It is now common to associate mindfulness with meditation, but mindfulness can be something very different. I will give you a hint: this is something very common in human history, that we lost not long ago. Today I invite you to visit here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Alternative definitions of mindfulness
Here are some definitions of mindfulness from one of our references.
Mindfulness is letting go of taking things for granted.
Mindfulness means to return to the present moment.
Mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
As children, we used to have no past and no future. The present moment was full of colors and wonder. We accepted our destiny with joy and curiosity. Maybe this is just a stereotype, but I actually know many people whose childhood was exactly this way.
How we lost naivety
I do not remember many discussions about mindfulness in the past. People used to talk about wisdom, small pleasures of life, meditation, acceptance of the god’s will. Is that simply a different terminology, or entirely new phenomenon? I do not know.
Lives use to be not very long, and not very predictable. Many people died from trivial things. A thorn of a rose could get into one’s blood a deadly infection. Childbirth was very dangerous. Few people knew the history. Predicting the future was nearly impossible. There were so many phenomena’s without a scientific or reasonable explanation that accepting the god and the divine will was the easiest and most logical solution. People were bored beyond our imagination, with very few things capable of stealing their attention. Alcohol and a board game, maybe with some interesting conversation, was one of the most entertaining ways to spend an evening for the educated elites. Less-educated entertained themselves with whores and fistfights. It was exciting and usually led to sexual disease and injuries.
Compare this with our current lives. We die in very old age, bombarded by information, constantly reliving the past and worrying about the future.
It is surprisingly hard, at least for me, to accept the reality even if I know I cannot do anything about it. In ancient times people used to argue with gods, pray, bargain and eventually accept their destinies.
We do not have the luxury of believing in the wisdom of the god’s plan. Not with all the knowledge we have. The religious people now believe that god’s plan is above our understanding. Atheists do not believe that there is a plan. Accepting luck in the form of a meaningless chance, e.g. random realization of some probability function, is often beyond our capacity. Usually, we do not accept things because they are full of meaning. We simply accept that there is nothing we can do to change certain things. This is not empowering.
We can choose the feelings with which we face our reality. Here mindfulness comes handy.
Mindfulness as a distraction
A child, when faced with bad news, will usually cry, try to process them, and eventually get distracted by something else. Then he will come back to the subject and process it a bit more, until distracted again. Eventually the child will accept the reality.
In mindfulness, we use a similar process. Every now and then we focus on our bodies, our breath, nature or the room were we sit, the things that we do right now. Eventually, we accept.
I used to meditate twice a day, but now I hardly have time for it. Instead, I ride horses once a week, swim or dance twice a week, and focus on simple pleasures of life every time I take a short break. I try to be totally focused on the cup of coffee I drink, or the person I have a short discussion with or an article I read.
Yesterday I had a bad day at work. Nothing worked as it should. I did not want to accept it. Then I had an hour riding a horse. At the beginning the horse was minding his business just as I was minding mine. After several turns and sidepasses, the problems at work did not matter anymore. I was fully with the horse and in the moment. When I came home, I fully accepted the day and was grateful for it.
One of the things I truly dislike is bad sleep. Since I am slightly overweight (understatement?), not always my breathing at night is easy. I used to sleep like a log, but now once in a while, I find myself awake in the middle of the night thinking what to do next.
To make things worse, when I wake up I am painfully aware that in my sleep I was obsessing about something that happened that day or is about to happen the next day. Each time this happens I am blaming myself: if I would process the issue in the evening before going to sleep, I would not be awake now. Today I woke up at 5:50 am instead of 7:15 am as planned, so I simply drank my coffee, watched the news and visualized the day to come. Then I continued with the day as planned.
Sleep is an automatic process. We live most of our lives on autopilot. Occasionally we wake up, smell the roses, and have no idea what to do next. Mindfulness is just that: we can focus on our breath or our body, maybe add a visualization, accept the life in all its glory, and return to the autopilot.
The aim is not to be mindful 24/7. That’s unrealistic. The point is to notice when you’re pulled into your past, or the future, or a swirl of other thoughts and emotions, and then to step back with some curiosity, and return to right where you are. When you do more of that, you will put yourself in greater contact with the sweetness of life and the rewards of doing things that you care about.
Face the real issues
One of the issues commonly associated with mindfulness is escapism from the real issues. To some extent this is true. We use mindfulness to focus and accept life in all its glory, then we may have no time left to actually process the issues.
Mindfulness is not supposed to provide us with tools to deal with our issues. It is supposed to give us some focus and energy when we decide to face our demons. CBT or NLP can offer an array of more powerful tools to deal with real issues. Guided visualization can be accompanied by sessions of mindfulness. We can even be mindful through a guided visualization. In any case, mindfulness treats only the superficial stuff, and for the real issues, we need to dig deeper and may often need some coaching.
I do not think mindfulness really helps with information overload. When our eyes are strained from reading, we can do some eye gymnastics, close the eyes or focus on something green or on infinity. The strain will disappear for a while. However, if we use a bad reading technique (for example, too many saccades), the eye strain will return. Eventually, we will need a very long rest.
In the same way, when we focus on here and now, we stop the flow of information only for a short while. To declutter we need a very different sort of tools: chunk the information processing, prioritize certain channels, become more proficient handling the information. Simply writing down the important stuff instead of keeping everything in the memory reduces the strain: we need to remember only what is relevant now. Reducing multitasking also reduces stress levels. In my speedreading masterclass I talk a lot about correct productivity and the relevant decluttering techniques. Otherwise, the amount of stress may increase uncontrollably, and mindfulness will only delay the breakdown. This might be not so bad if we can survive till the weekend and then truly rest. Hint: not with three children and a second career.
Acceptance on your way to a change
Accepting and giving up is a great opportunity to mobilize resources for other important tasks. Giving up might be perceived as a failure, but can also be interpreted as liberation. Mindfulness is yet another form of such liberation.
A different way to reallocate the liberated resources is attacking our issues with renewed energy. We cannot fight our problems unless we accept that we have these problems. To change the world, we must accept that something can be done, and it is our responsibility to act.
We can use acceptance and mindfulness not just as an engine of sel-regulation, but also as a driving force of a change. All you need is very simple: strategically use the short breaks you should take anyway.
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