A Note on Mindfulness — And Why I’m Never Writing About it Again
A note on the word ‘positive’. There’s an assumption many make that ‘positive mental health’ or ‘well-being’ are about being happy all the time, or expressing or feeling happy all the time, or ‘chilling out’ more. Which isn’t true. Or, that the concepts are have been cynically appropriated by corporations to make workers more efficient, under the guise of caring. This is probably true.
Such assumptions inspire feelings of resentment: there is genuine uncertainty and injustice in the world, and there is evil to be fought that is causing it, and how dare you tell me to just ‘stay positive’. But the point of it all is not ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’. It’s about actively developing your mental health and working on not just your physical fitness, but your mental fitness.
And mental fitness doesn’t come from adding more information, or more positive thoughts. It comes from taking things away. We do this by focusing our attention on one thing at a time. When our minds are racing in a million different directions throughout the day, then it’s hard to get anything done, including fighting evil. It’s hard to even tell what’s really going on in the world around you, and what’s just happening in your head.
The way to take away unnecessary information is by practicing focusing your attention. Not on any particular thing, or thought or belief, not on any good or bad thing going on, just on whatever it is you should be focusing on. The idea of multi-tasking is poison to your mind, a grab for your attention that’s usually things other people would like you to do. Too much switching of your attention, even to things you think you need to do, is exhausting. By focusing attention on what you’re doing right now, you’re better able to focus on what you’re doing at any time.
Mindfulness is something I write about, usually indirectly, as I feel it’s that telling stories about its uses and benefits to be more practical and useful, to myself or anyone who might read them (The best exercise is the one you stick to, and this is just the latest week I haven’t succeeded in meditating all the times and days I said would. So I try to be mindful in what I do as much as possible).
‘Writing is just vigilant noticing’ according to author and journalist William Finnegan. Paying attention to the world around you lets your mind wander behind the scenes, connecting dots and patterns between the things outside and the things inside. It’s a more creative, healthier, and better way to think, and a useful practice for anyone, whether you’re a writer or not.
A good place to practice is simply by going for a walk, whether in town or in nature (though nature has a particularly calming effect on us, animals that we ultimately are). Many of you already know, and many more in Ireland have been discovering in recent years, the power of the ultimate mindfulness tool: the cold water of a lake or an ocean. As I read in an interview with a sea-swimmer at the Forty Foot a few years ago: “Sure you couldn’t be angry after that.” We all know it.
But to take a step back to ask why: it’s because when you’re in the freezing cold of the ocean, it’s very hard to think about anything else. The battle for your attention is won by the sea making you incredibly aware of how your body feels, from tip to toe and everything inside. You feel every drop of cold on your skin. You feel the individual square inches of your skin as if they’re the size of great big fields, every one of you pores a blade of grass the size of a tree. You feel your teeth chattering at the same time as you feel the top of your head glazing over with what must be ice. You feel each toe on your foot and each finger on each hand, all at the same time — until, of course, you become acutely aware of the oxymoronic feeling of numbness as that hyper-aware feeling seeps away.
There are other benefits to the sea: the exercise, the minerals of the salt-water, the socialisation, the effects of the scenery and the other things we don’t even understand. But one of the major ones is that unavoidable presence and awareness — and focus — that it forces on you. It starts with awareness of your body and focuses everything on it, and it’s also acute awareness of nature enveloping your whole being like a blanket and covering every part of you at once.
Sea-swimming is an extreme form which not everyone is into or has access to right now. But you can practice the same thing wherever you are. When you walk through town or countryside, focus your attention on where you are. The sea won’t do it for you, but the best practice is the one you choose to do yourself, and in that sense, the sea is nearly cheating. Notice the trees you pass, notice the angle of the sun, notice how animals carry themselves. The sign on the shop you pass everyday and the faces of the people working in it. How they speak, what they say to you, and how you respond to them.
What do we do with this new focus, once it’s developed? Well you can use it whenever and however you want. When you work, work. When you relax, relax. When you’re with people, give all your focus and attention to what they say. It’s an ongoing practice of managing your attention. And you’d be surprised how different things sound when you give them your full and undivided attention. It’s amazing what you can learn from this seemingly inane approach to your day. Without it, our view of the world becomes skewed. And you’d be surprised how much more rewarding, both internally and externally, life might become.
Mindfulness and positive psychology are not about endless positivity, which is harmful in itself. Too much optimism is as bad as too much negativity, it skews reality just as much. It means minding yourself and the people and things around you. It’s about giving yourself and everything around you the attention they deserve. And then you can go off and fight all the evil in the world.