In our last “Staying Mindful” practice support meeting last week, we reflected a little on working with distraction and how we can go about renewing an interest in habitual patterns of mind and activity where we have an ongoing tendency to drift out of the present moment. At the start of an 8 week course, we begin with recognising the difference between autopilot and mindful awareness, and what is revealed to us when we begin to intentionally bring mindful attention to our experience.
We’re all on a continuum between distraction and awareness, and the practice of mindfulness helps us to lean further towards a fuller attentiveness in our lives, and also towards being more readily able to recognise when and how we get caught up in habitual and preferential mind states, in the many forms this can take.
As practice becomes more established and embedded in our lives, we develop our capacity for awareness and get used to the renewed effort, patience and intention that is required to bring ourselves back to the present moment when we have drifted away, both in our formal practice and everyday life. But as the process evolves over time, how can we maintain a curious, yet gentle interest in continuing to see how our well worn habits and patterns play themselves out? How do we open up to working with the thoughts and emotions that come round and round again instead of switching off? How do we remain alive to the impulses and tendencies of liking , not liking and finding downright good old boring, that so readily hook us out of where we are and that block or obscure our ability to experience the full vitality of life in any given moment? Where do we go when we are not here? How do we drift? What habitually hooks us out?
When we start training the mind through the small steps of practice, we embark on a journey that requires kindness and honesty as we begin to see ourselves and our neurotic, human patterns more clearly. We’re such creatures of habit, that even our practice can become routine and familiar, and sometimes a bit dulled and lacking in focus at the edges. It can be helpful to refresh practice from time to time by renewing an interest in where the camera lens habitually goes fuzzy in our lives, where we tend to zone out from and drift off to, the places where we get habitually hooked and entangled. Our whole life becomes an arena for wonderful and rich learning through becoming more aware of the geography of habit; the places, people, situations, thoughts, feelings, activities, things we like and avoid, and are indifferent to. By waking up to the force of habit, we reclaim the vitality and colour of life from the dead space of unawareness and reel more of our moments in.
So perhaps, in daily life, we can begin to notice again, how much we still drift in to the grey zone of autopilot, and perk up and notice what it is actually like. Does it feel like a sort of inert dullness or does it take the form of busy, multi-tasking whizziness? Where do we go when our minds drift? Is it to planning or re-hashing the events of the day, or drifting towards a dreamy wanting, or analysing how things could be different? Do we surround ourselves in subtle entangling veils of “if”, “but”, “when”, “could”and “should” and “can’t”? Do we lean forwards to the future, or lean back to the past? Are there strong areas of habit we exercise without questioning in our daily life? When do we check email? How and where do we have our lunch? Where do we sit? What do we snack on? What do we google? What do we do if we get a free moment and nothing is happening?
Our habits are part of us and it is through our habits and learning to see them more clearly, that mindful awareness offers us different possibilities. We need to see them, to work with them. We’re in partnership with them, whether we like them or not. But if we can begin to see the pieces of the jigsaw a bit more clearly, the picture begins to open up to something a bit more wider, spacious, giving and flexible. What we practice grows stronger. We can become part of something bigger, less constrained and predictable. New pathways open up through the woods, small little trails leading between the trees that we haven’t been down before, but which perhaps take us somewhere new.
On BBC Winter Watch recently, I was fascinated to see how they tracked the flight patterns of a golden eagle and a sea eagle by attaching cameras and GPS technology to them, which, by some miracle, were then linked up to computers on the ground. Sure enough, as each eagle climbed the thermals, soaring in to the sky above the Cairngorms, squiggly patterns began to appear on the tablet screens of the researchers on the ground. “Look at those tight spirals!” they exclaimed .”Wow – she’s going at 46mph!” The information was all there in patterns and numbers and data appearing on the screens, constellating in facts, figures and diagrams, moment by moment.
But what I found incredible was the totally new experience of being able to see the world from the eagle’s point of view as it flew – the way the mountains tipped and the sky veered and whole valleys and rivers flew like ribbons in some enormous overview rushing underneath its soaring wings, tilting, adjusting with the detailed movements of its body and head, which you could just see below the positioned camera, pointing to the hugeness of the world below its crown of chocolate-layered feathers.
Afterwards, I reflected how in a parallel way, through mindfulness practice, we’re leaving the confines of pattern and construct behind, the gathered data and predictability of our lives, and opening to the spaces where limitless possibilities, viewpoints, and perspectives exist, that perhaps we never knew could be possible. Perhaps, just by doing something differently, we can consciously participate in creative change, rising above the drift of our lives with renewed clarity and vision. We don’t have to be down there, glued to the graphs on the computer, we can be up there with the eagle experiencing the sky.