Archive for April, 2008

Mindfulness: Becoming aware of our thoughts

Whatever we do in life, our mind is commenting. Whoever we meet, our mind passes judgement. There is an incessant stream of thoughts that is forever swirling in our heads, and they set the tone for whatever we do. There is nothing wrong with having these thoughts, but we must be aware of their existence. Otherwise, we become caught up in them, and they take control.

Suppose we are lying in bed in an empty house. The thought occurs that an intruder may enter, or is perhaps already inside. We wonder if the neighbours would hear our screams for help, but decide they are too far away. Before we know it, we are completely petrified and unable to sleep. This is an example of unattended thoughts having dramatic and irrational influences on our emotional state. A similar mechanism can cause unjustified anger, irritation, or depression.

The discursive mind is wonderful at bringing in data and bombarding us with suggestions. Access to this information is useful only if our intellect can discriminate between thoughts that are helpful and thoughts that are not. This is where we must practise mindfulness. With mindfulness, we are aware of our thoughts, and able to discriminate. In its absence, we simply believe whatever comes in, and problems can arise.

Mindfulness is an awareness that we are thinking. It provides that extra distance that stops us from confusing ourselves with our thoughts. We do not block out our thoughts, but we gain the ability to choose which thoughts to pay attention to. If we cut our finger, instead of letting the pain completely fill our mind, we retain the awareness that it is just a sensation. We observe this sensation, but from a certain distance. We may even use the experience of pain to remind us to be mindful.

Of course, we must be careful not to overdo this. There is a difference between awareness of our thoughts and actually saying “I’m aware of my thoughts”. The latter is just another thought. Therefore, we must practise mindfulness not as another thought to think, but rather as a resolve to stay in the present moment – a resolve to be aware and to impartially observe.

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Awareness and curiosity

It is sometimes amazing how little we see. Think of a street you walk down daily: Can you recall what trees or flowers grow on this street? How about the colours or designs of the houses? For most of us, there are some details to which we pay attention, but others to which we are completely oblivious. For example, we may recall the make and model of every car parked on our street, but have no clue whether a front yard contains a garden gnome. Or perhaps we remember every bus-stop advertisement on the street, but cannot recall if the trees are blossoming. Of course, remembering these details is not necessarily important, but it is still useful to see whether we can. This provides insight into what goes through our heads as we walk down these streets. Are we absorbed in thought and oblivious to our surroundings? Do we filter most things out, perhaps only noticing the advertisements and sales in a store window? Or are we one of those rare people who takes curiosity in our surroundings, generally being aware of everything?

Consciously paying attention to what is around us is a wonderful exercise. It pulls us out of our heads for a moment and gives us a break from the stresses of the day. For those of us who spend our days processing papers or staring at computers, a walk down the street is a time to receive a much wider range of visual stimuli. Unfortunately many of us waste this opportunity by remaining stuck in our heads. Furthermore, for those of us who do look around, our eyes are often drawn naturally to text – such as signs and advertisements – and thus remain constricted to a narrow range of stimuli.

Hence, the practice of awareness is refreshing. Furthermore, it is interesting. We can spot things, even on our home street, that we never noticed before. Living this way puts us in a  constant state of discovery, adding a sense of wonder and enthusiasm to our lives.

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