Mindfulness: From Distraction to Stillness
Stillness. The calm surface of a lake at dawn. The silence of an empty chapel. The soft quiet of a night full of stars. How we wish at times for our minds to settle, and just be still. For the pointless worries to stop, that ceaseless chatter. What we should have done, what we should be doing, what we should be preparing for. The tyranny of the shoulds. Our minds are constantly doing, always trying to fix things, change things, make things better. Trying to close the gap between where we are, and where we think we should be. From the second we get up in the morning, to the time we fall asleep at night. What should I have said to her on the phone last weekend? What can I do about my weight? All big questions, to be sure, but do they never stop? Why can’t we shut our minds off? It’s something I hear in the office all the time. I can’t focus, doc. I can’t turn my brain off. It won’t let me sleep. It must be ADHD. Isn’t there a pill you can give me?
Modern society doesn’t help. There’s always another distraction out there. Something else to do. Cellphones, Facebook, Twitter, Google. More channels on TV. More ads. Faster cars. Better hair. Whiter teeth. Another thrill, another sensation. Don’t stop, or you might miss something. A constant need for ‘more’. It isn’t hard to see where addiction fits in.
What’s the answer? How does one stop ‘doing, doing, doing’, and just ‘be’? How do we learn to control our minds, and not have them running in circles, taking us with them? For a few, the diagnosis really is ADHD, and treatment for this can help. For most of us though, the problem isn’t that we can’t pay attention, but that we’ve forgotten how to. This is where the gentle practice of mindfulness can help. Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges through paying attention, in the present moment, to things as they are. It’s what happens when you start to notice what’s going on, both outside you, and on the inside, in your thoughts and feelings. Noticing what it’s like to eat an apple and enjoy it, rather than ‘scarfing’ down lunch so fast you can’t remember 10 minutes later what you just ate. Noticing what your thoughts are, but then remembering that they’re just thoughts, and that you don’t have to react to them.
A simple way to begin being mindful is to take a minute and just focus on your breathing. Try it. Let your breath be your ‘anchor’. Notice how each breath in fills you with energy, and how each outward breath lets go of tension. Sit with your breathing for a moment, and notice what happens. Let whatever happens happen. You might notice how the soles of your feet feel on the floor. You might become aware of all the sounds around you. Notice it, and then come back to being aware of your breathing. A thought might cross your mind. Just notice it, like it’s a cloud crossing the sky. Then gently let it go, and come back to your breathing. You don’t have to react to every thought. Thoughts and feelings come and go all the time, like bags coming down the baggage chute at the airport. If you choose, you can sit with them and let yourself experience them. On the other hand, you can let them go, and just come back to your breathing. You can control what you pay attention to, and for how long. You can learn to control your mind, rather than letting your thoughts and impulses run away with you. It’s a skill, which means it takes practice, but it’s a skill worth learning. And the payoff, ultimately, is stillness.
By: Dr. Charlie Whelton, M.D., FRCP(C), ASAM Certified