Wednesday, 7 June 2017


I want you to imagine you are sat on a beautiful white sand beach that is almost deserted, there is a lovely salt water smell in the air, there is the sound of waves gently washing into the shore and behind you there are birds happily singing in the trees.  The sun is shining, so it is quite hot, but there is also a lovely, balmy breeze.  All is well with the world around you.

This is a scene I frequently use in positive meditations.  But I am not setting this scene up for a positive meditation right now.  Rather the opposite.  Because whilst you are sat on this lovely beach you are not sitting on the sand but on a chair in front of a desk.  You cannot really hear the waves and that beautiful birdsong as you are talking on your cellphone (or what we Brits call your mobile).  You are not relaxed at all, because the phonecall is a business call, and on the desk in front of you is paperwork you are dealing with while sat on that beach.

How do you feel about this scene?  Are you happy with it?  Or does it feel horribly wrong?  I hope the latter!  It certainly feels very wrong to me.

I am using this discordant image as a metaphor for what psychologists call "default-mode network".  Put simply, mind-wandering.  Which is something most of us do, without even knowing we are doing it, a large percentage of the time.  There is loveliness and beauty around us but we miss it completely because we are not paying any attention to it, just like that businessman on the beach.  We are in default mode.

Not only do we miss the beauty of what is around us when we are in default mode, but also most of the time our mind has a tendency to wander into dark, dismal, miserable areas that cause us stress and worry when we allow it to go into default mode.  It tells us all the things that are wrong or that could go wrong.  It criticizes decisions we have made.  It tells us we are silly wanting something better.  Default mode causes us a lot of unhappiness even when what is around us should make us very happy.  It focuses on "what if", with an inevitable bias to all the negative "what ifs".

The opposite of default mode is mindfulness.  Being fully engaged with the present moment.  Enjoying what is here now.  Focusing on and dealing properly with what is here now.  The "what is" rather than the "what if".

There is so much around you that you can enjoy if you cultivate mindfulness.  Don't miss what is around you, but rather make sure you take full advantage of it.  Perhaps the song of a blackbird nearby.  A beautiful sunrise or sunset.  A tasty meal.

Mindfulness is not simply about enjoyment, but also about getting things done properly, and even about staying safe.

Take driving a car as an example.  When you drive you should most certainly be mindful.  Your focus should be on the driving, on what is happening on the road, not (for example) on what is going to happen when you get wherever you are going, and certainly not on a conversation someone in the car is trying to have with you or, even worse, someone at the other end of a phone conversation!

You have probably heard it said that women multitask better than men.  Do you agree?  Well, really that is a trick question, because neither men nor women can multitask at all.  Our brains cannot deal with two things at once.  If you give your brain two tasks to perform it will perform them sequentially, not in parallel.  It may appear to multitask and deal with both at the same time, but what it is actually doing is switching between the two tasks sequentially.  Research has shown that when we are switching attention from one task to another there is up to half a second of complete oblivion when we are totally unaware of anything in either task.

Now that you are aware of the problem, let's go back to the driving example.  If you are chatting and driving at the same time your mind is switching between those two tasks, and each time it switches there is that fraction of a second when you are completely unaware of either.  Do you see the danger here?  I hope so!  What can happen in, say, half a second while you are travelling at, perhaps, 60 mph (or 96 kph for my metric friends)?  The answer is, a lot!  You will have travelled 15 yards, or 14 metres in complete oblivion.  Happy about that?  I hope not!  The reality is neither your driving nor your conversation will be anywhere near as good as it should be.  Be mindful!

In this modern technological age there are so many gadgets and "apps" around us that can interfere with mindfulness if we let them.  Alerts, instant messages, beeps on our phones to tell us someone has texted us.  Each of these will rob you of your mindfulness if you let them.  Don't let them!

How can you acquire mindfulness?

There are many techniques you can use, but the very first and easiest is simply to decide you want to be mindful!  Once you have made that decision you will become much more aware of being dragged into default mode.

As with most things, the more you practice this the easier it becomes.  It may not seem that way, as you will also become a lot more aware of the distractions trying to move you from mindfulness back to default mode, but that awareness is a good thing as it will help you develop the skill better.

Meditation is a very good way to improve mindfulness.  Especially, but certainly not exclusively, meditation techniques that focus on mindfulness.

Look for ways to increase your mindfulness.  Learn to stop and smell the roses.  Become more aware of when you are falling into default mode so you can control this.  By doing so you can increase your enjoyment of even the small pleasures of life, and you may even save your own life and/or the lives of others by being more mindful the next time you drive.

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