The essence of mindfulness is to shine as much awareness onto each moment as possible, and to notice the stimuli in our immediate surroundings. This beholding of the present moment, cupped precariously in our hands like water from a spring, is the closest we’ll ever come to slowing down time.
Truly mindful moments are fleeting and ephemeral, and that’s OK. I believe it is impossible to remain fully present all the time. Our wandering, inquisitive and worrying minds are what make us human. Our brains are a beautiful anomaly that have allowed our species to thrive.
Moments of stillness are equally beautiful, because they remove the lens cap that is our ambition and analytical energy so we can see nature’s beauty and wonder, if even for a brief moment.
Simple yet splendid treasures
I’m not just talking about the kind of beauty you see in national parks or in National Geographic, I’m talking about the beauty of your house cat intently surveying the rain-washed street securely from his windowsill. I’m talking about the new leaf that has recently sprung from your houseplant, or the animated laughter of a loved one emanating from the next room. These are the simple yet splendid treasures—abundant in ordinary life—that mindfulness unlocks for us.
No matter how intermittent these moments may be, we should not falter in our steadfast effort to observe them mindfully. The effort required to pull ourselves back into the present moment is a noble one, without winners or losers. It should not be an endeavour that warrants frustration at any time, but instead, one that garners experience, insight and health.
Mindfulness practice is exactly that—a practice. It begins with the breath. I’m sure you’ve heard that before, but it’s worth reiterating and emphasizing that the breath is everyone’s entry point into mindfulness for two reasons. First, it is always there for us to access. Secondly, it signifies life and health, and it has the power to calm us.
Though the breath is the undeniable cornerstone of mindfulness practice, I believe that we can also use our deductive brains to promote awareness of the present moment.
The intentional gardener
One way of encouraging something to grow is to extinguish that which stunts its growth or kills it. Think about the gardener who, each day, pulls weeds tirelessly from her flowerbeds to prevent the weeds from snuffing out the sun and sucking up the nutrients, to the detriment of her flowers.
This methodical act of pulling and discarding the invasive weeds is routine for the gardener. It’s often the first thing she does in the morning. She does not become angry or weary at the sight of new weeds each day, because it is perfectly natural that new ones pop up reliably. It is also natural that she wishes for her flowers to flourish, and thus favours their well-being over that of the weeds.
In our garden of mindfulness, one such weed is distraction. These days, distraction is prevalent and supercharged by algorithms fuelled by our data, constant connectivity and push notifications. So how can we prevent the proliferation of distraction in our garden of mindfulness?
This is not an article about turning off push notifications, nor about abstaining from email until noon (although those are good practices). This is about taking the time and effort to understand what’s distracting you. What’s pulling you towards tension and unrest? What’s causing you to rush or become angry?
Observe your distractions with a mindful presence and get to know them. Don’t demonize them, or worse yet, resign yourself to unspecific statements like, ‘I need to stop doing that.’ It’s likely that they are less nefarious than they are misunderstood.
Spotting the weeds
What’s causing you to rush or worry? Well, it’s likely your ambition to produce good work. What’s pulling you towards tension? Well, it’s just the needle on the gauge tipping slowly towards the red line of challenge, which is not entirely bad, because we know that in moderation, challenge is a powerful catalyst for growth.
These distracting emotions are only harmful if we leave them in the dark. We need to bring mindful awareness to our stress just as much as we need to bring mindfulness to our breath or to a budding flower. Imagine if our gardener didn’t know how to spot the weeds in her garden!
Wanting to be accepted, the fear of judgement, tight deadlines, conflict with a loved one; these are, arguably, greater distractions from enjoying nature’s beauty than a push notification telling you about the latest sale. Yet, when we observe these things non-judgmentally, when we shed some light onto them, we see that they are actually important.
The desire to be accepted by others is one that evolved with us as social creatures. When the desire to be accepted manifests itself as anxiety, it has simply become imbalanced. When balanced, this same need for acceptance guides our good behaviour in society and promotes generosity and kindness.
We are anxious about deadlines because they are too tight or too near, but the underlying cause is that we care about the work we’re doing. If we were indifferent to our work, we would never produce anything of value. There are usually valuable intentions buried underneath our internal distractions, and much like the gardener’s weeds, they will always return.
We must simply strive to maintain balance in our gardens, to ensure that our flowers have the space they need. This effort consists not of resisting distractions or trying to eliminate them entirely, but instead, examining them to learn their origin, their importance and when rebalancing is needed.
My practical advice is that when you feel distracted from seeing the ordinary beauty of life around you, take 20 minutes to explore the reasons behind the distraction. You can do this in sitting meditation or with a pen and paper.
First, identify what is causing the distraction. Then, dig deeper to understand the other side of the coin. If you’re having a conflict with a loved one, it’s fundamentally because you care about that person, and that’s better than not caring at all. Finally (and crucially), you can explore strategies to reduce, mitigate or rebalance the distraction, but don’t aim to eliminate it forever. Trying to eliminate distractions (and the emotions they cause) is like pushing against an immovable object—it will only fatigue you.
Instead, learn to co-exist with or even befriend distractions that are pulling you away from mindfulness, as they are interconnected to all other experiences in life.
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