Has mindfulness become a dirty word? And why it’s just really about connecting more fully with everyday life

Is mindfulness becoming a dirty word? Has it become the most over-used concept since Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs? Judging from some of the comments I hear in coaching consultations and training, for some people it has taken on all the baggage that goes with the idea of meditation. It’s the idea that it’s all very impractical ‘head in the clouds, aerie-faerie nonsense’ that lacks meaning or relevance for everyday life. In this post I challenge some of these negative misconceptions by offering some down-to-earth examples of mindfulness in action.

How we define a concept shapes our attitudes towards it. Sometimes mindfulness is presented as something we need to add to our already-busy lives. However, it’s really just about ‘present moment awareness’. When you watch a sunrise or a sunset, your full attention is on the present.That’s mindfulness. When you become totally absorbed in your hobby (or goals), that’s mindfulness.

There are many things we do on ‘auto-pilot’. When we first learn a new skill we have to pay attention to the details. When the skill becomes automatic our minds can wonder. You might listen to two singers or musicians of equal technical ability both perform a piece and prefer one over the other. One you might describe as ‘really feeling it’ and the other as ‘just going through the motions’ or ‘phoning in the performance’.

Examples of everyday mindfulness

Food

Research has shown that mindfulness has a positive impact on the more mundane pleasures in life such as eating. This is a particular ‘hobby of mine and it’s been said that I’m often far too vocal about my appreciation of a good meal (although I stop short of a ‘When Harry Met Sally’ mment). When we really pay attention and appreciate the food we tend to eat fewer calories than when slumped in front of the TV shovelling in the food on autopilot. Think how much popcorn we consume at the cinema when our attention is elsewhere. So any healthy eating could start with actually making a conscious attempt to pay attention to the food. Food is best served with the lights on and the TV off.

Taking Up A Hobby

Who can forget the sight of Ozzy Osbourne sitting in his kitchen colouring-in (in the first season of The Osbournes reality TV show)? However recent research suggests that the ‘prince of darkness’ was on to something. Colouring-in can be good for us. In effect it puts us in a state of mindfulness as pay attention to the task of ‘not going over the lines’. Research published in the Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, found that people who pursue creative activities outside the workplace deal with stress better and performance improves at work, even humble ‘colouring-in’.

In book Unlock Your Confidence I mention how a simple walk in nature can boost feelings of self-esteem. According to writer Richard Louw connecting with nature boosts creativity and health. Not surprisingly, research also shows that spending time gardening can also increase feelings of well-being. They ground us in the present moment.

This all fits in with the concept of ‘flow’ in positive psychology. Put simply ‘flow’ is the state of total absorption in a task or activity when we appear to lose all sense of time. According to positive psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced ‘Chick-sent-me-high’).spending time in ‘flow’ is a definition of happiness.

Mindfulness is about engaging more fully with life

Mindfulness doesn’t have to feel like an alien activity. You can connect with the present moment in very ordinary ways that support your everyday life. The difference is that you connect more fully with your life.

So next time you hear the world mindfulness in a training course, in a magazine, book or on TV, just take it as a prompt to ask ‘where’s my attention now? Is it on the activity in hand? If not, take it is a signal to reconnect and engage with what you are doing.

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

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How Taking Photographs Can Impair Your Memories (and what to do about it)

New research indicates that although we think of photographs as something to preserve our memories, the process of taking pictures may actually impair our memory of events. This phenomenon has been dubbed the photo-taking impairment effect  by Dr Linda Henkel (from Fairfield University, Connecticut). She states:

When people rely on technology to remember for them – counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves – it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences.

The research was carried out in museum to learn the effects of visitors’ memories of what they had seen. Participants were given a tour and asked to either photograph exhibits or simply try to remember them. When their memories were tested the following day the results showed that the photographers were less accurate in recognizing objects and memory of detail was poorer compared with those who had only looked at them.

However in a follow-up experiment participants were asked to take photographs of specific details in objects by zooming in on them. In contrast to the previous experiment the recall for detail was preserved, not just for the part of the object in shot but also for other details out of frame. So the conclusion here is that photographs do preserve memories if we take the time.

This research fits in with what we know about learning in that the deeper we process information the easier it is to recall. So for instance it is more difficult to remember a list of random words than the same number of words that have been organized by category first. It also reminds us of the value of goals. Where the participants had a more specific goal they engaged at a deeper level with the subject. Active learning is always more effective that passive learning. Setting your own goals is better letting them be set by chance. In a previous post I discussed how to get the most out of a self-help book. The key recommendation is to actively engage with the material rather than just passively reading the book. Most of my work in academic coaching helps clients to tap into the fundamentals of human psychology and employ active learning techniques.

And so to mindfulness the state of fully experiencing the present moment. The research on photo-taking impairment effect hinges on the level of engagement the participant has with the subject material. There is a great lesson in the research for life in general: take your time, create balance in life, have a goal, be actively present and focus on what is really important.

With advances in digital photography the temptation is to ‘point and shoot at anything that moves and anything that stays still! The result is that we amass lots of pictures we never look at again. In the past people would decide whether to take on holiday a camera film with 24 or 36 shots. Today that would barely a few minutes.

The famous painting by René Magritte “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) is a reminder to us that photographs are not memories. Photographs are representations of memories. It is important to have the experience as well as click the camera shutter. With mobile (cell) phones and digital cameras the temptation is to use the device as a companion rather than engaging with ‘real-time life’ and people who are present. So before you whip out your camera or reach for your mobile consider the balance between ‘capturing the moment’ and ‘being in the present moment’.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary Wood(In conversation with Annie Othen, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire)

Gary’s book Unlock Your Confidence’ covers mindfulness, goal setting and how to feel comfortable in your own skin. It is out now. Buy: Amazon UK  /  Buy: Amazon USA

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