Mindfulness is a way of being. What’s often missing in the white-washed zen-style imagery that can shape our preconceptions of this practice is that it can really make our lives pop into a glorious, widened spectrum of emotions and senses.
Far from feeling austere, we can come to appreciate the luxury of each moment as more joyful, secure and intricately beautiful than ever before.
Luxury is defined as ‘a state of great comfort or elegance, especially when involving great expense.’ What if we took away the question of expense? This way of being can deliver us the great comfort and ease we seek by fully embracing the here and now just as it is. It can bring us the elegance when we notice that the depth of interest, authenticity and uniqueness in the sensations of the body, the patterns in a leaf, our emotional tone or the sounds in our environment far eclipse any art or design.
Mindfulness doesn’t need to be bland
The term ‘mindfulness’ has certain flatness to it which in some ways lends to its appeal within the context of our contemporary, science-grounded world view. Businesses like the sound of it. It fits well with rational arguments based around training attention, enhancing cognitive performance and so on. At the same time it has a kind of generic, obvious ring to it which invites a certain tired kind of attitude of ‘be mindful, yes, must be mindful’...before carrying on with the day forgetting all about it.
The perceived blandness of the practice can also be off-putting for people with a creative temperament or those with a real zest for life, who can often be suspicious of mindfulness. There’s a fear that by becoming ‘too peaceful’ that our emotions will somehow become numbed, that the vitality and colour associated with life on an emotional rollercoaster will be eroded. We can attribute a lot of meaning to times when we feel out of control, such as falling in love, being high, or significant times of change.
If we were to have perfect control over our emotions do we become like robots?
Both these views are to miss the art and beauty of the practice. It’s to miss how it can dramatically enhance the richness of our lives. How it empowers us to become artists of our own experience. How it can help us approach each moment with our own unique creativity, less conditioned by the cliches and habits of our culture.
What the Brain Gets up to
The term in the Buddhist language of Pali for mindfulness is ‘Sati’, more literally ‘memory’, deriving from a verb, sarati, meaning “to remember”. This speaks to a basic bias in our cognitive processing which constantly shifts our attention between our preoccupation in the current moment and whatever else is going on in our environment and in our internal biosphere. Without a specific task to fully occupy our attention, the Default Mode Network part of our brains will scope our potential threats constantly and if there’s nothing out of the ordinary to be concerned about will instead start to plan possible future outcomes or recirculate past memories. This can be a helpful function but the more our attention drifts the less happy and relaxed we tend to be. Given that this is going on for us nearly 50% of the time, this is why there is the need to actively ‘remember’ to be engaged in the present moment. Being present, for the novice, becomes a conscious choice and over time becomes more and more habitual.
Even in those moments when we do make a choice in terms of where to focus our attention, there is a kind of existential tension, an inherent conflict each of us must face in every moment. A choice between maximising our enjoyment and connection with that moment, or sacrificing the present moment in some way for some future benefit. Do we choose to look at the sunset or to take a photograph of that sunset so that we may remember it better or gain more popularity on social media? Do we choose to savour a cup of coffee or does our attention instead shift to our next meeting?
This is a question psychologist Daniel Kahneman has studied extensively. He views “happiness” as the feeling of enjoyment a person experiences here and now – the feeling we have when we watch a beautiful sunset for instance, or having an enjoyable conversation. What is described as happiness in terms of “What I remember” is something Kahneman prefers to call “satisfaction” or “life satisfaction.”
“When people make decisions, the remembering self is in control, Kahneman explains. “We make our decisions in terms of our memories and basically, we maximize satisfaction, or remembered utility, not happiness, or the actual total utility”. “The only thing we can learn to maximize through personal experience is remembered utility.” In other words, to enhance our wellbeing we should look to tilt the balance toward activities that promote feeling good, such as spending more time with friends, helping others or reducing commuting time.
Seek Pleasure NOW
This runs contrary to the bias of our culture, which encourages striving for future rewards. We encourage children to play less and study harder so they can get a good job in the future. We save money now so that we can retire in comfort in our old age. With this attitude so deeply ingrained, it’s easy for feelings of guilt to arise when we take time to simply enjoy what we’re doing.
What would happen if we allowed ourselves each moment? If we savoured the full richness of the experience of drinking a cup of tea or waiting at a bus stop like a connoisseur might savour a fine wine? If we got out of bed spontaneously, whenever our bodies felt ready, not when the alarm clock goes off? If we trusted ourselves to respond to what our friends were saying once they had finished what they were saying, rather than pre-planning an answer in our minds as they speak? If we were able to create art in response to natural impulses rather than with any preconceived notions? If we ate whatever nourishment our body and soul truly craves whenever we were hungry and stopped when we were full, free from any sense of guilt or concern about diet? If we were able to offer our gifts and talents to the world in response to what we’re called to do in the daily course of our lives, free from the worries of earning a living?
Seeing Things Differently
These questions can challenge us to start to look at life a little differently. Yes, the way our contemporary economy is structured does place limitations on us. But also, in the course of most of our lives there is much more scope for this kind of freedom than we may think. And yes, there will be fear that without rigid structures in place we’d turn into lazy, obese, alcoholic, monstrous versions of ourselves - but if we look deep within our hearts I think most of us would recognise this is not at all our natural way of being. That we have a natural impulse to share with others and to nourish ourselves which might take a little time to find but which we would settle into once we were able to let go of exactly those structures and indoctrinations that hold us back. In doing so, we can align present happiness with an overall sense of long-term satisfaction to bring a genuine and complete sense of luxury to our lives.
Natalie hosts thorough 10-week ‘Train your heart’ mindfulness and compassion interactive courses online on Tuesday evenings. She is a yoga, meditation and mindfulness teacher and an advocate for personal, corporate and social change for the well-being of society and the environment. She left a successful, ten year corporate career to follow these passions. Every month she will explore how yoga and meditation can help us wake up to the full richness and potential of our lives by cultivating a deep compassion and connection with ourselves and others.
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