Is mindfulness better than chocolate? Is anything better than chocolate? As it happens, this idea is based on a fascinating recent study by Harvard University, which revealed three facts. First, we aren’t thinking about what we are doing 47 per cent of the time. Second, we are unhappier when our minds are wandering than when they are not. Third, what we think is a better predictor of our happiness than what we do.
Mindfulness (paying attention to the present moment, deliberately and non-judgmentally) holds the key to happiness. The Harvard study showed that “the nature of people’s activities had only a modest impact on whether their minds wandered”. It would seem that whether we’re washing the dishes or eating the most mouth-wateringly delicious Belgian praline, we’re just as likely to have a wandering mind. Eating chocolate is no guarantee that we’re thinking about what we’re doing.
But I have been a little mischievous in creating a false dichotomy between mindfulness and chocolate. There’s no reason to choose between the two. Few things can beat chocolate – providing it is eaten mindfully!
Some months ago, I was asked by someone who had just come back from Thailand: “Why do Buddhist monks meditate? After all, they don’t have any stress.”
For me, this summed up the tragically diminished idea many have of what mindfulness and meditation are about. They’re great for managing stress, but that isn’t the main reason for practising them. They may be what start us on our journey – they were for me. But the treasure of mindfulness is that it provides us with tools to see the true nature of our own minds.
The growing volume of scientific studies shows how we can all benefit from mindfulness in basic but profound ways. Stress management? Certainly. Boosting our immune systems and pushing back our biological clocks? That, too! The physical and psychological benefits of mindfulness alone are well worth getting out of bed 10 minutes earlier for every morning.
But mindfulness also offers the possibility to change the content of our ongoing conversation with ourselves. Chatter, chatter, chatter: we’re all up to it. But are there recurring themes in this constant stream of self-talk that don’t serve you well? For example, are you a worrier, constantly anticipating all the things that could possibly go wrong, convincing yourself the worst outcome is almost certain? Are you a victim, or someone who feels blighted by an event in the past? The combination of mindfulness with cognitive behaviour training is one of the most powerful transformation modalities. Creating space amid all the mental agitation, discovering that we can become observers of our thoughts rather than their slaves – this is another extraordinary consequence of mindfulness.
But, most of all, mindfulness enables us to discover for ourselves that our mind is infinite. It has no beginning and no end. Far from being an existential void, it is imbued with profound happiness-giving qualities. We experience the paradox that even though we set out to explore our mind, the result is as much a feeling as it is
a perception. An experience beyond concept, for which words are inadequate, but that may be hinted at by terms like ‘oceanic tranquillity’ and ‘radiant love’.
This isn’t a religious experience or ecstatic emotional high. It’s described by meditators both secular and religious. Even the briefest experience of it is life-changing: freed from the agitation or dullness that pervades our minds to our own true nature, if only momentarily, we can never go back to seeing ourselves as
a bag of bones. We have experienced a dimension of being that transcends all our usual ideas of self. We have come home.
A Quick Guide to Mindfulness
- Use the enjoyable things you do regularly – like drinking barista coffee – as ways to practise mindfulness. Get maximum bang for your buck by fully savouring every mouthful!
- Set up a calming alert to go off at random times on your smartphone. Use it as a trigger to take a nice, deep mindful breath. As you exhale, relax!
- Next time you find yourself waiting, try mindful breathing, not irritation.
- Put coloured stickers on places like your computer, watch strap, fridge door, kettle or dashboard. Use them as reminders to come back to this moment, or take a mindful breath.
- Without changing what you do, change the way you do routine things like having a shower, brushing your teeth or driving to work. Instead of slipping into ‘narrative mode,’ getting caught up in your thoughts, use them as practice to stay in ‘direct mode’.
- When you’re alone with your partner or family, pay close attention to them.