A sneak peek into the daily life of one of the nineteenth century’s greatest thinkers, offers us an insight into the pitfalls of living an automatic life. William James – the founder of modern psychology – was a man of strict routine. By making aspects of his daily life automatic he freed his mind to focus on more interesting things. But sometimes these automated procedures became confused. For example, one evening, James was getting ready for a dinner party. As was his custom, he undressed, folded his clothes neatly in his wardrobe, and had a warm bath. Once getting out of the bath, James forgot to get dressed, and instead, climbed into bed and preceded to sleep through the dinner party. James’ automatic life had enticed him so far from the present that he was unaware which moment he was in.
In the light of the morning, James was acutely aware of his blunder. He realised that two of his automated routines – getting ready for a dinner party and getting ready for bed – had become cross-wired. He had become so good at automatically following his routines that he forgot which routine he was following; he had mindlessly carried out his routine. Whilst James’ example may seem extreme, many of us are living much of our lives on autopilot: We find we’ve driven towards our work, when it’s the weekend; we eat a whole packet of chips when we only meant to have a handful; we burn ourselves on the saucepan lid we knew was hot. In the automatic life we act first then think. It is possible though to short circuit the automatic life through mindfulness practice, the art of being present.
While mindfulness is not a new concept, we are rediscovering its importance is in this age of the cult of productivity. John Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally.” The root of our frustration and daily anxiety, Kabat-Zinn explains, is our tendency to negatively dwell about the past or anticipate the future. Fully inhabiting the present and cultivating awareness brings us closer to happiness.
Aside from functioning on autopilot, or being carried away by negative thoughts about the past or future, multitasking can also be a problem. Our brains simply are not built to do multiple things at once. Not only do we perform worse overall, but our memory decreases and our general wellbeing suffers. Every time we add an additional demand on our limited attention resources – checking our email while eating breakfast, listening to music while walking, following five social media streams at once – our attention and engagement becomes dispersed and diluted. Attention is like a muscle that can get strained, but it can also become strengthened through training and purposeful repeat use.
Mindfulness does not need to be approached as a productive practice of self-improvement; this would be paradoxical as it would involve working towards a future goal, rather than accepting the present moment exactly as it is. Rather, mindfulness is about cultivating an active presence within everyday life. This means extending mindful awareness to our daily activities such as brushing our teeth, taking a shower, eating breakfast, drinking coffee or walking. To live mindfully is to shift from measuring our days by productivity, towards experiencing them by degrees of presence. The best way to cultivate everyday mindfulness is through practical strategies - things we can do everyday to be calm, centred and attentive to the present moment.
Here are 5 useful strategies for practicing everyday mindfulness:
Connect With Your Senses
Connecting with your senses anchors you to the present moment. Consider a routine daily activity such as washing the dishes: smell the soap in the air, feel the warm water on your hands, hear the water dripping in the sink.
Imagine biting into a piece of watermelon for the first time. What would you notice? Maybe the unusual texture, the sweet flavour, the juice of the fruit trickling down your chin. Imagine we approached all of our eating as though we were tasting the food for the first time. Mindful eating is eating with attention and intention, and makes it harder to eat too much, too quickly. The sourness of a lemon, the crunch of a pizza crust, the sweetness of a mango - paying attention to the texture and flavour of your food is a good first step towards mindful eating.
Walking may be one of the most habituated actions we perform and so it requires very little effort or awareness. Mindful walking is the perfect antitheses to a busy life. You probably walk a lot throughout the day anyway, so all you’re doing is directing the mind in a different way as you continue to do what you’ve always done. As you walk, notice how the body feels. Is it heavy or light, stiff or relaxed? Without changing how you walk, observe how it feels. Next, tune in to your senses. What can you hear around you? What do you feel? Is it sunshine or a cool breeze? Use the rhythm of walking, the physical sensation of the soles of the feet touching the ground as your base of awareness, a place to return to if the mind wonders off.
So often when listening to someone speak we are distracted by our intent to reply, or we disengage because we are tuned in to our own thoughts and internal dialogue. Instead, listen to their words, their tone, their body language, and how what they are saying is making you feel.
Tune in to Your Breath
Most of us don’t think about how sacred and powerful breathing is unless it has been taken away. Experiencing asthma, choking, or the shortness of breath that accompanies panic shouldn’t be the only reminders of how important breathing is for our mental and physical state. Observing the breath – without trying to alter or control it – is the most powerful tool we have to calm and re-center the mind.
Listen here to a mindful breathing meditation by Lucy Morrish.
For more information please see our Mindfulness fact sheet.