Don't Try to be Mindful
Daron Larson | TEDxColumbus 2015: Disruption | November 20, 2015
Mindfulness is a way to train your attention using your ordinary senses and perceptions.
Maybe you’ve heard about it. There’s this explosion of research that’s validating its many benefits — the way it helps people manage stress, reduce their anxiety, and even sleep better.
I was skeptical about these claims, because I have kind of a natural talent for stress. One time I was stressed out on vacation — after a massage — at a hot springs spa resort. I kept thinking how I wanted to take a picture of this place because it would help me relax when I got back to the job I was dreading returning to. So that gives you an idea of what I was up against.
But I decided, I’m going to give this mindfulness a try. So I’ve been practicing it every day for thirteen years and I noticed that it started to quietly transform the way I was living my life when I stopped trying to get the outcomes I was hoping for, and instead put my attention on the exercises required to get there.
It reminded me of what I already knew about physical fitness.
If you take the stairs, and you notice your heart starts to beat faster, maybe your legs start to burn — you don’t say to yourself, I must be taking the the stairs wrong. Right? You say, this is what taking the stairs feels like.
And if we always take the elevator in order to save time and avoid discomfort, we just miss opportunities for developing our physical health. It’s the same thing. It works the same way.
So many people try mindfulness and they’re convinced they're doing it wrong. So they give up. And they miss an opportunity to change their relationship with discomfort.
If you expect your everyday life to be free of discomfort and confusion, you’re going to spend all your energy worrying, trying not to feel what you feel, and saying, This messy life is not my real life.
So what keeps us holding out for these perfect, comfortable lives that we imagine? And how can training your attention help address these habits?
AN UNDERLYING STORY PROBLEM
There’s an underlying story problem built into the way we relate to our lives.
It feels like I’m the main character navigating all of these challenges in order to get somewhere.
And this narrative structure is incredibly useful. It helps me decide what’s important. It makes it possible to work towards and achieve goals.
But there’s a problem.
My obstacles don’t seem to be part of what I consider my actual life. They feel like temporary annoyances that I have to push through in order to get to what’s on the other side. But very often, it turns out what’s on the other side of my obstacles ends up not being the relief I’m hoping for — am I the only one? — it ends up being another obstacle. And I have a spoiler alert here: this pattern keeps repeating and repeating and we end up habitually waiting for whatever’s happening to pass.
And this dilemma scales all the way down to the moment-by-moment experience. All these little looping stories of waking up on time, and trying to get to work, and going to meetings, and dealing with difficult people. Deciding what to eat. And maybe the best we can do is sometimes comfort ourselves with the idea of evenings, weekend, and vacations.
But it’s at this moment-by-moment scale where the work of mindfulness occurs — all the little places where we distract ourselves and go on autopilot.
But mindfulness isn’t a solution to your story problems. So don’t cancel your therapy appointment.
It’s not a narrative solution at all. It’s actually a solution for the problem of living within these narrative constraints.
Any time that you habitually check out starts to become an opportunity for checking in.
DISRUPT THE DEFAULT
So let me give you an exercise that you can use in any situation.
Pause to notice some sensory detail of your current experience.
Let’s give this a quick spin.
For just a few seconds...
What’s it like to see?
What’s it like to hear?
What’s it like to notice some sensation in your body?
So that’s probably the shortest exercise or workout that I’ve ever lead, but what I’m hoping you’ll do is compare it to what you already know about physical fitness. One push-up isn't very impressive. It seems kind of trivial. But we know that if we make it a habit, if we do several push-ups a day, over weeks we’re going to start noticing more strength in our upper body.
Instead of trying to be mindful, what if you tried to notice what’s happening? Every time you stop and pay close attention to what’s happening, you disrupt that narrative — the narrative of your life — from inside your story.
Instead of trying to live in the moment, what if you just started to sneak this kind of noticing into your routine?
When you take a shower, what would it be like to actually feel the water hitting your body or smell the shampoo? What would it be like to taste your coffee? What if you noticed what it looks like to see the screen in your hand, and once in awhile looked up and see what’s right in front of you?
Any activity that doesn’t require much thinking will work for this. And it turns out there’s a lot of them than you realize once you start looking.
And nobody needs to know you’re doing this. In fact, I recommend kind of keeping it to yourself. I’ve learned from experience that nobody wants to hear about the relaxation you’re savoring in your legs during a boring meeting.
And the details you notice don’t need to be pleasant.
What’s it like to run late?
What’s it like to be standing in the slowest line in the grocery store?
What’s it like to watch your windshield wipers as you’re waiting for the light to turn green?
Your strategy for living in the present will go a lot better when you accept how frequently the present sucks.
TRAIN YOUR ATTENTION
So I’ve been describing a way to pay attention in the midst of life, but there’s also a formal version of the practice where you pick something to notice over and over again for a set amount of time. So maybe for ten or fifteen minutes, you’d notice what it feels like to breath. You might notice what it’s like to hear sounds around you. And whenever you realize you’ve completely lost contact with that, you just gently bring your attention back.
This timed practice is what everybody thinks is the only thing that counts, and I want to challenge this assumption. This timed practice is intended — it’s like going to the gym — it supports your ability to be attentive throughout the rest of the day.
So you might notice relaxation during your timed practice and then check in throughout the day to see if there’s anything restfulness at all that you can detect and savor.
One time I was teaching a class. It wasn’t a mindfulness class, but it was the first night. I get a phone call and I had the start time wrong. I was late and I didn’t realize it. There’s a classroom full of people waiting across town for me.
So I spent this whole evening, toggling back and forth between the course content and how rattled I felt. My senses were heightened, my face was hot. My breath was shallow. I felt embarrassed. It was super vulnerable.
And over the next three weeks, during my formal practice time, it became about observing al the related feelings and thoughts. Then throughout the day, I would check in to notice, Can I detect those flavors emotionally? They were always there simmering on a back burner.
I think people would be surprised to know that if you saw me sitting every morning for those three weeks, you would say, Oh, he looks so relaxed. He’s not moving. I want some of what he’s having. But inside, it was a total shit storm. But I wasn’t doing it wrong. This was what my embarrassment and the reverberations felt like.
I think people would also be surprised to discover that the catharsis I felt during that time was worth every minute of turning towards that icky, garden-variety discomfort instead of pushing it away.
AT HOME IN YOUR LIFE
The narrative mode of attention wasn't always our default.
Louise Glück says, “We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.”
Noticing that you’re alive is a taste that adults have to reacquire.
People think they don’t have time to practice paying attention in the way I’m describing, but I think what we really resist is being willing to set aside our unresolved story problems — even for a few seconds.
I’m not advocating noticing every sensation all the time.
Instead of trying to put your story aside for even fifteen minutes a day, what would it be like if you limited your worrying, and numbing, and your unconsciousness to twenty-three hours and forty-five minutes?
You don’t have to try to be mindful. You don’t have to be relaxed.
Just by remembering to notice again and again that this messy life — with its one obstacle after another — really is your life, it’s possible to train your attention so that you feel more at home both in your story and in the direct experience of living.