Mindfulness is not a trend of the times, but is in fact essential: it is the seat of focus, and hence life success. Image courtesy of cussinigusso at freedigitalphotos.net
In our society, there are increasingly greater demands being placed on our attention than there may have been in the past. This may be attributable to a greater use of high-tech gadgets like text and facebook messages, and calls to mobiles. In the past there was a time when where these inventions simply did not exist.
Before the time of facebook for example, I remember university students had less choice about the fact that they were there to pay attention to the lecturer, because there did not exist a plethora of technologies and gadgets that were offering an alternative avenue for students’ attention instead.
Practically relevant are the repercussions of these devices, which while providing entertainment, and facilitating social networking, have some disadvantages. Some of these are quite serious. In the days before mobile phones were not the practically extra appendage to our physical selves, car accidents due to distractions in which the driver was lured by the stimulation or interest that the call or text message attracted, would have been less.
Students’ attentions spans putatively have become shorter. With the option of re-listening in your own leisure time to lectures being also recorded, why wouldn’t facebook be a comfortable and pleasant alternative, a harmless distraction?
Socially, we at one time maintained eye contact and quite probably gave the person with whom we were holding a conversation, greater attention. This indubitably is a social skill that sends the message “you are important” – I personally have felt quite hurt when another’s attention have deployed to incoming text messages while out for a coffee.
No doubt, facebook and email do provide us with a greater flexibility to send a message, hear another’s news or in the case of facebook, hold a virtual conversation. However, the absence of non-verbal cues co-occurring with face-to-face interactions, may also pose the risk that our technologies, which have facilitated communication in a way, are having a negative impact on our ability to pay attention – to what someone is telling us, as well as non-verbal cues that offer clues as to how they feel about that information. That our social skills would suffer is a logical repercussion.
Perhaps it is no co-incidence then, that there has been a seeming exponential rise in the interest in activities like mindfulness, and adult colouring-in books for example. We seem to have an intuitive understanding that not only is it pleasant and lowers anxiety, we need to slow down, or risk the repercussions of a frazzled mind, such as increase in car accidents, or suffering of our social interactions.
The practice of mindfulness, the deliberate focussing of attention to one stimuli such as the breath, or to a spot in front of us – for example, has been demonstrated to improve many faculties. Improvements in students’ attention at school, as well as feeling depressed and the decrease in behavioural problems like aggressiveness have been documented. (1)
Many parents and teachers, as well as ourselves may also recognise difficulty in disengaging from a task that is of little importance, such as facebooking during a lecture, and re-engaging in the required way. This has a negative influence on what is known as cognitive control, or our ability to switch between tasks when required. (2) From the frustrating inability of a parent to get their teenager to stop watching television and attend to homework, to the life-risking difficulty of disengaging from a text conversation while driving, this is obviously an important skill.
Fortunately, mindfulness practice also benefits us by, for example, observing our thoughts come and go, in a stream, without getting hooked into one thought, or of relevance to shifting focus when required, our competence with disengaging and reengaging attention on chosen stimuli.
Mindfulness has also been found to improve the ability of the brain to slow down, and actually register how and what we are feeling at a certain time (3) to an improvement in impulse control. This has the potential to be able to stop and say no to any reckless activity such as deciding to say no to that extra chocolate bar. The link is that when we are mindful of why we are feeling the craving, we can attend to the cause, instead of acting mindlessly and impulsively.
The ability to exercise this cognitive control has been studied and demonstrated to improve the ability to delay gratification, which obviously has benefits on a larger scale. We can see the importance of focussing on the task at hand, and not being distracted by what we are practiced at recognising, irrelevant stimuli, in a controlled way, due to the practice of mindfulness.
Mindfulness in a nutshell is so important a skill that can be improved with practice, because it allows us to focus purposefully, then to disengage consciously when required to then shift attention to a new direction. (4) It is self-evident that this mastering this ability is at the seat of goal achievement.
By becoming aware of the here and now, anxiety and depression may improve as we simply our self-ruminating less. We cannot be in the here and now, and in the past, thinking about something that made us sad, simultaneously. We cannot be in the here and now, and worrying at the same time. The two actions are mutually exclusive.
In summary, the ability to improve our capacity to be mindful of a chosen activity, at will, improves attention span, self-awareness, the ability to shift focus when necessary, while helping control the urge for instant gratification. We are also not as much the slave but more the master of unwanted emotional experiences as we are not as drawn to undesired internal emotional states.
In conclusion, a few mindfulness activities include
1. Becoming focussed solely on the breath. Inhale and Exhale with focus on the rise and fall of your stomach for 3 seconds each.
2. By engaging the senses in a purposeful, conscious way. For example, name 5 things you can see, describe them in detail. Next, concentrate on 5 different noises consecutively. What do you think they are? Notice 5 different sensory experiences for example, sweat on the skin, itch on the nose. This activity is particularly effective for practicing the ability to engage and disengage from different experiences.
3. Try one of the colouring in books that can be found in almost any good book shop at the moment. Still the mind, focus on the colouring experience.
Ten minutes per day, say, practicing one of the above activities, certainly seems not to ask much from us, but I personally can attest to the observation within myself of the putative benefits the practice of mindfulness brings.
Paradoxically, by slowing down, and becoming mindful not just as an exercise, but increasingly, such that we are practicing awareness in the here and now by default after a while, improves productivity, quality of work achieved as well as quantity. By removing the distractions that life throws at us, if we let them, we achieve greater success with less effort and less time! We then have more time for more mindless, albeit enjoyable distractions, such as facebook!
1. Linda Lantieri et al. “Building Inner Resilience in Students and Teachers” in Gretchen Reevy and Erica Frydenberg, eds, %% Personality, Stress and Coping: Implications for Education. (Charlotte, NC: Information Age, 2011), p 267-92.
2 Goleman, Daniel. Focus: the Hidden Seat of Excellence. Great Britain, 2013, p 189.
3 Goleman, Daniel. Focus: the Hidden Seat of Excellence. Great Britain, 2013, p 192.
4 Goleman, Daniel. Focus: the Hidden Seat of Excellence. Great Britain, 2013, p 197.