I sat down to observe my mind just earlier. I closed my eyes focused on my breathing, and what I could hear, taste, feel. I was focusing my mind on what is real and happening now rather than in thought. My mind darts from one thought to another, planning, remembering, imagining, flying off of on random tangents. This is normal, I remind myself- such are the ways of the mind. Then I remember I'm doing this thing called mindfulness... and I inhale deeply and re-focus on my breathing. And there it goes again, my attention silently kidnapped by thought. I'm thinking about the stuff I'm not doing, what I could be doing, everything apart from what I am doing. Which is sitting, breathing and watching.
Gradually, as I keep on returning my focus to my breathing, my mind starts to settle. The gaps between my mind flying off into thought get longer. The time spent in awareness increases. Like training a puppy to sit, eventually my attention rests on the empty plain of consciousness... at least for a short time.
This is mindfulness training. It's a fascinating practice, partly because the content of our mind's can be shocking, amusing and random, but mainly because its so important. After all, life itself is experienced through our minds. Life does not get any better than our minds. Our mind is the limiting factor in whether our life is incredible or, not so much...
Mindfulness and Flow states
Mindfulness also sets the conditions for flow. Flow states occur when we are deeply immersed in an activity, when our focus is so laser sharp it feels like nothing exists beyond the activity in which we are immersed. Sometimes, say if we about to snowboard down a steep slope, or take off a jump, the risk inherent in the activity will be enough to snap our survival trained brains into sharp focus. But to experience more flow in your daily life the best thing you can do is learn to be aware and present. The stronger your ability to to present and focused, the more you will experience flow states.
Over time, this kind of mind training will do all sorts of good. By repetitively noticing our wandering mind and bringing it back to a point of focus, we are increasing our mental willpower. Increased willpower leads to honed focus, which leads to stronger concentration, which opens the door to many conscious and subconscious insights. You might find nirvana, samadhi or enlightenment, whatever that means to you. Or maybe, you'll just become a higher performing human being, with access to accelerated learning, enhanced memory, better emotional regulation... and way more flow.
So how do we do mindfulness?
Harvard professor Dan Gilbert has found that aimless thoughts occupy our minds 46.9% of the time. Mindfulness is simply about taking the reins of your mind so that percentage increases.
Mindfulness is about being aware of the space that is absent of thought. Trust me... it is there. Every time we are aware of smells, sounds, tastes, sensations in our body, our conversation, our heartbeat, our breathing- that is awareness. Ever been struck by a stunning sunset/man/lady/piece of art? Our awareness becomes momentarily captured by the beauty and we are rendered speechless and thoughtless. That was a moment of pure awareness. Mindfulness practice is about intentionally cultivating such states of pure awareness.
Unless you are a veteran Tibetan monk, or similar, your mind will always wander to a certain degree. This is the natural state of our minds. But its vital to note that the power of this practice is in the process of recognizing when the mind has wandered, and the process of bringing it back to focus. This repetition excercise tones up our muscle of attention.
A simple mindfulness practice
Here are a few simple steps for the very early days of your mind training practice. I recommend starting with very simple breath observation. Before you start, create a framework.
1. Think about why: The end goal of mind training may well lofty. It may well be to gain peace of mind, familiarity with your subconscious, enlightenment... or more flow. But at the beginning its simply about observing the mind so you can be familiar with how it operates, what repetitive thought patterns you have, and gaining concentration so you can focus for extended periods of time. Before you improve anything you have to understand it, and just like training your muscles its all about starting small. So the goals are: Observation and practicing attention.
2. Create a habit: Decide when, where and how you will do your practice. I like sitting on the floor, crosslegged with a cushion under my butt, in the morning and before bed. Decide how long and set a timer. Start with 5-10 minutes and build up.
3. Stick with a routine in your practice: The more variables you remove the less choices have to be made. The more routine you have, the more chance you have to really observe and focus your mind.
Try this for a simple routine for 10-15 minutes:
- Sit down, spine straight, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths. Remind yourself that this is valuable time well spent- its the most important thing you can be doing right now. Take a minute to observe what all your senses are sensing. What can you smell, hear, see (yes the inside of your eyelids), taste, touch. Take your time to really hone in on what you are sensing. Feel your body and take note of any sensations.
- Focus your mind on your breath. If you want to pinpoint your focus, do so on the very spot on your nostrils/lips where the oxygen enters your body. Breathe freely. Keep going, breathing, regular and deep. Each time your mind wanders off, take note of where it has gone (what you are thinking about) and then without judgement steer it back to the regularity and sensations of your breathing.
- If you want to go for another few minutes, keep your mind on your breath, and move your attention to your stomach. You are probably breathing deeply from the belly by now, so put your awareness on the gentle rise and fall of the stomach. Nothing more than watching how your breath moves your body. Breath in- belly goes out. Breath out- belly goes in. Rest your awareness on this rise and fall.
- As you focus on the breath, you will notice that other perceptions and sensations appear. You hear sounds, you feel pins and needles, you feel emotions. Simply notice these phenomena as they emerge in your awareness, and then return to the sensations of breathing.
- Each time your mind gets lost in thought, take note where it has wondered to and gently bring it back to the sensations of your breathing.
- Continue and repeat until you are the mere witness to all objects of consciousness- smells, sights, feelings, sounds, thoughts- as they rise then fall away.
- Record and reflect: Once your timer has gone off, or you decide to finish, give yourself a mental high 5. There is no bad practice. There is only practice. Keep a journal so you can make notes on the repititive patterns of thought you have. Tracking your progress is an effective way to improve anything.
Over time, if you do this every day with your full attention and increase the time gradually, you will notice a dramatic change in your ability to focus on the present moment, to rest your mind in pure awareness, and to concentrate on your tasks. This is a far more powerful way to live than constantly having your mind pulled into the land of random chaotic thoughts. As your focus strenghens, so will your ability to live a more flowing life.