Mindfulness vs. Mindlessness
The room is a cool green, minty, or aquamarine, a colour which encourages the atmosphere of comfort and relaxation which, I believe, because I am told, is central to any mindfulness therapy. We are told to close our eyes and think about our bodies in relation to the chair, the floor, the ceiling, the window; anything really, except the other people in the room: those others (why are they here?) whose eyes dart about, who shift uneasily, who avoid eye contact.
We are asked to imagine that we are walking beside a river, to imagine the sound it makes and the effect that this has upon us.
O.K. A river...erm.. 'sparkles'.
No. That's what water looks like when the sun shines on it. We are supposed to be thinking about walking beside and listening to a cool, gently- flowing river...and nothing else. This is the essence of Mindfulness.
I surreptitiously glance at my phone and look for 'noises water makes'.
Google obliges. ' A brook or stream or river babbles or ripples or even burbles. 'Burbles'... The word 'burble' was first used in the 1300's, and it probably comes from an imitation of the sound a rippling, bubbling brook makes.'
I look up and catch a grimace (not a frown, just a glance of quickly-hidden disapproval) from our therapist, and I guiltily slip the phone back into my pocket and close my eyes...concentrate. On not concentrating on anything. Why didn't anyone tell me it's hard, really hard?
I have been sent here to write an article for a magazine about natural health. Apparently, mindfulness is the key to lowering stress levels, getting to know our pain, connecting better, improving our focus, and being kinder to ourselves. Mindfulness may lessen the emotional experience of pain....
If you find, as many of us do they say, that you are 'stuck' in a cycle of wanting things not to be as they appear to be, you can realize that now is the time for you to be kind to yourself, to love and accept yourself. However, acceptance does not mean that you have to be happy all the time, that you have to become a hedonist and abandon your principles. You need to be willing to see things as they truly are in the present. You need to be open to and accept whatever you are feeling, thinking or seeing. This is the way forward, towards healing, and growth.
I reach for my phone again (how am I going to get through this hour?) This time I type (in my pocket. Very proud of this skill...) 'How does mindfulness help?' The answer:
'With the correct application of mindfulness, specifically, the connections between the fear-responsive amygdala and rest of the brain weaken, while those between the emotionally-regulating prefrontal cortex and rest of the brain are strengthened......these changes suggest that mindfulness lessens reactive and fearful responses and enhances thoughtful appraisal of events.”
But...aren't “reactive and fearful responses” useful survival techniques? When a giant hyena, a cave bear or cave lion or even a giant, predatory kangaroo loomed, burbling and slathering, out of the prehistoric mists, wasn't it precisely these responses (namely fear, followed by running away) that ensured the survival of the species homo sapiens?
I drag myself back to the present. I do my best to be present. I'm perfectly willing to give it a try, if all I have to do is think about nothing but the noises a river makes when it burbles. However, I never dreamt it would be so difficult. Actually, I have never, to my knowledge, had any mental health issues. I'm just a little bit proud to state that I thrive under stress. Stress (such as that which is put upon a violin string) tones the mind, instead of letting it get flabby through under-use. I don't really get the part where you are supposed to think of nothing. When a thought comes into your head, you are supposed to accept it courteously, then let it go. One wonders...Why?
'Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we are doing. Apparently, the ability to be 'mindful' is something we all naturally possess: we just have to tap into it, suspend judgment, approaching our experience (of nothing?) with warmth and kindness to ourselves and others.
'To be fully mindful, we need to learn how to disregard what is going on around us. You are being mindful when you bring awareness only to what you are directly experiencing through your senses, here and now.'
Plucking up all my courage, when we are invited to share our first experiences of the practice of mindfulness, I venture a question:
“Erm, excuse me … but is it not a little... er, mind-numbing? And, I might add, impossible? I can't think of 'nothing'. Nature abhors a vacuum.”
Our mentor fixes me with a crinkly-eyed and disciplined smile, and responds with the tiniest hint of condescension (or is that the impression just 'me', I ask,.. a trick of the mind?)
“Might I say that our next session will lead us towards the power of meditation
Meditation is a close relation of, or, might I say, a descendant of mindfulness. It is exploration. It is not a fixed destination. Your head doesn’t become vacuumed free of thought, totally undistracted. It becomes a special place where every moment is momentous, every consequence has consequences, every event is eventful. When we meditate, we venture into the workings of our minds: our emotions, our sensations, our thoughts. For example, we take time to pause and breathe when the phone rings instead of answering it.
Today, we have taken the first steps towards this freedom from the oppression of the apparently urgent...”
I suddenly feel ashamed and convinced of the sincerity of our crinkly-eyed mentor. He is genuinely helpful to many of those who hide their sadness in our complicated and perplexing world. I thank him, and, clutching my phone, I gratefully plunge out of the room, the silent room, into the vibrant world of bustling, noisy, multicultural and cosmopolitan London: resilient, aggressive, kindly: a world of museums, rivers and bridges, boats, birds, concerts, cakes and ice-cream.
I decide to experience, directly, through my senses, here and now, all that is on offer.