Introduction

I was wondering about three expressions I’ve been hearing more about lately, the power of the moment, living in the moment and mindfulness. To keep things simple, let’s agree the three terms mean the same thing.

 

More and more often its being suggested that we should try to quieten our minds down, find our centre so we can fully sense the power of the moment, find mental clarity and other benefits. We should try to return to this feeling of being in the present as often as we can, and as deeply as possible. It sounds sensible enough. But, to me it seems strange that we have to return to the present. Aren’t we here in the present, all the time, anyway? Where are we if we’re not here now? What is mindfulness? What is being in the present? How does it feel? Is it simple and easy to do? Or is it, and are we, more complicated?

 

So, rather than simply swallow what sounds like others’ well-intentioned advice I decided it would be interesting to dissect this topic from the viewpoint of an average person’s everyday experience, that is, someone like me.

The power of the moment is not always the same moment

 

See if you can relate your experience to these five anecdotes about being in the moment.

 

A three-year-old boy called Ben clutches a red toy plane, and happily rambles on in a language only he can understand. He’s lost to the experience. His parents tell me he’s been playing with the plane for several weeks since he went to the airshow with them. There is a quiet natural joy here without intention. He’s lost in the moment, and perhaps for him the moment has lasted several weeks. Who knows. Only he does, and I wonder if he has the self awareness as a very young child to reflect on his own state of mind.

 

An elderly man, sits alone in the food court of a local shopping centre. As I walk past, I look into his face and see the inner man wrestling with a grim loneliness and despair. Its obvious to me at least, that he‘s bored and unhappy, and that this daily ritual has become buried in weeks, and the weeks of an unhappy solitude are burying his spirit with it. Perhaps he just has indigestion and I’m misreading the signals. But he’s totally in the moment. And he’s suffering in it. He’ll be back tomorrow.

 

A monk I imagine, meditates quietly, and has been doing so for years. Perhaps she smiles inwardly occasionally as she watches her thoughts like clouds form, and then drift by. In her earlier days of practice, her thoughts were like fierce air currents opposing each other, or a howling gale that only sometimes dropped to a breeze. These days she’s standing aside observing her thoughts, paying attention to them, rather than being overwhelmed by them. The storms are still passing through all these years later, but as her practice of mindfulness deepens, she finds quieter and quieter places from within to watch the storms go by. And by watching them she seems to have tamed their unruliness a little, as she is feeding them less emotional responses. I’d like to think their intricacies and richness are revealing themselves more and more to her.

 

An art teacher I recently took a course with is totally absorbed in her work. You can see it in her face and her hands. When she led the class, she successfully taught the less uptight in our art class to start finding the same spirit of joyful creativity through her simple warm-up exercises. This letting go, I think was actually was the most important thing we learnt in the class apart from the technical side of how draw. Perhaps the subconscious or something else was allowed out to play at last. When we were relaxed enough, we became less controlled by the disruptive and destructive voice in our heads. William Blake called this voice ‘the accuser’, you know, the voice that says “you can’t draw”. Once past that, we moved into what has been called “flow”, a state of concentration where our whole being was totally absorbed in the task at hand. In this case, time seemed an irritation, unimportant, yet it passed quickly.

 

And lastly, a few weeks back, just before I capsized in a small but tricky rapid in my kayak on the Yarra River, I fell into a ‘refreshing’ moment. While I was underwater the city and its tamed surfaces seemed far way, even though they were really just over the next hill. I had been concentrating extra hard on a fast section of river and rocks, but even that was not enough. Even when I was upside down and saw the roiling dark bubbly water pass me by, my sense of time slowed down, and I felt completely in the present, but it was an anxious, present and I had to get back up to where there was air, and then wade across a strong current to the river bank to empty a kayak now full of water. Then I was out of the moment thinking about a hot shower.

 

These five sketches show us that we can focus our attention in various ways. Our experience, for example, can be a relaxed inner joy, sadness and despair, a quiet disciplined attention, feeling free and creative, or feeling fear and anxiety. Our attention can be solely on our own emotions, on our surroundings, the past or the future, or a mix of all of these. And yet although we feel the here and now through the different inner lenses of our complicated human experience, some of these states seem more desirable to us than others, some just feel more peaceful, richer and deeper.

 

I think that this is a really important point, this idea that in among so many states of mind, some seem to keep calling us back, where other states feel more like we are just responding to what is happening outside or even inside. To expand on this, here’s a profound question and comment about this from the leader of our society “… How is it that we experience a striving to an awareness of “the moment,” and all the while the experiencing of any thought and/or feeling and/or sensory perception is already of  “the moment “?   What could this distinction be about?  What is it that allows us to be filled with the beauty of a sunset?  This is really a wonderful field of our nature to examine!  And the paradoxes it holds . . . . . . . maybe are openings to a being so balanced as to draw from the voiceless depths of our nature to light the world around…”

 

And so, with practice, we can find a more satisfying way of being fully here in the moment, where by refocussing our attention we can find what I’d call “a quieter spot by the side of the river”, like the monk who had practiced her deepening mindfulness over many years, but unlike the kayaker dreaming of the hot shower.

 

In his book Coffee with the Buddha John Duncan Oliver put it this way: “A well-trained mind is clear and aware. It isn’t pulled this way or that by desires, disturbances, or delusion. Mindfulness – attentiveness – makes every experience richer and more rewarding. When you’re paying attention you’re living in the here and now, not the past or future…The basis of mindfulness is observing what’s actually happening in the mind and the body at the present moment, without judging your experience, or adding to it, or trying to change it. Unless you consciously gather your attention, your mind is likely to be all over the place, forming ideas and opinions, framing questions, passing judgements, drawing conclusions – jumping from one thing to another. There’s no stability. An unstable mind wanders off into fantasy and projection, leaving reality behind. Mindfulness settles and concentrates the mind, stripping away fantasy to give you a direct experience of reality.”

 

Let’s do a two-minute-exercise right now to demonstrate what I mean. Do it if you want, or not. Leave the outside world outside the front door. Let it go. Close your eyes. Feel your breathing. Feel where the tension is in your body. Follow your breathing. Your thoughts might be here or they might be elsewhere. Just watch them, without judging. Rest a while. Feel where your body is tensing up and stay with that feeling. Just pay attention to your breathing and watch your thoughts as they come and go without judging, follow your breathing. Open your eyes.

 

That was my simplified version of a mindfulness check-in exercise developed by a Melbourne psychologist on the mindfulness.org.au website. By focusing on the breathing we can bring our attention back to the here and now, but we’re not fighting ourselves, and our attention while active, is less divided.

 

Mainstream health practitioners are now catching up with the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Cognitive behavioural therapists are now using mindfulness meditation techniques to help their patients overcome stress, refocus unhelpful habits of thinking and manage conditions such as depression.

 

Even the Harvard School of Health lists the medical and other benefits of mindfulness meditation on their excellent HelpGuide (helpguide.org) website. On a page called the Benefits of Mindfulness and under a section called Ancient roots, modern applications, they explain to those new to the idea that “The cultivation of mindfulness has roots in Buddhism, but most religions include some type of prayer or meditation technique that helps shift your thoughts away from your usual preoccupations toward an appreciation of the moment and a larger perspective on life”. I like that. It’s a simple and balanced definition, easy for the average person to understand, but it also tells us that the practice of mindfulness while probably called other things, has a long history of practice across all religious traditions.

 

Here’s a summary of the benefits of developing mindfulness:   

·         we feel a fresh appreciation for our surroundings and our lives

·         it’s been shown as a way to treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, improve sleep, relieve stress, anxiety disorders, improves memory

·         we can worry less about the future or the past

·         it will slow us down, so we do not always react so instinctively

·         it can neutralise unhelpful habits of thought

·         it allows us to appreciate others more fully

·         we can stop and listen to what our body wants to tell us.

 

There are other impressive benefits. Ajahn Brahm, the Theravada Buddhist monk and current abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in the hills south of Serpentine in Western Australia, said that after training prison inmates to meditate, he has been able to dramatically and consistently reduce the likelihood they’ll reoffend. However, at one prison he was surprised to see 95% of the prison population turn up for the first meditation lesson, but later realised they were hoping to learn to levitate themselves over the prison walls.

 

Brain scans of meditator show meditation actually changes the brain structure. On the mindful.org website there’s a very detailed article about the research on this. What researchers have found can be summarised as: “… over the past decade, researchers have found that if you practice focusing attention on your breath or a mantra, the brain will restructure itself to make concentration easier. If you practice calm acceptance during meditation, you will develop a brain that is more resilient to stress. And if you meditate while cultivating feelings of love and compassion, your brain will develop in such a way that you spontaneously feel more connected to others.”

 

Also quoted on the same site, researcher, Philippe Goldin, director of the Clinically Applied Affective Neuroscience project in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, says he believes “mindfulness meditation teaches people with anxiety how to handle distressing thoughts and emotions without being overpowered by them. Most people either push away unpleasant thoughts or obsess over them—both of which give anxiety more power. “The goal of meditation is not to get rid of thoughts or emotions. The goal is to become more aware of your thoughts and emotions and learn how to move through them without getting stuck.” The brain scans suggest that the anxiety sufferers were learning to witness negative thoughts without going into a full-blown anxiety response.”

 

Now if that’s not a practical definition of detachment I don’t what is.

 

Even large corporates are introducing mindfulness techniques to their workers to combat mental fatigue and increase productivity. One business leader William George, was quoted in 2012 in the FT online magazine article The Mind Business: He said: “The main business case for meditation is that if you’re fully present on the job, you will be more effective as a leader, you will make better decisions and you will work better with other people.”

 

But why do we have this problem of being unable to stay in the moment?  I doubt that 300 years ago we needed to find out. How did our awareness of the here and now get so fragmented, so broken, that we now need to buy books, learn to meditate or come to talks like these?

 

There are several things working against us, and some are self-inflicted. They are: our natural inclination to plan ahead and worry, information and digital overload, distractions, multitasking, and the unhelpful conversations we have with ourselves. The obstacles will be different for each of us, but understanding them helps us to understand ourselves, and that’s often the first step.

Anxious planning or worry: survival tools

Winston Churchill said there are three kinds of people in the world. Those who bore themselves to death, those that work themselves to death, and those that worry themselves to death. So, maybe even he knew worrying comes naturally, but living in the moment does not!

 

We’ve thrived as a species because we can plan ahead and reflect and learn from the past. It’s the frontal part of your brain, the modern part that is hardwired to plan. It probably evolved from when we were a young as species and we had to learn how to avoid starvation, how to survive being eaten by wild animals or how to repel the neighbouring tribe’s next attack. We just had to learn from bad experiences and plan ahead or we would die. Then we would ready for the next encounter with a spear, sabre-toothed tiger or a rumbling stomach.

 

When we gave up being nomadic, in some parts of the world we had to make sure we had enough food for a long winter, so we had to plan even further ahead. All of this planning and imagining what might happen forced our attention out of the moment. Probably a lot of our planning, even then, fell into the category of worry, or anxious planning, but it helped us survive while shaping our thinking abilities and habits, and set us well apart from other less ‘self reflective’ species. So, I think our capacity to plan and even worry is an important part of our survival skills.

Distractions, digital overload, multitasking

 

Losing our concentration due to endless distractions is something we all know about. But there’s another side to distractions, especially those in the workplace not widely known. The evidence is that when we’re deep in concentration, and a distraction breaks us out of it, it takes us time to recover our focus. How long it takes varies person to person. David Brown, an Australian workplace psychologist wrote in The Pocket Stress Manager in 2003, that depending on your temperament, it takes about ten minutes to recover from an interruption to re-find your concentration. And if you’re interrupted every five minutes, for example, by a phone call, a text message, an email notification, a noise; you’ll spend the entire day recovering from interruptions and getting nothing substantial done. Another study found we were 20% dumber when we multitask, and those who thought they were the best at multitasking, scored the worst.

 

We are also saturated (if we want to be) by digital information. And there’s a constant pressure to stay connected. Some of us are now checking our digital updates as we drive. Or to my increasing annoyance, at the traffic lights.

 

One recent article on The Conversation website titled Approach your laptop mindfully to avoid digital overload, said this about the trend to towards controlling our digital distractions: “Others are turning to traditional mindfulness meditation techniques as a way of managing their digital dependence without having to switch off from their everyday lives entirely. It’s seen as a way to calm the mind and help the body to cope with the overwhelming amount of data coming our way from all different directions and sources.” The authors of the article also referred the reader to Time magazine’s main cover article of 3 February 2014, “The Mindful Revolution. The science of finding focus in a stressed-out, multitasking culture.”

 

So, as a result, more and more people are declaring a ‘digital free Sunday’ to recover something of the peace of the moment. I was a little surprised to read that the sister of the founder of Facebook, Randi Zuckerberg, wrote an article in the UK’s Mail Online last year, titled Why I want a digital-free Sunday… she said this: “I felt so much pressure to be always ‘on’, always connected, that by the time I looked up, a year later, I had been to 25 countries, made hundreds of friends and business contacts, built a production studio and launched a business. But I had forgotten to actually live my life without a device attached to my hand. Even though I love my phone and tablet, our shiny, beeping gadgets are competing with our loved ones for attention. I had forgotten how to just unplug and enjoy the company of those around me. I had forgotten how to be present in the moment.”

 

It sounds as though she entered and lived in another world, even while surrounded by this one.

Too much internal chatter

 

Another factor that takes us away from the pure and simple experience of the now is the internal endless chatter in our heads. These conversations in our head run endlessly. They are often about the past and perhaps the future. What we should have said, what we should done. Even when we try to sleep they continue their pointless retelling.

 

One author Spencer Johnson, who wrote a marvellous little book called The Present, advises us to stop just listening passively, but actively listen to the conversations we’re having with ourselves about the past. He says that if we actively try to understand and learn from past incidents and past pain, instead of simply replaying these painful experiences over and over, we’ll find it much easier to let these annoying conversations go. If we do this, we will have a quieter internal life, and automatically find ourselves more aware of the present.

 

Simple, easy methods to get back here now

This paper wouldn’t be complete without sharing a few simple methods you can try to help calm the mind and bring you back to the present. That’s all they do. The more demanding mindfulness meditation techniques are another area you may wish to explore. Just remember that without effort, there is no reward, so if you are like me, doing them once and expecting life-changing results is normal — but unrealistic.

1. Mindful observation from the Pocket Mindfulness website:  “Pick a natural organism within your immediate environment and focus on watching it for a minute or two. This could be a flower or an insect, the clouds or the moon. Don’t do anything except notice the thing you are looking at. But really notice it. Look at it as if you are seeing it for the first time. Visually explore very aspect of this glorious organism of the natural world. Allow yourself to be consumed by its presence and possibilities. Allow your spirit to connect with its role and purpose in the world. Give yourself permission to just to notice and ‘be’.”

 

2. Walking meditation: For better concentration and powers of focus, count your steps when you walk. Take six steps while taking a long inhale, hold your breath for another six steps, and then exhale for six steps. If six steps is too long for each of your breaths, do what you can comfortable manage. You will feel alert, fresh and mentally peaceful and centered after this exercise.

 

3. The Two Minute Mind: Stare at the second hand on your watch for two minutes and think about nothing else. At first your mind will wander but after three weeks of practice, your attention will not waver during the routine.

 

4. Erin Frey in the Better humans website recommends The Two Minute Mind Sweep. Spend two minutes writing down everything that is on your mind, everything that is holding your attention.

 

5. Australian health consultant Mark Bunn advises when you wake in the morning, walk outside in bare feet to reconnect, and ground yourself, and look at the sky in the area of sky the rising sun, at or just after sunrise, but obviously don’t look directly at the sun or you’ll damage your eyes.

 

6. Slow yourself down and simply do one thing at a time. It’s surprisingly hard.

If you wish to make a comment on this lecture or contact the author, please email: andrewrooke@hotmail.com