I don’t like the word mindfulness very much. The word somehow annoys me. It has long been like a label for all the things I don’t like about body-mind-oriented methods and approaches. The way it sounds to me echos a kind of annoying holiness and standing above the ordinary things – to be full, clear and at peace with yourself and everything around. A new word for the perfect state of being, the enlighted way, the ultimate solution to all the problems, the stress, the conflicts… A word repeated like a mantra, pulled out of the sleeve like a trump card, preached to the unknowing masses…
I strongly disliked the word from the first time I heard it.
But slowly the meaning behind it has started to touch me. I start to appreciate the collection of methods and practices that are gathered behind the word mindfulness.
A few months ago I heard a short radio interview with a woman who offers mindfulness courses in Berlin. She brought it to a point by saying that mindfulness for her is not about sitting still for hours or being calm all the time, but simply the decision to for a moment reduce the constant flow of inputs and pay attention to what we do and what is there.
We are so addicted to doing many things at the same times, always adding another simultaneous source of information – entertainment, pleasant distractions, background noise, a soundtrack to our daily lives… Sometimes it adds to the intensity of the situation – it flows into it and allows us to be touched by it even deeper. But very often it becomes a routine way of splitting our attention or manipulate our feeling for the situation in a specific way. Like putting on romantic or soothing music and hoping it will resolve the tension in the room. Maybe sometimes it does. But many times it just colours it over. Or even aggravates it, because it tries to force the attention away from what is really there – what needs to be said and heard and taken seriously.
We hold our hands over our eyes, over our ears, over our mouth… We try to take the real intensity out of the moment by adding something else on top.
The woman on the radio asks: What if you decide for example one time not to something else while eating – not listening to the radio or music, not reading a book or the newspaper, not checking mails or making phonecalls, not making mental to-do-lists… just simply concentrating on the act of eating, of the taste and smell and texture of the food…
When I’m alone at home I almost always routinely put on the radio as soon as I enter the kitchen. For a long time it was something very pleasurable listening to different radioprograms while cooking, washing dishes, planting things on the balcony… The voices accompanied me and opened doors to new worlds of knowledge, curious little facts and stories. But the more it has become a routine for me the less it actually interests or touches me what is being said. Instead it becomes like a carpet of sound, where occassionally something small peaks out and catches my attention for a moment. Most often it simply stays in the background as an accompanying noise that keeps me from having complete attention for anything.
I noticed this as I tried out the instruction of the woman from the interview. I resisted the automatic temptation and let the radio stand silent. The first thing I noticed was how incredibly strong the pull was to put the radio on – my mind kept coming up with new reasons for it: „Why not while preparing the food at least, a bit of music to wake me up. Now it is the time for the news, maybe something important happened. Maybe I’m missing something interesting…“
And managing to resist for longer, I started to notice the nervosity underneath the urge – all the thoughts that were rushing back and forth – the things that I had planned for the day, the tasks I hadn’t managed to complete in the last days, or weeks, or months, things I have pushed ahead of me or kept loosing sight of that suddenly popped up in my mind as stitches of bad conscience – I really didn’t want to hear it all. But putting on a background sound didn’t take it all away, it just numbed it for a bit.
I noticed that when I have the radio on I tend to take a lot longer with anything I do, and I tend to move randomly from one thing to another, not really completing anything. Sometimes this is really perfectly fine – like a meditative state of being. But when I have a day ahead of me with things that are really important to me and that make me nervous and excited for good reasons, it detours my attention for what is needed and what I need at that moment. I start doing mindless tasks that could be left for another day. I procrastinate, I reduce time for preparation until the last minute, I avoid the intensity.
Another thing I noticed was the incredible complexity and richness of inputs even in the simple, ordinary moment – without any extras added: The noises coming from the street giving me different informations about the day – the splash of the carwheels on a rainy day, the wind in the trees, children voices playing on a sunny day. And also all the information about me and within me: what do I feel like, how am I, what would feel good, what do I need… I noticed the choices I make in the moment more clearly – having another sandwich, putting on tea or just drinking water, the desire to get out quickly to have a bit longer in the morning sun on the way to work, or to take a bit more time just sitting resting after finishing eating. And the small beautiful, curious details: the way the spoon clinks against the bowl, the light reflexes on the wall, a pigeon walking by on the windowsill…
Another radio interview that touched me (- obviously radio-listening does bring some very valuable insights too! :)) with one of the artists from the Berlin-based collective „Institut für politische Schönheit“ („Institute for political beauty“). Speaking about their different projects (that are many times highly provocative, but bring important discussions to new levels), he touches on his approach to life and says that in every situation he tries to stop for a moment and ask himself: „What would be the most beautiful thing you could do at this moment?“
In one way it is such a simple question. And at the same time, taking it in fully it opens up entirely new dimensions. It forces me to look around, to look at things around me very closely, to take in the different possibilities… What is the most beautiful thing I could do in this situation? For me? For someone else? Something humorous? Something playful? Something filled with emotions? Something very authentic? Or simply something intensily pleasurable – following an urge at the moment? – Like deciding to buy myself and ice-cream or lean back against the wall where the sun is shining the brightest and let the warmth and light fill me.
It opens the vast space of opportunities and the relative freedom I have to make different choices. If I allow myself the space to notice what is there I can also notice what my options really are – my responsibilities, the limits I decide to set for my actions, my fears and expectations, my wishes, hopes and longings, my power to move and influence things around me.