While we might overthink the concept of mindfulness, the path to achieving it might not be so different from the one we walk every day.
As a psychologist, every now and then I get to ask something of a client that I know will cause them white-knuckled frustration. It is one of the perks of the job. Comedic sadism aside, the reason I enjoy this moment is because I am wading into the most challenging part of my job. To have built trust to a point where I can ask someone to confront the most solid of their psychological obstructions. I might smirk to lighten the mood, but at this point, I could see it being interpreted as acute schadenfreude.
A great example of this moment is dealing with work-related stress and the increasingly red-faced reports of being surrounded by incompetence. You know the colleague I’m talking about: that person who snaps at seemingly benign obstacles or requests. That person for whom you’d like engineer a transfer to the Ulaanbaatar office, tout de suite, to make disappear because there just seems no way of getting through to them.
One particular homework task I ask these clients is to help them confront the uncontrollable. Sometimes, I’ll get them to walk behind the most meandering tourists in the QVB without looking like a creeper. On other occasions, it will be to follow one of the more cautious drivers on their commute home and remain at five miles per hour under the speed limit. At a recent presentation, this example drew out a visceral groan from the audience. It was a corporate crowd, busy people. The point of this exercise is based on the idea that we generalize our sense of urgency to so many parts of our lives that we lose those moments where we can slow down and give our minds a break. I could go on about the research that supports the benefits of mindfulness, but I’m sure you’ve all been swamped by that coloring-in book trend that helps yoga practitioners maintain zen smugness.
Mindfulness is the practice of bringing your attention to your immediate environment and becoming very simply observant; colors of the trees, breeze on your face, that kind of thing.
If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then surely this applies to the act of thinking itself.
The other thing that my homework task brings to the table is re-framing. If you choose to go slow, all of a sudden you’ll find your brain looking for reasons to justify this new behavior. You’ll check in with the irrationality of your anger, you’ll fall into the perspective of the poor tourist that is lost in a new city and is walking in zig zags. Your mind will try and help you become more emotionally comfortable with this new behavior purely because you’ve given yourself no choice. Once these new justifications have calmed the nerves and shifted your perspective, then new ways of thinking can generalize to other obstacles that are outside of your control.
The gorgeously written Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit provides a number of quotes to promote the idea of mindfulness and slowing down, particularly in regards to the “stroll without destination.” The most appropriate quote for this piece being: “strikes a delicate balance between working and idling, being and doing. It is a bodily labor that produces nothing but thoughts, experiences, arrivals.” The book describes the history of great thinkers and doers who have relied on walking to access their capacity for greatness. On a smaller scale, if you find you cannot come to an answer that you’ve been struggling for at work, get up and go for a walk around the block. Let your mind relax its grip and it might give you a chance to turn the problem over and look at it from a different perspective. This kind of mindfulness practice has been proven to achieve a greater creativity in problem solving.
If the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then surely this applies to the act of thinking itself. Give your feet some of your attention, let the movement of your body break up the weight of your thought. There are many cognitive processes that occur outside of your conscious attention. You have filed at the back of your mind thousands upon thousands of rules that are reliable shortcuts to navigating your world. If you like, call it intuition.
Distract the most complex, conscious attempts to decode your problems and you might unlock some of the simpler, but more powerful, answers that you have forgotten.