Have you ever been driving somewhere, along a route you’ve travelled a hundred times before, and suddenly you realize you’ve been driving on autopilot and have no recollection of the last few minutes? Or maybe you’re munching on popcorn while watching a movie, and suddenly look down to find you’ve eaten the entire bag without realizing it? Or been in the middle of a conversation while browsing the internet and realize that your conversational partner is waiting for the answer to a question you hadn’t even realized they’d asked?
It can be really difficult to fully focus on what we’re doing, especially if we’ve performed that task, like driving home from work, eating popcorn, or engaging in casual chit-chat, countless times before. While we’re driving, we might be reflecting on our day, planning out what to do later on that night or over the weekend, thinking about friends or family, or any number of other things going on in our lives. Riveted by the movie we’re watching, we’ve shoved handfuls of popcorn into our mouths without taking the time to enjoy the snack. While talking with a friend, something might catch our eye on our phone, and we decide, perhaps unconsciously, that it is more interesting that the conversation we’re having. These slips in attention happen to everyone, and we often accept this as part of living in the 21st century, where we constantly have an abundance of stress to deal with, information to process, media to consume.
However, we have a finite capacity for mental processing available to us. When we multi-task, we inevitably invest focus towards one task at the cost of focusing on another. This is where our autopilot clicks into gear, and we perform our daily tasks by rote memorization and muscle memory while directing our attention elsewhere, to things we deem as more important. While this may seem a means to increase our performance and productivity and to squeeze as much enjoyment into our day as possible, it becomes counterproductive, because we are not allowing ourselves to become immersed in, or fully experience, what we are doing. Furthermore, when we try and focus on too many things, or tackle too many goals at once, we develop stress, tension, and anxiety, and put ourselves at risk of becoming overwhelmed or burnt out.
Enter Mindfulness. Based in Eastern meditation philosophies, mindfulness has garnered considerable attention worldwide as an effective practice for relaxation and stress management. Additionally, research has shown mindfulness meditation to be significantly effective in managing pain, treating insomnia, helping with weight loss, regulating emotion, improving memory, and treating addiction, among a host of other uses. It has even been associated with neurological and functional changes in the brain.
The premise is simple: Mindfulness requires us to maintain a focused, non-judgmental awareness of our present circumstances and activity. Let’s break that down. In order to maintain focus on what we are doing or experiencing, we have to allow ourselves to become immersed in it, without trying to direct our focus to other matters. This allows us to experience things in a more complex, complete way. Thinking back to this morning, can you remember the texture of the soap or body wash you used in the shower? The temperature and pressure of the water? The scent of steam in the air? The coarseness or softness of the towel you dried off with? Chances are, you were focusing on other things, not allowing yourself to fully focus on the task of taking a shower, and therefore you didn’t notice the subtle details of this everyday routine, or fully gain the benefits of the action.
Next we have to incorporate the non-judgmental component. Every moment of every day, we make judgments and assessments, which allow us to make decisions; it has long been a means of survival, an evolutionary mechanism. We might judge a situation to feel unsafe, a sensation to be unpleasant, a lecture to be boring, the sounds of distant construction to be irritating. When we make these judgments, they inform our opinions, and therefore colour our experience. However, what was once a means of survival (i.e. sabre-toothed tigers are dangerous, we should avoid them) has become an automatic thought process that leads to stress and anxiety (i.e. my back hurts, it is unbearable, I can’t focus on anything else, this is extremely frustrating, I am so stressed). With mindfulness, the idea is to not let ourselves become affected by these judgments, but to experience what we are feeling in calm, accepting way. By practicing this non-judgmental focus, we can notice things about ourselves and our environment without immediately labelling them as bad or negative, and therefore we do not give the sensations or feelings as much power to negatively affect us. What is happening is not necessarily bad or good, it is simply happening, and we are allowing ourselves to experience it.
Try this as a mindful activity: the next time you have a snack, whether it consists of grapes, a cookie, toast, a granola bar, whatever you decide to munch on, take a few minutes to immerse yourself in the experience as if you’ve never had that food before. Try to notice something about the snack that you have never paid attention to or noticed before, such as the texture, the firmness, the different tastes, the feeling of it in your mouth. You might be surprised by the wealth of information you can gather about something as simple as a grape, just from allowing yourself to experience the simple action of eating. Just think, what else might we be missing in our present while we’re busy focusing on other things?