Trying to make sense of life and to learn living it happily.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Mindfulness vs Distancing: The Right Perspective

"Man’s basic vice, the source of all his evils, is the act of unfocusing his mind, the suspension of his consciousness, which is not blindness, but the refusal to see, not ignorance, but the refusal to know."
 ~Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness

Life is beautiful. If you forget about the past and do not think about the future.

Did you know that mindfulness correlates to increasing levels of happiness? With help of brain imaging, neuroscientists demonstrated that it does (1).

Mindfulness: What Is It?

Mindfulness is conscious awareness of self and the surroundings in the present moment. It occurs when we pay complete attention to our current activity, to what we say, what we do, what we experience. Mindfulness is acknowledging our moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings, and accepting them non-judgmentally.

It may be easier to understand what mindfulness is, if we list what it is not:
  • saying something without really meaning to;
    doing something automatically (such as snacking while watching TV and being somewhat unaware of how we have finished all the food); 
  • spacing out; 
  • having to ask the other person to repeat the last sentence because our mind was elsewhere; 
  • focusing on the end result without enjoying the process (e.g. getting a college degree without enjoying the process of learning, or getting a room clean without concentrating on the mopping, etc.);
Mindfulness is a skill of focusing on whatever is happening right now (which is basically the only period we truly live in; not a moment ago and not a moment ahead. Our lives are happening in one moment only – the present moment). It is the skill of not doing or saying something automatically, but paying attention to it, considering and grasping it.

Getting Distracted

The opposite of mindfulness is getting distracted from what we are doing right now. We get distracted a lot.

Once in a while we have to switch gears urgently due to some valid and urgent reasons.

Often we get distracted purposefully. We call it multitasking, and it is a desired skill. We are always in such a hurry to get everything done that it seems sensible to try doing several things at the same time, like proofreading a report while eating lunch or texting while driving. The underlying belief is the more things we “juggle”, the more time we save and the more active and achieving we are. But in juggling, if we lose concentration, we drop a ball. And it is not always perceptible that when we decide to save time by doing several things at once, we end up not fully enjoying each action (e.g. having the aforementioned lunch without savoring it), ultimately being less efficient by underdoing (missing mistakes on the report), or overdoing  (eating more food while distracted) and even putting ourselves in danger (doing something while driving).

I read a comment by a disgruntled tech support representative who fumed about people calling in for assistance while multitasking, like feeding a baby, taking calls on the other line, etc. They lack the focus to understand basic instructions, like right click or left click, or terms like "upper right hand corner." Every step has to be repeated several times because these people are not paying attention. Ultimately, a four minute call stretches into 24 minutes, robbing both the representative and the caller of time.

So we get distracted by circumstances or by trying to multitask. But I believe that we get distracted
art credit: see note below
most without even noticing, purely because we do not focus on the task at hand. I catch myself at it, and I witness it daily as I watch my kids. They start the morning routine, the homework, the meals, or cleaning up, and instead of finishing, they get sidetracked by wondering off to play, snack, stare into the window or go check on what the other one is doing. And so every task takes probably three times as long as it should.

I tell them to be mindful, to focus on what they are doing, so that they will do it well and quickly, and then will be able to focus on the next activity. I try to impress on them that if they concentrate on the task at hand, they will understand it better and enjoy it more. I tell them that doing several things without really thinking about any of them will result in not fully experiencing any. I explain that by hurrying to do it all without concentrating, ultimately they will take much longer. I can see these are not easy concepts for them to grasp.

When I first heard about mindfulness myself, I did not really understand what is such a big deal about it. By definition, we all are living in the present (when else?), so what does it mean, “to be in the moment”? And if we are doing something, it obviously means we are doing it now, so why emphasize the need to focus on it?

I did not fully appreciate the concept of mindfulness when I first learned about it. But I started to notice that my thoughts often drift away when I do routine tasks like doing the dishes or driving, so much so that I sometimes find that I already made the left turn on a major intersection without remembering doing so. I guess I did it automatically without being mindful about it, without focusing on it. It is such a small and basically insignificant detail, that it was only mildly interesting to notice it. But I realized that the same thing happens all the time. I fail to notice the blooming flowers when I walk past them while I think about my to do list for later. I cannot remember where I put the phone or the keys because as I was putting them down, instead of focusing on that moment and that action, I was thinking of something else. I fail to focus on my life this very minute while my thoughts are somewhere else.

Doing one thing and thinking of another may feel like saving time, but in actuality, we lose time, and scarier yet, we lose our life, because we do not notice how it passes by while we daydream about happiness…

art credit: see note below
Occasionally, I try to take five minutes to meditate, which means to sit quietly, shut down all thoughts, and concentrate on something, for example, on the feelings of the body. It is not easy. I catch myself thinking about something absolutely irrelevant most of the time. It is a great exercise in mindfulness. I did not yet manage to sit a full minute without a single thought, just experiencing the present moment. But it gives me a very good idea about how I get distracted from the present, and it helps me notice when my mind starts drifting away and try to refocus it on what I am doing.

It took me some time to “get” mindfulness, and it will take some more to practice it and be truly mindful and present in every moment.

Present Time is Now

We often lose the present in favor of analyzing/reminiscing about the past or dreaming/fretting about the future. A Laya Yoga monk once told me that people busy their minds with thinking about the past, which is gone forever and cannot be changed and the future, which did not happen and is unknowable. The only experience we can feel, change, and live is the present.

Letting go of the past and not anticipating the future is the essence of mindfulness.

Benefits of Mindfulness

When we are mindful, each our decision is conscientious, which translates into us taking greater responsibilities for life choices and better control over our lives.

Psychotherapists are coming to embrace mindfulness as a method for re-training the mind to think and react to events in a different way. Practicing mindfulness helps us recognize our habitual patterns of mind, which allows us to respond in new rather than habitual ways to our life (2).

It is believed that practicing mindfulness makes the practitioner happier. Meditation is a great exercise for mindfulness. Research shows that meditation increases the activity of the left prefrontal cortex area of our brains, which is associated with feelings of happiness, joy and enthusiasm. Dr. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin believes that meditation can mold our brains to develop happier temperaments (3).

Mindfulness vs. Distancing: The Right Balance

by ~FuturamaJSP

Mindfulness is a focused awareness of the present moment. Like I discussed above, it is extremely beneficial for us to live mindfully. But even good things can be overdone and become harmful instead of useful. For example, fretting too much over every detail is a prescription for an anxiety

Distancing behavior means remaining cool and avoiding becoming involved.

disorder, not happiness. Looking at everything through a magnifying glass and noticing every imperfection (which can be found in anything and everything) is emotionally exhausting.
Appreciate life as a whole. Do not amplify (overemphasize) lousy parts of life. Realize that it may be just a bad day in overall good life.

Moderation is key for anything in our lives, and so we have to find the right balance between mindfulness and distancing, and use both of them wisely.

I will list some mindfulness exercises in my next posts.


(1) The Mindful Attention Awareness Scale for Adolescents (MAAS-A): Psychometric Properties in a Dutch Sample by E. I. de Bruin, B. J. H. Zijlstra, E. van de Weijer-Bergsma, S. M. Bögels. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12671-011-0061-6

(2) "Mindfulness and Integrative Psychotherapy" at www.mindfulnessandpsychotherapy.co.uk

(3)“Scientists Meditate on Happiness, http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2003/09/60452?currentPage=all

* art credit: I do not know who created these beautiful pictures. If you do, let me know and I will attribute it.

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