As well as being tremendously beneficial to our mental health, mindfulness is also one of the most powerful spiritual practices we can take up. In addition to improving mood and clarity of thought, mindfulness can also raise our vibration and lead to ego death and profound spiritual enlightenment. The classic book on the spiritual aspect of mindfulness is Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. At the beginning of the book, Tolle describes his own experience of “waking up”, as though from a deep sleep, and finding that the world was vivid, exciting and deeply joyful – as though he was looking at everything for the first time.
The only trouble is, for many people it’s much easier in theory than in practice. Attempting to make this a habit can be quite a frustrating experience when we realise how full of thoughts our heads really are. Minimising multitasking and distractions and making a persistent effort to fully absorb ourselves in whatever activity we are engaged in is a first step towards cultivating the habit. But the modern world is full of distractions, and many of us find that our brains simply refuse to concentrate, no matter how hard we try. So here’s an incredibly simple technique that can get you started on this wonderful habit immediately, with minimal effort.
Before I get to the fun part, I need to discuss willingness, because nothing else will work without it. We need to be willing to put aside our endless stream of thoughts about the past and future when they arise. This is a big part of the battle, because being absorbed in our thoughts can be tremendously satisfying, in a way – why else would we do it? Making the commitment to switch our thoughts off even when we want to continue can be difficult at first, especially if we are prone to deep feelings of regret, remorse or sadness about the past. We need to have a conscious willingness to stop such trains of thought as they arise, or they will simply continue and we will quickly become absorbed in them. If we are absorbed in the past, we can simply choose to make peace with it and put it aside. On the other hand, if we are anxious or excited about the future we can make a decision to trust in a higher power and then put the thoughts aside until we can set aside an appropriate moment to make whatever plans we need to make. In other words, leave the past alone and let our thoughts about the future be limited to specific times when we are engaged in formal planning.
Unfortunately, nature abhors a vacuum and so when we attempt to silence the mind, most people find they can only manage a few moments before their thoughts return and they lose all sense of the present moment. The way to overcome this in the beginning is to use our thoughts to make us fully aware of the present, rather than trying to stop them altogether.
You can do this by describing everything that you’re seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling while you’re out and about. If you’re walking through a park you could simply say “green and red leaves, green grass with patches of yellow and a few fallen leaves. Birds tweeting, a gentle breeze on my face, the faint smell of pine.” You can freely repeat yourself, and describe in as little or as much detail as you like, provided you don’t get too absorbed in the details and lose your sense of presence. On the other hand, it’s good to pay a little extra attention compared to what you might normally, or you could find yourself mindlessly rattling off the names of things without truly absorbing yourself in their presence.
If you feel anxious that you might forget about something important that pops into your mind, you can carry around a reporter’s notebook to take down anything you feel is important. However, please don’t be tempted to use your phone for this purpose. An important part of the process of developing full awareness is weaning ourselves off distracting technology. You don’t have to throw your phone away, but don’t needlessly give yourself an extra reason to play with it.
You can also use this when you’re around the house, or engaged in any activity where your mind would normally wander. If you’re cooking, you can describe the kitchen bench, and the colour, texture and smell of whatever ingredients you’re chopping up. If you’re doing the washing, describe the feel of the fabric and the colours and patterns of your clothes. The more you remember to practise this technique, the more your mind will revert to it instead of wandering into endless streams of thoughts.
Remember, this is a stepping stone to full mindfulness. It’s the easiest way to unlearn the habit of letting your mind wander aimlessly through the past and into the future. The more you practice it, the more you’ll find yourself naturally tuning in to and observing the present moment, and the easier it will be to develop those periods of full awareness in between thoughts. Of course, the ultimate goal is to let go of the mental commentary altogether and simply be aware of your surroundings without the use of words. But you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to achieve this when you use this intermediary step. Everything in life works so much better when we go with the flow instead of fighting against it. So use the power of your mind as a tool to promote awareness, instead of creating resistance by ordering it to shut up.