Mindfulness for Distracted People

It’s official, I can’t be hypnotised; despite my desperate desire for it. Many years ago, a celebrated hypnotist brought his big show to our little town; the highlight was a stage full of people squawking like chickens. What could be more fun! That night, I bounced up and down in my blue plastic seat wildly flailing my arm to be selected. I was the second last to be selected and had nearly given up hope but oh, finally I was part of that group snaking up onto that stage to be arranged in a long line under harsh lights facing the darkened audience. Some droning instructions were given (to which I paid full attention) and suddenly everyone else seated on the stage was leaping around making noises like demented poultry whilst I sat there slightly disappointed and completely baffled. An attendant’s arm emerged from the side of the stage like a shepherd’s crook and I was firmly removed. Back to the drawing board..

Many years later at university I routinely took part in random psychological experiments to supplement my meagre student income from doing hospitality (note for the uninitiated, don’t do the sleep deprivation ones, firstly they are brutal and secondly they shave little squares on your head). One of these was an experiment on hypnosis. I signed up excitedly and, yet again, failed to succumb to chickendom. Oh the shame of admitting afterwards that I had stayed lucid while they disappeared into that other world. The only silver lining was that I was invited to be a subject for young criminologists (which is eventually the area I went into) who were being trained to spot people who were ‘faking’ and it paid well but I never did get the chance to spread my wings, figuratively and literally.

The point here is that, had I put any thought into it, I was clearly going to be a complete failure at traditional Mindfulness. Sitting quietly, trying not to scratch my head and tap my toes while everyone else slips away to that parallel place of tranquillity. So, feeling like a failure is boring so what to do? How can I bring some peace into my overheated noggin?

When I was younger I did it naturally, whenever I was upset I found nature. I went for a run out in The Bush behind our house and found a kind tree, the best ones were beside streams with a trunk that you could lean against and release your thoughts to the leaves rustling above, consciousness sliding over me with no finish and no end, sometimes for as little as ten minutes but I would always return completely refreshed.

As I got older this practise fell away, mainly for the lack of a place that I could be solitary; a problem I still struggle with. I found some solace in those days running, riding my bicycle or churning through lap after lap in a pool but on some strange level it always felt a little as though I was punishing myself for something that I wasn’t sure that I had done wrong. Finally in my late twenties I came to rowing, and there was a magical something about the simple little thoughts required to stay connected to the movement of that precarious craft out in all weathers. Those small clean truths demanded my full attention and every day I pushed my boat away from the pontoon and left my woes on the shore. Despite the early mornings and the hands that looked like pizzas I was hooked. Just the sheer richness of the experience; the beauty of the environment; the sound of the blade dipping into the water. I was so happy the first time I did a proper stroke the world literally sparkled. This joy was sadly taken away from me by a poorly managed injury but not before I had spent time in Tokyo training with the National Team there. My last big race was in another world.

The Japanese have an ability to disappear into themselves, especially in crowds. If you are paying attention it is a masterclass in serenity and the god of small things. I came to understand the importance of simple rituals and it was later that I saw how many professional athletes and executives in incredibly stressful situations so often have their little rituals. A droplet of time to breathe deeply, to execute a small ritual within which they centred themselves (bouncing a ball, some simple stretches) and moved forward refreshed and ready for the challenge.

When I was rowing for Cambridge our trusty old coach Ron Needs, who had worked with the GB team for many years, ran us through visualisation after visualisation. Every possible outcome (within reason – the later race where the boat filled with water definitely wasn’t planned for) was covered and every time, we were told to visualise ourselves pulling through and prevailing. That was how we trained our brains not to be flustered by events, to always respond in a lucid and calm way.

It is harder to find this space now. So many of the devices that we have tethered ourselves to are designed to shock and surprise us, to invade our consciousness and make us feel vulnerable. It has been such a long time since the majority of news on the News was actually news. While a violent death or a distant war grabs our attention it is rarely something that will affect our life and even more rarely of national importance, (often the media interest is a nightmare for the family and friends of the victims). Advertising revenues drive so much of these full-page headlines and click-bait. They may distract us but they don’t give us peace and most often they purposefully don’t give us the uplifting news that is sitting in the shadows because accepted retail wisdom is that contented people don’t shop as much. Very often the devices that we have bought to entertain us also wind up dominating the downtime when our brains should be recovering.. and so often we are left feeling constantly overwhelmed by even the smallest stressors.

You may have gathered by my name that I was born in Denmark. Danes are huge fans of something called ‘hygge’ (hoog-eh) which has become popular in other places too. This is definitely one way of seeking mindfulness through the right environment and a grateful attitude (the bigger the storm is outside the more hygge it is to be inside). My parents are huge fans of savouring the necessary (a nice toothbrush, a glass of wine watching a sunset) and sweeping out the unnecessary (our house was regularly purged of anything that William Morris would define as not being useful or beautiful) and only valuing people that valued them. But despite this grounding I still spent many years being ignorant of my stressors. My main one was being late. If I ever found myself late I became incredibly stressed and upset. Then, one day, it came to me that my stress wasn’t helpful and didn’t change the situation at all, so why was I doing it? There was an immediate and incredible relief settled over me which prompted me to take an inventory of my life, whenever I found my myself being very stressed by something, especially a situation that happened more than once (say someone cutting me off in traffic) I broke it all down in my mind and asked whether it helped. Over time, I massively reduced the stress in my life and found a much greater degree of contentment.

Of course, within that house-cleaning a number of unreliable people came to my attention as being major drivers of stress and I took a deep breath and committed myself to not being scared to say no. I really had to push the fears aside and make room for me in the middle of all my madness. I am still working on it but it is already clearly one of the best decisions I have made in my life.

I think we have always known it but now there is scientific evidence to prove it. One of the simplest and best things that you can do is to calm your breathing. All the relaxation techniques include it because it tricks your ‘Fight and Flight’ mechanism into thinking that things aren’t that stressful. I am also working on discovering the magic of good sleep (current thinking is that your brain flushes all the accumulated toxins out each night when we sleep), sun salutations (goodbye tension headaches) and vitamin D (so important for immunity and digestion, good bones and good thoughts).

So what am I suggesting? I am suggesting that we shouldn’t be rigid, that mindfulness comes in many forms, is not necessarily in the places that one would expect and often needs a change in environment and/or habits. It could be in the rustling leaves of a tree, something simple that demands your full attention, small repetitive grounding details that bring you peace, internalising, find hygge, visualising peace and calm in a same specific corner seat (fake it till you make it), cherish your sleep, rationalise stressors, reduce distracting devices and negative people and don’t forget to take a moment to exhale, breathe and savour that moment a few times a day. I am liking the changes that these practices have brought to my life; maybe they can work for you too.