What has Wire got to do with Mindfulness, you may well be asking?
As I have mentioned in the ‘About’ section of this website I have an affinity with the ‘Kiwi Number 8 wire philosophy’.
Wikipedia describes the Number 8 Wire philosophy as “the ability to create or repair machinery using whatever scrap materials are available to hand”. As a ‘kiwi’ (New Zealander), brought up on a farm I was very familiar with Number 8 wire, which is the strong wire used to make farm fences.
And growing up in South Taranaki, I was also familiar with the ‘Taranaki Gate’ – a short separate section of wire fence, hinged to the main fence with – you guessed it – more No. 8 wire. You could say that the Taranaki Gate was the epitome of the ‘Number 8 wire philosophy’ (http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/18612/taranaki-gate).
As an approach to personal development, my ‘number 8 wire’ philosophy is about being very pragmatic and one of the things I love about Mindfulness is that a key question, with regard to what we are doing with our minds is ‘is it helpful’. My ‘take’ on the ‘number 8 wire’ philosophy is that solutions need to be practical, workable, and economical and Mindfulness offers many ‘everyday tools’ that we can work in with our everyday lives to become happier, less stressed and more satisfied with the lives we are living.
So from that practical, workable and economical perspective, and as best as I can do, in ‘everyday language’ here is my attempt to give a brief introduction to Mindfulness. Of course a rich and many-faceted approach such as Mindfulness cannot truly be represented by a few bullet-points. But hopefully this will give you enough of a glimpse to interest you in looking into it further and learning more.
What is Mindfulness?
Being Aware and ‘Just Noticing’
Mindfulness is about being aware. Yep. That simple – but simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. Being aware of the world around us, the small aspects of our everyday lives (our external world) and being aware of our thoughts, feelings, urges, mental images, sensations (our mental events or inner world). And when we learn to be aware in that way, it means we spend less time being ‘unaware’ i.e. away with the fairies or on auto-pilot.
Mindfulness is about ‘just noticing’. As above – this is simple, but often not easy. Often when we think we are ‘just noticing’ what is going on around us, we are actually interpreting, judging, having expectations, analyzing etc. ‘Just’ noticing is a lot harder than it sounds. But when we develop the ability to do less interpreting, judging and expecting our lives begin to flow more easily. Of course there are times when interpreting, analysing etc are quite appropriate and helpful, but we tend to have that switch turned on all the time, whether it is helpful or not. With Mindfulness we develop an awareness of when to turn that switch on, and we get better at not having this as our main operating system.
Training Your ‘Attention Muscle’
Mindfulness is about ‘training your attention muscle’. Just as you would go to the gym to develop your physical muscles you can do Mindfulness exercises to develop your attention muscle.
Our minds are not great at maintaining attention on what we want to be paying attention to – our minds are ‘scatterbrains’, easily distracted. A strong ‘attention muscle’ enables us to put our attention where we want it to be, and more effectively keep it therenotice more quickly when our attention has wandered (rather than that very common experience of having wandered off in your mind, and when you realise you have been ‘lost in thought’ for ages, suddenly reaslising that you have just wasted a lot of time).
to get better at redirecting our attention back to where we want it to be, once we realise our minds have drifted off.
There are two main aspects to ‘training our attention muscle’. We can put time aside to deliberately practice this skill through doing Mindfulness Meditation. Even as little as 10 minutes meditation practice a day can make a significant difference to how effectively people handle stress. The other way of ‘training our attention muscle’ is to apply some of the principles of mindfulness in everyday life. This is a very practical and effective way to improve your satisfaction with your life and improve your relationships.
Mindfulness helps us to improve our ability to ‘zoom in’ – focus and concentrate, and to ‘zoom out’ – to see the big picture and get perspective on situations. You could look at this as being similar to keeping your camera well maintained so it can zoom in or zoom out depending on the photograph you want to take at any given time. ‘Zooming in’ is important when we need to concentrate on a task and avoid distractions, and ‘zooming out’ helps us to have perspective. ‘Zooming out’ is particularly important in situations where we feel stressed or upset – often we have become caught in a narrow and limiting perspective – in which case it is useful to be able to step back to a ‘zoomed out’ perspective.
Being In The Present Moment
Mindfulness is about ‘being in the present moment’. By being able to direct our attention more effectively we can stay fully involved in the present moment, as opposed to drifting off into our heads and into the future or the past, making interpretations, judgments, predictions, thinking about what we want to say next, worrying about the future, worrying about what people think of us, or dwelling on past mistakes, grievances or losses. Instead, when we are Mindful we simply fully experience what is happening, in the moment, as it happens. Why would we want to do this? Because it is more enjoyable, because we build better relationships when we relate to people in this way, because it is more real (whatever we do in our heads is essentially just some form of fantasy). And most of all, because the only ‘place’ we can improve the quality of our present or future lives is through our actions in the present moment. What we do when we are ‘lost in space’ – inside our heads in the past or the future, does not add to the quality of our lives.
Mindfulness is about being non-judgmental. Why would we want to be less judgmental? Because judging causes unpleasant and unhelpful feelings I us, such as envy, jealousy, anger, frustration, irritation. Comparisons are also a form of judgment, and we frequently use comparisons in ways that are unhelpful to ourselves, for example ‘‘I am not as good at this as he/she is” or “My life is not going as well as it ‘should’”. Comparisons and judgment can lead to despair, misery and depression. That doesn’t mean that we aim to be so chilled and mellow that ‘anything goes’ –– like “Sure, it’s fine that my friend is cheating on her partner” or ‘‘Well I guess a bit of dishonesty is O.K.”. No, it is important to be clear about your values and what is important to you, and to live your life according to your values. And it is OK to have preferences, and it is normal to feel disappointed or unhappy or upset when some-one treats us in a way that we would prefer they didn’t. But judging ourselves, others or our situation as bad or wrong is not helpful. This can be a tricky idea to get your head around – I will blog more on this at some future time. But the take-home message here is that the more judgment we engage in, the less we are likely to be enjoying our lives.
In summary Scott Spradlin, in his book ‘Don’t Let Emotions Rule Your Life’ describes mindfulness in this way: – “Mindfulness is becoming more aware; becoming more intentional; becoming more articipatory in your own life and experiences; becoming more present and alive in each moment you live”. This description gives a good sense of why people are becoming so interested in mindfulness. It has a lot to offer.
As adopted by Western Psychology mindfulness is a series of mental strategies and practices. These ideas were drawn from Buddhist Psychology. Buddhist psychology sought to understand what causes suffering in order that people could be free from suffering. Western Psychology, particularly Positive Psychology also seeks to alleviate suffering.
Mindfulness is more interested in ‘what works’ or what is helpful, than ideas about good or bad, right or wrong – so it gives us some really practical strategies for managing life’s challenges – and hence it very much fits with my ‘No. 8 wire’’ philosophy.
A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear from you)
I’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences: Please add your comment/s below.
It is impossible to sum up what mindfulness is in one short article (or even one very long book). So please forgive me for the many important omissions. If you are already practise mindfulness, what aspects of it are most important to you? What are some of the things that I have missed mentioning that you would have included? Have you got a way of describing it that others might find helpful – if so, please share.
Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.