Sometime last year I installed Headspace on my phone. This is an app (and website) focussed on the concept of mindfulness, and training the mind to be more present and aware of the immediate world, and less distracted. The history of "mindfulness" isn't a nice, neat, and orderly timeline that shows how it's developed, but it's safe to say that it sits somewhere between "borrows heavily from" and "taken directly from" Buddhist anapanasati (breath meditation). I had Headspace installed and unopened for several months. In December I opened it up and actually started the free 10 session pack included in the app. The basic format is a 10 minute guided meditation that focuses on being present in a physical and mental sense by first taking conscious stock of the environment, and then focussing on the body, especially breathing. There are prompts throughout the sessions, moving you through a few steps along the way, or just reminding you to gently bring your attention back to your breathing if you've been distracted.
Of course, once I went overseas, I stopped doing the exercises. I was far too busy enjoying my holiday to think about thinking! The concept stuck in my head though, and the action of journaling my thoughts and activities throughout the trip made me realise that I was enjoying the time it took to slow down and process each day as I wrote it out. It was a short logical step, in my head at least, to go from that to a more immediate processing workflow by being mindful of my thoughts and actions as they happened. Nice theory, right?
Once back home and, more importantly, once back on the commute with 25 minutes each morning on the train to sit and contemplate, it was actually quite easy to pick up Headspace again and put 10 minutes of the train journey to doing a session a (week)day on the way in. I was a little self-conscious at first, sitting on the train with my eyes closed, headphones plugged in, taking deep and even breaths... and then I realised that I just looked like half the carriage, using the train to catch up on some extra sleep, except I was sitting upright and drooling slightly less.
This is not one of those posts where I say meditation has changed my life and made me a better person, but regular sessions focussing on being present and aware have started to filter through into every day activities, and I do find myself becoming aware of distractions or runaway thoughts and consciously pulling my attention back to whatever it is I'm currently doing1. One of the things that the Headspace program asks you to do is to consider your motivation for doing it. It took a few sessions for me to really think through what was driving me to do it, but I guess there were a couple of big things:
Firstly, the focus on the body, both physically and emotionally that the sessions explicitly guide you through helped me to start to realise how my mood in the morning was affecting how I interacted with people, at work or socially, and how it coloured my perceptions of everything around me. Not exactly rocket science, but was something easily missed in the past. The training to see that physical or emotional state and to try to be aware of it, but not judging, trying to change, or get caught up in it, was and remains very useful and something that I want to continue to work on.
Secondly, the idea of "slowing down to speed up"2 - catching my distractions and tangents, and just bringing my focus back to the task at hand and actually getting more done by not trying to do everything at once. I think this is really important both to allow me to get more done - at work, at home and as I finish up my Masters - and also to aid in preventing burn-out by constantly trying to juggle all the things, all the time.
I guess the reason mindfulness fits well for me because for at least the past couple of years I've had an ideal of being conscious of my actions. On balance I would probably say I've been fucking terrible at sticking to this, but it's still an ideal, and I definitely think that making mindfulness "just" a part of my every day life will go a long way to helping me get there.