Who Knew Mindfulness Mattered?
At the beginning of 2014, the Huffington Post declared that the coming twelve months would be “the year of mindful living”.
Forget working out and brain training — quiet reflection and attentiveness looked set to become the New Kid on the Me Time block.
Since then, the mindfulness momentum has gained ground.
Everyone from the management board of Google to business leaders and the medical profession has joined the chorus of praise — or sung louder.
What once passed for a fringe activity now ranks among the top 100 searches on the internet.
So what is mindfulness? And why is it suddenly everybody’s buzz phrase?
Better still: how is it done?
Some Things You Should Know About Mindfulness
With the so-called Twenty-Tens decade in full stride, here are three descriptions you’ll find at the top of Google’s mindfulness hit list.
“…the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment.” (Wikipedia)
“…a mind-body approach to well-being that can help you change the way you think about experiences and reduce stress and anxiety.” (BeMindful.com)
“… knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment.” (Prof Williams, NHS Choices)
If you delve deeper, you’ll find other descriptions, but all say much the same thing: Mindfulness helps you to take better care of yourself by allowing you space amid the sensory maelstrom to more closely examine and reflect upon your thoughts and actions.
From the insights you gain, you can STOP what you discover to be unhelpful and devote your energies to pursuits that are of benefit.
Why Isn’t Everyone Being Mindful, RIGHT NOW?
Mindfulness certainly sounds like a great idea.
However, just because something is a great idea doesn’t mean we’re able to take it on board in any kind of practical way, even if we’re enthusiastic about doing so or the idea itself is a perfectly reasonable and achievable proposition.
A lot of what we do is based on a way of behaving that is familiar to us, and this can be a fact we overlook whenever ambitious or noble aims are brought to the table in the name of positive change.
How we respond to what is going on in our lives could be called our habitual behaviour.
Our familiar way of behaving is how we are in the world, and much of the time, it seems to happen without us giving a great deal of consideration to what we are actually doing as we stand, sit, walk around, and so on.
That presents us with a problem.
Think about it.
If it’s your habit to be all the things that being mindful ISN’T — irritable, distracted, stressed, preoccupied (etc.) — then how do you become the exact opposite?
What METHOD are you going to use to ‘become mindful’?
All aims or goals or objectives demand practical solutions or they are nothing.
There’s no shortage of mindfulness advice out there in the cyber-ether and beyond, and ten minutes in the company of your favourite web browser should produce a generous To Do list to get you started.
Here’s one such list:
Sit comfortably and observe your breathing.
Scan your body and soften any tension.
Let go of mental chatter.
Give your attention to… (a sound, a colour, an object …)
Avoid being judgmental.
Once again — sounds great!
But to what extent does this kind of advice merely describe desirable end results rather than providing a concrete means of achieving those aims?
Where, for example, is the HOW TO in “soften any tension”?
Or “let go of mental chatter”?
Especially if it’s your habit to be stressed or unrelaxed or anxious — or hooked on friending your reactive thoughts and retweeting them to yourself, over and over?
This question of HOW TO is important: Practical change has to be do-able in order to happen, otherwise it remains mere theory.
So how can we invite the change of thought that practical mindfulness demands of us?
Habit: Playing Hide & Seek With Your Attention
Let’s start at the beginning.
Let’s see where we might be stuck.
Prior to making any change in ourselves and how we are in the world, what’s do-able for most of us is HABIT.
In fact, habit is the one thing that’s especially do-able, which is why it’s the #1 obstacle to change.
We’re not talking here about specific habits like biting your nails or wailing like a banshee in the shower.
These kinds of activities come and go and you probably know all about them.
If you wanted to, you could exercise some control over them right now.
What you can’t control or change in this STOP/START way are all the things you don’t know about.
If an aspect of your behaviour is hidden from you then your opportunity to be mindful of it (and to change it if you so desired) is closer to ZERO than the HUNDRED AND TEN PER CENT we all seem so keen on these days in our goal-driven zeal.
Here’s A Quick Mindfulness Experiment For You To Try
Consider the speed at which you move, the degree of tension you generate in your neck when you speak (or even when you’re just breathing), the way you balance when you’re upright.
This is habit at work.
Habit is what you do all the time without being fully aware that you’re doing it.
It’s a constant in your life, the rule that makes exceptions striking and renders its presence invisible the rest of the time.
Take rising from a chair, for example.
(And it is only an example; if you’re not able to rise from a chair for any reason then feel free to substitute another activity of your choice. Truth is, the point being made here about habit applies to any human endeavour. That’s what makes habit such a beast.)
What METHOD do you use here?
As an exercise, maybe you could try talking yourself through the instructions, same as you would if you were describing to an alien how to tie shoelaces.
This should be terribly easy — after all, these instructions are precisely the ones given by/to/for yourself, day after day after day, and most likely they’re based on the ones you learned by trial and error as you began figuring out how to balance yourself in the months after [insert your d.o.b. here].
If you know how to tie shoelaces, explaining the process takes some thought (and certainly gets tricky when it comes to being clear about the loop part!), but it is nonetheless possible.
What is the problem with explaining how you rise from a chair?
Where is wealth of detail (like the shoelace loop) about which parts move where, and in what sequence?
(Go on — try it. You know you want to.)
Why Big Change Always Starts Small
If you just thought STAND UP — sorry, but that describes an end result, not a method.
To say “I stood up” offers no information about HOW you did it.
And if you just tried to stand up in order to find out what it was you needed to think in order to rise from a chair (because you discovered that you didn’t know), then sorry again, you’re as far from ‘being mindful’ here as it’s possible to be.
Mindfulness is about the here and now, the ‘first attempt’ as it happens in real time.
This inability to be clear about how we operate ourselves is an example of habit at work.
So much of our behaviour is habitual in this way, hiding in plain sight!
(If you managed any kind of list of instructions, then well done. Most everyday activities appear to most people to happen on the basis of automatic pilot, and defining any HOW TO is not straightforward. You might also wish to consider whether the instructions you identified constitute the sum total of the directions you actually gave to yourself, or whether they describe the best possible solution to the problem. Another stickler to throw into the mix is to question how you would come to any such conclusions. One thing is almost certain: these directions will be largely the product of habit, and to all intents and purposes fixed.)
It may be that you deem rising from a chair to be of no consequence, and that mindfulness would be better reserved for more important concerns like dealing with stress or chilling out.
Or maybe you think rising from a chair is automatic, and the reason it’s so hard to think SOMETHING is because there’s nothing to think.
But if your everyday activities — standing, sitting, walking — don’t change, then what does?
As you seek to balance yourself in response to gravity, everything you do is based on these activities and the transition states between them.
Attend to these things, change these things, and you can change everything.
Because there aren’t any other activities for any of us ‘to do’ or ‘be mindful of’ when it comes to “… knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment.”
(If you can think of any examples, you’re welcome to email us with your suggestions at info at paat.org.uk. Right now, our list has nothing on it.)
Stillness: What’s Rippling Your Pond?
The implications of all of this for personal change are especially important when you consider that so many of these activities-we-don’t-think-about are rarely executed with the stillness or serenity that ought to accompany the ‘thinking of nothing’.
In this respect, habit presents us with an especially frustrating conundrum.
We give so little thought to our everyday activities, yet in the absence of any such thought (consciously apprehended, consciously intended), why all the noise in our heads 24/7?
No mindfulness is required in order to be aware of that stuff!
It’s just THERE, pounding inside our heads, demanding our attention like a herd of rhinos playing the most annoying song EVER on day-glo vuvuzelas.
Mental chatter, voice-in-our-head, white noise, interior monologue (call it what you will): Stopping THAT would be good.
But stopping THAT means stopping, FULL STOP.
For mindfulness to lead to change in any kind of practical way, it cannot be about experiencing or initiating a change ‘of mind’.
Unless, of course, you believe that you can leave your standing, your sitting, your walking (and so on) unchanged while at the same time revolutionizing some other, separate, aspect of yourself that operates from moment to moment according to a different set of anatomical, physiological and neurological rules.
Believe THAT, and you’ll be Googling for a long time for anything that actually WORKS!
Why Stopping Is The Best Way To Make A Start
Let’s think a little more about this question of stopping.
In order to stop, you would need to know WHAT it was that you wanted to stop.
Without this information, habit prevails and little changes.
So you’d need to develop a quality of attention capable of uncovering this information from beneath habit’s dark underbelly as you stood, sat, walked, and so on.
You’d need to dig out your current instruction manual (and since neuroscience is so fond of deploying computer-themed analogies, let’s say this manual is tucked away in the My Documents folder of your brain in a hidden pdf file called My Directions).
This information would help with the WHAT, but because attention alone effects little or no immediate change, you’d also need a couple more tools in your armoury.
First, you’d need a way of initiating the actual STOP in the face of habit demanding ME! ME! ME! ME! ME!
Second, you’d need a way of figuring out what to do in place of all these unwanted habits (up to and including feeding all your rhinos of irritation) that you’d successfully identified and stopped.
No one lives in a freeze-frame vacuum: we all have to do SOMETHING in the moment, even if it’s that frequently difficult-to-achieve activity we call ‘resting’ or ‘being still’.
What would all these non-habitual somethings BE?
And how would you ensure that your new solutions to activity and rest didn’t become habitual and start the whole mind-less-ness thing over again?
In short, in order to STOP and not be inert or bound by tweaked versions of all you currently know about standing, sitting, walking and so on, you’d need a way of obtaining mastery over your own habits (‘My Hidden Directions’) whose ultimate outcome was the conscious direction and control of your own behaviour — in real time, at the moment of action/reaction.
Sounds great — but what method exists for achieving these aims?
Learning To Pause For Thought
At the end of the Nineteenth Century, a young Tasmanian performer called F.M. Alexander discovered such a method, and he called it the Alexander Technique.
Here’s what he said:
“My technique is based on inhibition, the inhibition of undesirable, unwanted responses to stimuli, and hence it is primarily a technique for the development of the control of human reaction.” (The Universal Constant In Living, p88, Mouritz 2000 Edn.)
Forget for a moment everything you’ve heard about inhibition.
What you may be thinking here is something BAAAAD, something you shouldn’t, mustn’t ever, do — a coercive, punitive and stifling form of stopping.
This isn’t what Alexander meant by the term.
If it helps, you could substitute ‘prevention’ for ‘inhibition’, and run that line past again.
“My technique is based on prevention, the prevention of undesirable, unwanted responses to stimuli, and hence it is primarily a technique for the development of the control of human reaction.”
See? He’s talking about STOPPING.
He has a method to help you STOP — and start up something better.
To coin a phrase from Star Wars, Alexander brings the word ‘inhibition’ back from the Dark Side.
Whose Mental Chatter Is It Anyway?
Let’s face it — that herd of rhinos stomping round in your head has to be STOPPED somehow, right?
And it’s better that all the stopping is initiated by you, because, hey — you started it!
When our lives are made difficult because of stress that we unwittingly generate as we trust to habit’s autopilot, we often seek a CURE.
Let someone else solve my problem! Let someone else put it right! Fix me!
But if being mindful is to be constructive, it has to be about developing the freedom to think the thoughts you want to think as you interact with the world.
If you don’t like the thoughts you’re thinking, the responsibility for stopping them, changing them for the better, is down to you.
Volcanoes erupt and ice caps melt, and there may be very little we can do about these things.
Conversely, our thoughts and actions/reactions are something over which we can (and should) exercise ever more considered control.
(The so-called “90/10 Secret” is now an internet meme — the idea that “life is 10% of what happens to you and 90% of how you react to it” — but when Alexander began writing about his Technique in the late 19th Century, he had figured out how the conscious control of reaction worked in practice.)
Prevention is way better than the cure in this respect, and it’s precisely this change of thought — from the habitual norm by which you are enslaved to a more reasoned and conscious direction of yourself — that Alexander had in mind.
When the essence of the Alexander Technique is stated this simply —
CHOOSE YOUR DIRECTION
— practical mindfulness is attainable by anyone prepared to apply Alexander’s methods to their lives because it arises naturally from the process.
(We understand that there are other ways of approaching the problem of how to be mindful, and we are in no way seeking to overturn thousands of years of wisdom and tradition with what might appear to some to be a grand statement, but it is in the nature of the Alexander Technique to work the way it does precisely because of its great potential for raising everyday activity to a level of consciousness, both in terms of our awareness and our intention.)
Why It Matters WHY You Do Things
Key to making any kind of change is to figure out not just WHAT you do but WHY you do it.
Discovering this link requires attention and allows you the non-habitual option of initiating a stop at the one time it is possible (and perhaps necessary) so to do: the ‘Here and Now’.
So here’s the deal: If you took a moment a while back to talk yourself through what you do to rise from a chair, why did you do it?
You did it because you said YES to the stimulus presented by this article.
Even if you passed over this experiment, or dismissed it as idle foolishness, the truth remains that all your future instances of rising from chairs (or taking action of any kind) will follow the same broad rule.
This is true even if you are ‘doing nothing’ because the constant stimulus presented by gravity demands some form of response from you simply to keep yourself upright and in balance to make that ‘nothing’ possible.
The Alexander Technique allows you to examine, and ultimately turn to your advantage, the mechanical forces acting upon you at any moment.
By definition, responding to the fundamental stimulus of these forces requires an ongoing form of stopping, a constant holding in abeyance of activity above and beyond what is necessary.
You can learn to do this by applying the Alexander Technique to your life, and in this way the answer to WHY you do WHAT you do in the ‘Here and Now’ may be liberated from the obfuscating cloud of habit, and, if you wish, you can choose to STOP what you discover to be unhelpful and then direct with more clarity what you truly intend to do.
If Seeing Is Believing, Feeling Is The Truth — Surely???
All of which brings us back to one of the descriptions of mindfulness cited at the beginning — this business of “knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment”.
We’re almost there on this one, but not quite.
How can you know directly what is going on outside yourself with any degree of clarity if your head is full of rhinos?
You might miss, or misinterpret, the available stimuli — or see a call to action where none exists.
The only things you can know (within and without) are based on information obtained via the senses, but when tension and accompanying reactivity are your habitual starting points — your norm — the mechanism housing every last one of your sense receptors (i.e. your ‘body’) is actively pulled out of shape by the work you generate in the muscles to perform even the most basic of activities.
If you’ve experienced a sleepless night recently, you’ll know that something as seemingly ‘effortless’ as lying down constitutes one such basic activity that it is possible to get wrong in this way.
For any kind of “knowing directly” to be of the best possible use to you, it is necessary to call into question the reliability of your senses.
How trustworthy can your senses be if you are unable to judge with any degree of accuracy what amount of muscular tension is appropriate for any activity?
Time To Re-Set The Dials
Throughout his life and his teachings, Alexander considered that our appreciation of the information presented to, and processed by, our senses was paramount.
This information is the raw material for all degrees of mindfulness and what we make of it forms the basis of our lives.
When habit makes oppressed workhorses of our muscles, the undue tension throws out of kilter our ability to register accurately what we’re doing.
Think of it this way — if we were able to stand or sit or walk using only the necessary effort required, we would know what constituted ‘neutral’ for that activity.
Whenever we began to stray from the path (stiff neck at the keyboard in response to a deadline, back ache from overdoing it with the DIY or garden, buzzy wrist from texting etc) we would recognise it — the HOW of it — and stop it.
(Muscles don’t behave as they do because they’re wilful or naughty, by the way: they are servants of the brain and do exactly as they are told.)
Better still, we’d know how to prevent all these things in the first place because we’d be sufficiently on the ball NOT TO DO THEM as we sat at the desk, bent down to pick up the grass clippings, shared our squillionth LOL of the day, and so on.
It’s because we lack this information about where neutral is (for standing, sitting, walking, and being upright in general) that we pull ourselves out of shape.
But do we see it this way?
As far as our brain is concerned we pull ourselves into the best possible shape we have learned, and until we figure out a better way (with unyielding habit in the driving seat), we will stick with it.
And herein lies the clincher.
Having set up this out-of-kilter vantage point from which to take in information — and fixed it as the ‘norm’ — we effectively buck the readings on our own Mindfulnessometer.
To see how this plays out in practice, let’s think about breathing.
Most accounts of practical mindfulness make reference to listening to your breathing, but if there is one fundamental activity that your habitual pulling out of shape interferes with BIG TIME, breathing is IT.
The physiological conundrum presented here is an object lesson in all things Catch 22.
If it’s your habit to fix or stiffen the rib cage (which you will do to some degree if you pull yourself out of shape) then you interfere with the working of the mechanism providing you with the oxygen you need.
Given that some of this oxygen will be used to fuel the muscles generating the undue tension responsible for fixing your rib cage, and that those very muscles will be overactive in this way because your brain has come to regard this as normal, then listening or attending to your breathing becomes the act of a tension generating machine attempting to ‘be mindful’ of the extent to which it is a tension generating machine while at the same time remaining unaware of the true extent to which it is a tension generating machine … because it has no accurate concept of neutral.
If you managed to get through that last sentence without pausing for breath, then here is the gist, phrased more succinctly:
Why trust readings from a bucked system, especially when those readings are appreciated only by you?
How do you get to ‘neutral’ from this vantage point?
The Alexander Technique pays heed to this pernicious quality of habit at every stage, from the moment we begin to examine the link between stimuli and the undue tension we generate in response to them, right through to the time when we can hold such reactions in abeyance and proceed with poise and clarity of thought intact.
It’s a technique that wrests clarity of attention and direction from a system bucked into believing stiff necks, bad backs, and 24/7 rhinos are SO the norm that we are doomed to carry on repeating them.
What’s In A Selfie?
But let’s be clear — THERE ARE NO ACTUAL RHINOS STOMPING ROUND IN YOUR HEAD!
Thus far, it’s been handy to use rhinos as a metaphor.
So: Time to get real.
What we’re talking about here are all those worries about the future, regrets about the past, irritations, annoyances, unresolved agonies, tizzies, bags on, cows, ‘moods’, worries, mind blanks, flaps and panics that constitute our mental chatter, voice-in-our-head, white noise, interior monologue (etc etc etc) and blot out any hope of living in the moment.
None of these thoughts exists in a vacuum.
We think them as we stand-without-thinking and sit-without-thinking and walk-without-thinking and all those other transition-activities-without-thinking that constitute the only things there are for us ‘to do’.
And remember, there aren’t two of us — one doing the doing-without-thinking part and the other obsessing about work or ‘the world today’ or lack of friends on Facebook (…and so on).
Whenever we take action in the world (and this includes resting, meditating, ‘chilling’) we do so by means of the mechanism we call our ‘self’.
All our faculties and functions greet the moment as the singular, unified entity of our Self, whatever the degree to which we are conscious of the fact or however we are directing our activity at that moment, so thinking in terms of ‘mind-body’ approaches or solutions complicates rather than clarifies the situation if our starting point for becoming more mindful is that we habitually react to stimuli by pulling our Selves out of shape.
For change to be meaningful we have to bear our whole Self, rather than just our ‘mind’, in mind.
How Colluding With Gravity Messes Up Your Life
Thinking the right thought with respect to your activities is critical, and this is what the Alexander Technique allows you to do.
If you know clearly where all of your anatomical bits and pieces are, and you know where to send them (‘My Directions’) in order to stand, sit, walk and so on, then you can get on with your life minus all the unnecessary effort you would otherwise generate to pull yourself out of shape (along with all the clutter that comes in its wake in the form of frustrated mental chatter).
Do less than what is required, and you don’t input the energy you need; do too much, and you change the activity into something else, typically involving what is called ‘stress’ or ‘tension’.
Get the effort and co-ordination right, and your intention delivers what is required to solve the problem immediately in front of you.
The mindfulness about where to direct anatomical parts of which you are aware delivers ‘the thing’, if you like; the attention to, and direction of, your ‘self’ take place simultaneously.
Not ‘a moment ago’ or ‘in a moment’s time’, but NOW.
You are mindful of your doing; you are mindful in your doing.
Admittedly, not all of the things we have to get on with in life are pleasant, but it won’t do us any good at all to stress ourselves unduly because our overall strategy for remaining upright is based on the habit of colluding with gravity.
Face it — when we talk of ‘being uptight’ we don’t actually go up!
When we order our muscles to generate excess tension, they pull us closer to the ground.
Pulling yourself down, being ‘downtight’ in this way, makes everything much, much harder: hence all the rhinos of complaint.
There is no sense in this, no reason, but if it’s your habit to do things this way then it’s the autopiloted norm: it feels right, so you do it, and go on doing it.
You do not STOP.
The Alexander Technique = Thinking In Activity
In truth, whatever method you adopt for making possible whatever changes you seek, you direct your activity all of the time.
Life would be impossible if you didn’t.
The problem for most of us is that this direction isn’t as conscious as it could be — hence all the stiff necks, sore wrists, bad backs, tight shoulders etc that we unwittingly want to happen as part of the process of wanting what we think we DO want.
Worse still: we insist on commentary.
It might seem like we are going a little mad sometimes, but with solutions like these, maybe we’ve already taken leave of our senses.
To be clear, the Alexander Technique is NOT mindfulness in the sense that this “mind-body approach” is described in the sources noted at the start of this article and elsewhere.
It ticks all the attention boxes, for sure, but then adds on a practical means for dealing with the information constructively, from the stopping of what you find you don’t want to the starting of the better ways to make happen what you do want.
One thing that PAAT teachers have found over the years is how positively people with an interest in meditative traditions view the practical approach to being conscious of one’s own processes that the Technique offers.
Alexander’s discovery comes very late in the day compared to centuries of Buddhist traditions, but it is already evident that both share something of the same productively reflective outlook on what it is to be human beings fired up by the reactive potential of super quick thoughts and perceptions, particularly as they relate to ‘feeling’.
People coming to the Technique from a meditative background generally appreciate its subtleties, and it is not uncommon for others reaching it via a different route to develop an interest in what might loosely be termed ‘seeking stillness’ after they have applied it to their everyday lives with some success.
The Technique was described in the early part of the last century by one of Alexander’s more influential pupils (the American philosopher John Dewey) as “thinking in activity”.
As succinct descriptions of practical mindfulness go, maybe this phrase trumps all three of the quotations presented earlier.
Teachers of the Alexander Technique have been helping people to become more mindful of their activities for over a hundred years, from standing to sitting to walking to pretty much everything human beings can do — including that thorniest of activities, ‘just being still’.
Applying the Alexander Technique to your life is not the only way to ‘become mindful’ with a view to effecting positive change, but here at PAAT we think it’s an extremely practical solution to the problem.
Being conscious of how we direct ourselves (or “thinking in activity”) is pretty much what ‘being mindful’ means for all practical purposes because our lives depend upon our ability to interact meaningfully with the outside world and take care of thoughts to which we have uniquely privileged access.
The stimuli by which each of us is bombarded aren’t about to stop any time soon, but by means of the Alexander Technique we can remain poised in the Here & Now as they keep on comin’.
It’s how mindfulness works.
PAAT teachers regularly run Mindfulness through The Alexander Technique courses — and details are HERE.
© PAAT 2014