus our attention. As we practise the habit of first identifying that we are distracted and then having the discipline to bring our attention back to the task, we foster a kind of mental fitness and expand our capacity to concentrate for longer. The more we learn to observe the agitations of mind and body and practise resolutely letting them go, the more we minimize how long we are mentally off-task for. Cultivating this resolve and determination to keep our mind on our study helps us go more deeply into what we are learning and can increase our rate of retention.
The funny thing is, once you have set your mind to a determined mindset of ignoring disturbances and longings, they will miraculously go away. Of course, others can pop up in their place, but with practice you can train yourself to brush those disturbances away with greater speed and ease. Once you have become resolute and practised in your diligence to stay present, the task of being a student becomes so much easier.
Mindfulness is about not always doing what feels good. Using mindfulness, we can endure a little discomfort or deny instant gratification by choosing, with conscious awareness, the more distant pleasure of the outcome we seek to attain. For students, this probably isn’t enlightenment like it was for the Zen Buddhists, but it might be improved grades, a degree or PhD, or just the phenomenal pleasure of cultivating knowledge and understanding.