During my final year of university, every Monday morning at 8:30, you could find me meditating amongst 20 peers and an unconventionally laid-back German professor. To be clear, I am not by any means a morning person. As a self-diagnosed insomniac, my only motive at that hour was to get away with stealing a nap under the guise of meditation. However, the premise of the course instantly captured my attention and interest. Later, the intangible transformations I noticed within myself managed to hold and heighten my curiosity.
Words have limited utility when understanding mindfulness. It can be roughly defined as the awareness that comes to mind when paying attention to the present moment – but this in itself doesn’t encompass the breadth of the mindful experience. One of my favourite metaphors to describe the mindful mindset is the following:
Imagine yourself alone in an empty room. No furniture, no windows, no technology. Just you. You’re deep in thought and enjoying your own company. Perhaps you’re meditating, or imagining a brilliant idea, or visualising a beautiful space, or just allowing your thoughts to lead you down unexplored pathways.
And then suddenly… your attention is drawn to a distinctive buzzing sound. A fly appears to have emerged out of thin air and now you’ve lost your train of thought. How dare this fly disrupt your creative space! You instantly decide that this persistent buzz needs to be destroyed. How else will you regain your state of peace?
You soon discover an unexpected issue: every time you successfully swat the fly, two more take its place. Eventually you’re surrounded by fly chaos – an orchestra of buzzing – without escape. You’ve spent all of your time and energy opposing the fly, and now you’re exhausted.
Maybe you shouldn’t have opposed the original fly, you think to yourself, but that infuriating buzzing surely would have driven you mad.
So really, what other option did you have?
Most of us operate in a reactive state, processing information on ‘auto-pilot’. When a fly enters your personal space, the automatic reaction is to judge it as an annoyance. This stems from an embedded belief that the fly should not be present – it should be resisted. Yet as Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, asserted, “what you resist not only persists, but will grow in size”.
The same goes for distracting or distressing thoughts. Humans are genetically primed towards a negativity bias, meaning that unhelpful ways of thinking are easier to engage in. Through attempting to resist or eliminate negatively judged events, these events are more likely to leave lasting impacts on the human brain. This notion is exemplified through interpersonal relationships, where an estimated five warm and positive interactions are needed to counteract just one loss of trust interaction.
Mindfulness aims to change this conceptual mode of processing from automatic to intentional. Rather than eliminating negative emotions or stressors, the mindful perspective changes your relationship to them, allowing us to non-judgmentally accept their presence. In other words, worrying about, trying to eliminate, or distracting yourself from the fly aren’t your only options. Instead, by expanding your awareness to permit acceptance of the fly, adaptive growth and transformation can arise.
So, how can we embrace the mindful mindset? How can we begin to welcome the unwelcome distractions we experience on a daily basis?
The good news is, you don’t have to commit to three hours of meditation and reflection every Monday morning. You do, however, need a certain level of commitment in order to notice significant transformations in the way you think and react. Short daily practices have shown to have lasting impacts on mood and attentional control at both the behavioural and neuronal level. This mindfulness practice encompasses the classic breathing and body-scan meditations, but can also include mindfulness of routine activities (such as eating, walking, or running), or mindful movement (i.e. yoga).
I noticed the impact of mindfulness on my stress levels almost immediately. After class on Mindful Mondays, I was uncharacteristically alert and energised, and felt a general spike in mood. This translated to amplified focus and productivity throughout the day.
Picking up on these intangible transformations motivated me to practice independently. I began using that mindfulness app I had downloaded ages ago but never felt the need to open. When lying in bed restlessly, thoughts and plans encircling my mental arena, Headspace’s sleep meditation became my go-to fix.
From my perspective, one of the few things we have control over in life is how we react to things outside of our control. This is the core of what mindfulness taught me. But I’m still not a morning person.
Learn more about how mindfulness can engender individual and organisational transformation by contacting: Hannah@hotspotsmovement.com