The Insider’s Guide To Mindfulness
With all the distractions in our day to day lives, it cannot be doubted that our attention is for the most part, waning. Our phones are at a constant arms reach, if they are not in our hands and in front of our eyes. The diversity of entertainment, the range of devices, the power of applications, the limitless stream of information; always there to be accessed in almost any location and at all times. Each distraction enters our mind with one primary goal: to gain control of our attention and our resources. In essence, distractions prevent the state of being, or what can be called: Mindfulness.
Mindfulness Vs. Mindlessness
Mindfulness will be defined in this context as having a complete focus on the present. It’s about being fully aware of what is occurring in the moment. Mindlessness, the opposing notion – is being mentally and consciously elsewhere. Distracted, distanced if you will. Put another way, the task, event or occurrence does not harbour our full attention.
In recent years, due to enhancements in technology and innovation, we have started to reside in the latter all too often. And it’s starting to become one hell of a problem! It is when we inspect further that we can see and experience the detrimental effects that this can have.
Let’s take weight-training to illustrate our point. Say we are in the Gym and we are working out our Biceps with the very famous Bicep Curl (Curls for the Girls). For simplicities sake, let’s say we are to complete 3 sets of 10. The overriding urge when the Biceps begin to burn during the latter stages of each set is to stop – to put the weights down immediately and to escape quickly from the uncomfortable situation. If during at any time of the working set, we are to think mindlessly; about how bad we feel, or that we cannot wait until the set is over and we stop and relieve the pain, we will almost certainly get a worse result. The set will be stopped short of the targeted reps, cheating will occur, or our effort will be minimized. This is all assuming good form and correct technique. You may be wondering why this is a problem, for it may only be on the odd rep, but is it. By mindlessly weight-lifting we are not obtaining the full-potential benefit the exercise or the set has to offer – we are cutting ourselves short. Now imagine if this was extrapolated to other exercises, to entire workouts, to entire programmes; our end results are dramatically reduced. This is now in fact a significant problem.
So we need to overcome this, but you are probably wondering how? Well, there’s a direct relationship between our performance and how we think mentally when we are undertaking exercise. Whilst we cannot magically banish the burn, a mechanism involving lactic acid that our body intrinsically has evolved to quell injury, we can develop alternate thinking patterns surrounding the experience. No longer do we think of the reprieve and the time after the set, we think of the benefits that are occurring during the set. The mind-muscle connection training technique intersects here; whilst this method emphasizes focusing on recruiting particular muscles in a movement pattern, it’s all about being mindful during that very exercise. It’s replacing the pain with the concept that you are crafting a particular muscle. This comes from a much more positive place; weight is dropped to prevent ego lifting and the lifter becomes more mentally engaged in the movement. They became a lot more aware; ultimately they are being mindful of what they want to lift, why they want to lift it and how much they can actually lift. These changes require us to mentally shift, but if we are able to reach this point, we are able to last just that bit longer. This, in the weight-training example, is where the magic happens. This is where our desired results ultimately lie and we begin to receive the results that we set out for. This being, that appropriate weight is selected and we are not training beyond our means.
Taking mindfulness in training a step further, we must learn to incorporate progression in the right way, and to perceive each workout in its own unique context. To grant it the privilege of being a unique experience and event that is influenced by many fluctuating contributing factors. What we mean by this is that we must be aware that what we can complete one day may be entirely different on another day – the body is going to be different today as it was too yesterday. Rest, Recovery, Nutrition; these are just some of the factors in play that effect our performance at any given time. The body could be more fatigued, less sleep may have been obtained, different foods were eaten and so on and so forth. Mindful thinking will make sure that we are aware that these aspects are at play and that they will have a profound impact on how we end up feeling during and after the workout. Mentally we can also prime – the way that we would approach exercise would be completely different. It may mean that we schedule in more rest days, or that during session intensity needs to drop. When we begin to think mindfully, we become aware that the factors behind our performance are never constant – and our training can be adapted accordingly. It follows that our most optimum results will always come when we are not paying attention to how we have always done it, but if we were to pay attention to how we are completing the exercise in the present moment. The attention to variability (mindfulness) keeps us in the present – our capabilities and our condition. When we are in the present, we get to see things that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. But most importantly, we will avert the danger that has not yet arisen.
Taking this outside the realm of weight-training, a true expert in any field is always a learner; constantly on the hunt for new knowledge or attribute to add to their skill set. They are constantly looking to add or subtract from their arsenal in a way that optimizes their knowledge set or performance. This is where coaches come in; providing a third-person narrative and detecting areas for improvement. This forms the foundation behind practice, or training for any sport. A reoccurring problem, which even the very best professional athletes and sport stars suffer from, is that their intentions are to master a particular skill in its entirety. But they fall short, because they want to reach a point where they can practice their craft without thinking about it – subconsciously. This is largely floored and is not to be desired – the skill is not being conducted mindfully, but instead mindlessly. Or with more practical implications, they assume that they can conduct the skill exactly the same time after time, in altering contexts or environments. This is often not detected, or seen as a problem, particularly if a desired result was achieved (through mindless practice). But it fosters a misguided outlook as the changes that are experienced will not be for lasting advantage. Ultimately, they are unlikely to be repeated and this is why we must steer clear or otherwise we risk facing confusion and frustration.
Instead, the best way to approach training is to pay attention to the subtle changes that are on-going around us. If we were thinking mindlessly, these would be the things we would otherwise be oblivious too. Let’s now take Golf just to reiterate our point. If we were to go and play Golf for the very first time, and obtain a whole in one on our very first go, our expectations would be set that we would routinely get a whole in one. This is mindless and as any golfer would know, largely inaccurate! Being mindful in this example would be understanding that this was an irregular occurrence and being aware of the others factors at play; the wind on that day, the temperature, why the arm was able to swing so efficiently on that very day (slept well, stretched the day before etc). Wrongly, what people fall into the trap of doing, is they pay attention to the way things are the same. ‘But I used the same club’ or ‘my form was just off’. This explains the breakdown people conceive when they cannot understand why they cannot perform like in previous games, sessions or events.
A way to view mindfulness; is that it is in random events that have no predictability that ensures we cannot think mindlessly. This is where certain sporting activities have leverage over others in this regard. It is easy to think mindlessly in the weights room, it is not easy to think mindlessly during a game of Baseball. But before we give up mindlessness for good, we must be aware that no matter how aware we are; there’s a certain mindlessness that we will experience. This is just plain human psychology and nature – it is how we are wired and how our brains perceive the world around us.
Now onto Diet and Nutrition. These are realms in where mindfulness and mindlessness often conflict or are not even considered – they are landscapes in which we must be aware. New Healthcare Technology has meant that we have passed our internal dependence, biofeedback and thinking behaviors onto technology and machines. Look no further than the Activity Tracker. For reasons stated in another article on this site, I am not a huge fan of these devices but a quick spoiler on that article: they are only as good as the mind-set of the wearer. How they are used and not what they can offer is where the usual breakdown of their effectiveness lies. Healthcare technology has the ability to introduce mindfulness into our lives; they can provide us with data on how we move our bodies, the calories that we eat and some other interesting data. This can all be used in the context of that day to understand and interpret our behavior; well we worked out more so we must eat more carbohydrate as an example.
Contrastingly, these devices are at major risk of being used mindlessly. So if we have a goal of 10,000 steps to achieve by the end of the day, and we take 7500 steps and feel depressed and anxious, we are using the device mindlessly. We are comparing our performance to previous days, targets and contexts! The simple mind-set shift that alleviates this misuse is that we understand that whilst 10,000 is the goal, it will not always be achieved, or is not always possible, or even desirable. We can also delve deeper into the 7500 steps. We may learn that we climbed more stairs to obtain that figure, or that we had been on our feet more on this day. So the 7500 steps may have been achieved differently to those days we hit our 10,000 goal; this is more mindful thinking.
As we conclude, any activity can be done mindfully or mindlessly – it is not in the activity but in the way that we do it.
We can watch television mindfully or mindlessly.
We can run mindfully or mindlessly.
Any time we respond to something as if it is going to stay the same; we are setting ourselves up for being mindless and behaving less efficiently than we otherwise might have been. Not only is mindfulness the act of noticing new things, events and occurrences and being aware that this is good for you, but it’s also fun. It makes people healthier, happier and more aware of being present. Just look at meditation and humor to see this in action – they are about engagement, of presence, of uncertainty.
There is very strong data that has been accumulated over the years that suggests that there are very strong advantages doing everything you do mindfully. When we are mindful we are more attractive; more authentic, trustworthy. In so many ways, it is suggested that mindfulness is sought out at all times. In order to do that it is imperative we appreciate the power of uncertainty.