Once you decided that more mindfulness is good for you, there are certain things you can do to nurture it. Most of us already discovered that being present in the moment is, more often than not, a beneficial state of mind. Next thing we know is wondering how the hell do we invite that state into our awareness.
It’s of these things that are simple — but by no means easy.
I could once again encourage you to meditate and practice mindfulness formally — but I’m not going to do that this time. I guess you have had enough of meditation tutorials. So this time I want to put emphasis on something else completely. I want to remind you (and myself) that mindfulness is a natural quality that arises spontaneously when certain conditions are present.
You can simply focus on creating the conditions that encourage you to be present in the moment.
What mindfulness feeds on
Remember the last time you were in a new city, walking around the streets that you have never seen before? Maybe you allowed yourself to roam without any particular destination to reach. Or maybe, you were trying to follow a route that was supposed to take you to a monument or a specific meeting point with somebody.
Most likely, you were more present in that situation than you are on your usual way to and from work. It is no news that mindfulness arises when we are faced with a new situation or environment.
But it doesn’t have to be as big as going to another country or city. Being in somebody’s new flat for the first time already activates the different quality in the mind. This quality comes with adopting the attitude of a beginner, who doesn’t yet have a preconceived notion of how things should unfold in the given situation.
The mere fact that you have never been in the bathroom that you are about to enter makes you approach using this bathroom differently.
When you are at home, going to the loo is very likely an automated activity — and that’s normal. Your brain relies on automation to deal with repetitive tasks simply because it saves energy. But when entering a bathroom you have never seen before, suddenly, the well-known, automated sequence isn’t reliable anymore.
You discover that the bathroom door slides, instead of push-pull opening. The toilet is on the left rather than right, and so you become a tiny bit more aware of the movements your body has to make in order to reach it. The toilet seat is at a different height. The flushing button is in the wall instead of the toilet tank, like you are used to. And if that wasn’t enough, at the end of the whole operation you also discover that your friend uses bar soap to wash their hands! Because you haven’t used a handwash other than liquid for a while, you notice that spinning the soap in between your palms engages a whole different set of muscles.
Leaving the bathroom, you may acknowledge that any kind of newness attracts mindfulness. But life as most of us live it — structured and taking place within the same spaces every day — obviously limits your ability to be in new surroundings.
That’s okay — because if you go deeper into the simple, everyday experiences of mindfulness, you will discover that it is not the newness itself that encourages being in the moment. An unfamiliar setting facilitates being mindful, sure. But it happens mainly because it creates a context for making choices in situations where you abandoned the idea of choice entirely.
After all, what kind of decisions you can make while using the toilet?
A visit in your friend’s new flat reveals that actually, you do have a choice as to what and how you do in each and every moment of your life. You may reach for the soap with your left OR right hand. You may take 2 longer OR 3 shorter steps to cover the distance between the toilet and the washbasin. All these micro-choices are precisely what ignites your natural mindfulness.
Want to see how choice-making works your mind in practice? Let’s do a little experiment.
An experiment of choice
First, I want you to look at the self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh below for around 15 seconds. After that time, scroll down so you cannot see the picture anymore.
Now write down (or say to yourself in your mind) everything you can remember about that picture. It can be particular details that drew your attention, overall feeling you got from looking at it, a colour that you registered… anything that you remember.
Finished? Ok, great job. Now, look below and compare the two Van Gogh’s self-portraits. Pick the one you prefer. Take as much time as you need. After you have your favourite, scroll down again so that you cannot see the paintings anymore.
Now, write down again what new you noticed about the first picture after comparing it with the second one.
Do you happen to be able to enlist more details now, after having to make a choice?
This simple experiment plainly shows how the brain works depending on whether there are choices to be made or not. A situation that requires a decision puts us in a completely different mode of perception.
When there are no decisions to make, you mostly live on autopilot. You either follow pre-planned routines or you give control away to somebody else. As a consequence, your brain doesn’t have an incentive to register too many details of what’s going on around you. It simply doesn’t have anything useful to do with those details.
Think being guided by a friend in a part of town you’ve never been to before — as opposed to making an effort to find the way on your own. Your mind likely becomes lazy and oblivious when all you have to do is follow.
But when you are faced with the need to decide, your brain starts operating in a new way. Making any kind of choice means that this choice has to be based on something. Even if it’s as simple as picking the plate you will eat on or socks you wear today. Anything that involves a conscious decision demands you to notice something upon which you can make that decision.
And in order to notice, you need to be mindful — even if just for a brief second.
This may sound petty, but it can actually have big consequences in the most important aspects of your life, for example, your health or life-span. How so? Let me introduce you to the work of Ellen Langer: one of the first people in the world to ever do research on mindfulness.
The psychology of possibility
Ellen Langer started her research on mindfulness by acknowledging that for the most part of life we are… mindless. One of her favourite anecdotes clearly shows that adapting to live in society often encourages mindlessness:
“I once went to make a purchase and I gave [the cashier] my credit card and she saw it wasn’t signed.” The cashier asked Langer to sign it, which she did, and the cashier then ran it through the machine. When the receipt was generated, she asked Langer to sign that as well. With the newly signed card in one hand, and the receipt in the other, “[the cashier] then compared the two signatures.” — The Mindfulness Chronicles
Langer argues that the way out of many troubles that humans have is simply to start paying attention — or to be mindful. But, unlike many mindfulness teachers or gurus, she doesn’t necessarily encourage people to sit on a meditation cushion. In her work, she has been proving that everyday mindfulness can arise naturally, fostered by the circumstances.
“All you need to do is actively notice new things.” — Ellen Langer
And how do you actively notice new things? By making choices. Langer conducted a study which showed how far the consequences of putting yourself in the position of a decision-maker can extend.
In 1970s Langer and her colleague, Judith Rodin, conducted an experiment in an elderly nursing home. They divided residents of the home into two groups. People in the first group were encouraged to make decisions connected to their daily life and activities. They were each given a houseplant and informed that from now on, they will be the ones taking care of it by deciding how much and when to water it, etc. Apart from that, they were allowed to choose where they would be meeting their visitors, if and what kind of movies they would watch, or what they would eat for dinner.
They were simply involved in making choices as to how they spent their days.
The second group was left to the regular rhythm of life in a nursing home. They simply followed the instructions, activities and meals proposed by the staff. They received houseplants too, but, unlike the first group, they were told that nurses would take care of them.
A year and a half later, Langer and Rodin went to visit the home and checked what happened to both groups. They were pleased to find out that people from the first group, the one that had more decision-making power in their lives, were “more cheerful, active, and alert, based on a variety of tests we had administered both before and after the experiment.” They were also significantly healthier than the people in the second group.
But what really surprised them was that in the first group, the death ratio of the residents was less than half of the one observed in the second group. Now that was quite something. Later on, the findings of this experiment led Ellen Langer to start talking about what she now calls The Psychology of Possibility — “the study of what might be, rather than a description of what is”.
And what very well “might be” is that mindfulness and engagement in our own affairs are among the most important qualities we should cultivate, if we want to live long, healthy and balanced lives.
Commit to the mindset of choice
“Virtually all the world’s ills boil down to mindlessness” — Ellen Langer
Knowing what we know, there is no reason why we shouldn’t foster mindfulness in our moment-to-moment experience. Even if meditation isn’t your cup of tea, you can still do something to experience more mindfulness every day. It is enough if you just put yourself a little more in charge of your life.
This is not about big decisions like quitting your job or breaking up with a partner. What I mean by “putting yourself in charge” is to simply start thinking about yourself as a decision-maker. To start making more choices — literally, any will do.
Going to the movies with your friends? Don’t wait for them to choose the title so you can simply tag along. Go to the screening repertoire, pick a film you would like to watch and suggest it to them.
What are you going to eat tonight? It doesn’t have to be pasta, just because “this is what you normally eat on a Friday.” Remind yourself that, actually, you can eat whatever the hell you feel like. So, ask yourself what you feel like — and then, make a choice.
You see what I mean? The “size” or “significance” of the choices you make don’t matter for mindfulness. Mindfulness will arise spontaneously every time you are faced with a decision. So make sure your whole life doesn’t work on autopilot. Instead, commit to the mindset of choice. Because in each and every moment, you really are free to choose.