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36. Mindful or Mind Full?

The human brain is an extraordinary thing. It allows us to think, move, feel, see, hear, taste, and smell. It receives information, analyzes information, and stores information. It has ideas, visions, imagination. It is busy most of the time. It should be the most fantastic tool, the best in our toolbox; one that we can take out and use when we need it and put away when we don't. Unfortunately it doesn't work quite like that. It often feels, on the contrary, as if we are the tool of the brain and it uses us when it wants to and puts us away on those rare occasions when it doesn't. We are largely at its mercy. This week's tip is about our brain, and whether there is any alternative to being its servant. 'I've got the brain of a four year old. I'll bet he was glad to be rid of it.' Groucho Marx If I ask you not to think about a yellow frog with pink spots, what happens? You immediately conjure up a picture of a yellow frog with pink spots. The brain likes doing that kind of thing and it does so without your consent. Any attempt by you to stop thinking about yellow frogs, or anything else for that matter, is doomed to failure. You may want to spend some quality time with your friend, or your book, or your lovely hot bath, but your brain has other plans. It wants to mull over that disagreement you had with a colleague last week; it wants to work out how many calories you've eaten so far today; it wants to worry about that interview that's coming up, or the results of that blood test that you're waiting for, or what to give Great Aunt Lily for her birthday. Before long you're entirely immersed in the world of your brain, and your friend, book or bath have become a blur. You may remember the Dr Hook song, 'I was stoned and I missed it', but in fact you don't have to be stoned to miss things, you just have to think. Sometimes people say 'pessimism is realism', but it isn't. Pessimism is imagination, as is optimism, and has no closer relationship with reality than a Walt Disney film. Reality is what is happening here and now, in this moment. It is the itch in your big toe, the sound of the cars going by, the look on your friend's face as they talk to you, the feel of the hot water around your body in the bath. The disagreement with your colleague may have happened, but it's not happening now, other than in your head. The blood test that will reveal that you have precisely three days to live is similarly in the realms of your imagination. At the moment the specimen is sitting in someone's in-tray while they have a nice weekend. This is the life most of us live, the imaginative life of the brain. It causes us a lot of suffering, at worst, and at best it means that we're missing large chunks of our precious lives because we're not really here. 'Worry is an abuse of the imagination' Steve Chandler If our lives were simply a train of thoughts going through our head, that would be bad enough, but no, every thought we have has an effect on how we feel as well. A thought about a forthcoming interview, say an image of six huge, hostile interviewers all looking at a miniscule, dumbstruck, facsimile of you, can set off an amazing series of events in your body. Like lightening, a message goes to your adrenal gland, a cocktail of hormones are promptly released into your bloodstream, your heart rate shoots up, you start to sweat, your stomach clenches. Then your brain produces more terrifying images, and the whole process starts all over again. But if we have no control over our brains, you may reasonably ask, then what can we do? Well of course humans have found all manner of ways of protecting themselves against their brains. We get drunk, take drugs, ensure we're so busy that we don't have time to think, engage in activities that bring us compellingly into the moment (bungy jumping comes to mind), watch television, comfort eat, play computer games, surf the internet...... and so on. But these methods rarely solve the problem, other than temporarily. You may feel a sense of respite while playing your twenty-fifth game of Freecell on your computer, but the minute you stop, all your thoughts come flooding back. What we need is a way of living with the reality of our brain, while not being run by it. That is what the increasingly popular methods for stilling the mind, such as meditation, yoga, chi gong, tai chi, mindfulness, are all about. Mindfulness is an age old Buddhist practice that has achieved a high therapeutic status in the west in recent years. It aims to move us away from our habit of always thinking about our experience towards simply experiencing it. For example, we hear someone saying something to us, and then our brain tells us if it is kind or hurtful, interesting or boring, courteous or rude. Mindfulness is the art of simply 'being' with our experience, noticing it, but not reacting to it, experiencing it without needing a grand jury deciding on whether it is good or bad. Practiced regularly over time, it can radically change your moment to moment experience of life. Try this: 1. Notice what thoughts are going through your mind right now. Maybe they're making judgements or raising questions about what you've just read; flitting off to what you were thinking before you started; telling you to stop all this and get on with something useful. If there are any active thoughts in your mind then you are in 'doing mode.' 2. For a taste of 'being mode', slowly follow these steps. You can read them yourself, or even better, record them or get someone to read them to you. As you follow them, thoughts will sometimes intrude, taking you away from the sensations in your body. When that happens, just notice them and let them go, bringing your attention gently back to your body. Make yourself comfortable in a chair. Notice the weight of your body and legs on the seat, and your back against the back. Take a few deep breaths, noticing the rise and fall of your body as you do so. Now bring your attention down your body to your feet. Notice the contact they make with the floor, the feel of your shoes or socks or the air around them. Then slowly start to scan up your legs, first your ankles, then your lower legs, your knees, your thighs, noticing what sensations you find there. Reaching your hips and pelvis, scan up through your lower abdomen, the front, the back, and what lies between. Move up to your chest..... then your shoulders. Notice any tension you find, without trying to change anything. Now let your attention go down your arms to your hands, noticing any sensations you find in these parts of your body. Then move your attention to your neck, up to your jaw, your face, your eyes, your forehead. Then the top of your head, the back of it, and the sides. Now bring your attention to your breathing. Without trying to make your breathing any particular way, notice the sensation as the breath enters and leaves your nose. Then notice how it feels as the cool air passes the back of your throat on the in-breath, and the warm air passes on the out-breath. Now bring your attention to your chest, how it rises and falls with the breath. And now allowing your attention to drop down to your belly, notice again how it rises and falls with the breath. Keep focussing on the breath in your belly for a minute or two. Then let your consciousness expand to take in your whole body. Then start to notice the sounds in the room, letting any thoughts about the sounds go, just noticing them exactly as they are. And finally, when you're ready, gently open your eyes. Resources: John Kabat Zinn is a physician in the US and has brought mindfulness into modern medicine. You can see him running a mindfulness session here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nwwKbM_vJc He's also written several books and CDs, here are two of them: Wherever You Go, There You are: Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life by John Kabat Zinn Guided Mindfulness Meditation, CD, John Kabat Zinn Have a mindul week!