Not so mindfulness

Over the years I have explored, repeatedly, ideas of mindfulness and being fully present in the moment. It’s a popular strand in meditation. I also have an interest in psychology, and a work life where seeking inspiration and making creative jumps is an essential part of what I do. Here are a few thoughts on how these things collide.

The human mind tunes out for more than it pays conscious attention to. If you sit still in a room, you have sensory information from all your nerve endings. You have visual input – which you can reduce by shutting your eyes. There are sounds. Your own heart and breathing, sounds in the building, sounds from outside. The more fully present and aware you are, the more sound you will notice, but the more invested you are in that, the less you may be able to also process about how the air smells and the exact temperature of your skin.

There’s a practical limit on how many things we can be aware of in one go. In practice, being mindful is a selective process – more or less conscious – about which bits of ‘the moment’ you are paying attention to. This is more viable when you are motionless in a quiet and controlled space, but as soon as you start moving through the world, you will miss more than you notice.

The more I focus my conscious attention on one thing (eg my breathing) the less able I am to notice other things. It’s exactly the same as the famous psychology experiment (you can google for it) where participants asked to count ball passes in a game fail to notice the person dressed as an ape. This is us. This is the human mind. It focuses really well, but at the expense of wider experience. So if we are too focused on one thing, we can miss a lot of what is actually happening ‘in the moment’.

Inspiration does not come with focus. It is not achieved by pushing. Again this is about how our brain functions. The conscious mind is just a bit of what we’ve got, and that’s not the bit doing the ‘Eureka!’ thinking. The experience often called ‘the light-bulb moment’ when everything clicks into place, does not come when we push for it. The light bulb moment is Archimedes in the bath and Newton sat innocently under a tree. It’s also me in my kitchen just pottering about and not thinking very much at all, and suddenly finding that the greater part of a chant and its tune have just happened to me. Bang. No conscious thought, no warning.

I know, because I spend a lot of time working with both the necessity for mental focus, and the need for inspiration, that it’s usually one or the other. Focus is needed to get things done but does not invite creative thinking. I have my best ideas when I’m not trying to push for them, and not dwelling much on anything else, but pondering, imagining, daydreaming, wool gathering. At my best, I am the point where past and future make their exchanges. I am all that might be, rubbing against all that is. I am transforming regret and nostalgia into what we are doing better tomorrow. I am observation, speculation and playfulness fermenting together. Pay too much attention to any one thing, and it all falls apart.

It’s important to work out what you want and need from your life and your meditations. You may need stillness and inner discipline. You may need space for your chaos. You may need to be present but not too focused so that you can notice all the things you did not know to look for. There is no one true way, only what we choose, and whether that does what we want it to do.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

7 responses to “Not so mindfulness

  • Aurora J Stone

    There is much wisdom in this . . . I find the cats really like it when I try to sit and focus. Sometimes the purring is just what I need. It works like soft drumming. Being pawed in the back for a cuddle, when standing at my altar is more distracting. The need to stop and pull back, pull in some of the antennae is quite pronounced at certain times. Then the slow extension of one of the senses, or one at a time and gradually letting them mingle into a richer, fuller tapestry of awareness is a gift it is possible to give oneself. I does take time and practise. But one well worth the effort.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    What you don’t drop everything and anything and focus on taking care of the cat’s need. How horrid! My cat comes in useful to get me to time breaks. He puts his paws on e sorties with a bit of claw exposed to make sure that I do notice it. In bed he may add clawing my poor foam mattress as I a sure to notice it As I use a walker to get around it is far too easy for e to sit in front of y computer for hours. So I only give the cat a tablespoon of canned cat food so at a time. He interrupts e regularly when he wants more. Some ties he will want refills like three times in a roll. I have learned by experiences that once the food begins to dry he will turn up his nose. So this makes sure for very little waste ad his food is always fresh as needed. This makes sure that I walk the length of y building several times a day as sometimes instead he will want me to open the door so he can go outside.

    As for focus, I am still working on focus on my breathing as getting rid of distractive thoughts is the hardest thing for my busy mind to do. Of late I have had a few dry good sessions that lasted between a half hour and three quarters of an hour.

    • Aurora J Stone

      Well, Christopher, I do drop everything and attend to them!! As we all know we humans are cat’s staff. I have three university degrees and my most important and consistent ‘job’ is as a cat lap. Nocturne will sit next to me and extend one of her paws quite delicately and expose her claws that look like they have white nail varnish. She never makes contact, but I get the idea and give her a cuddle. Mine are indoor cats and Wyntre meows quite insistently every morning until I on the front door, we have a woven willow cat airlock, and joined by Purfling all three sit on the end of the upright piano and have a good long look our, sniff and listen.

      Cats spend a lot of time meditating and journeying. Humans could not spend as much time in that occupation.

      Sorry, Jo . . . we seem to have digressed . . .

  • potiapitchford

    I don’t have much time for quiet focus but mindfulness of a sort I do quite a bit. In my case led by a need to be aware of potential issues that may affect my autistic kids. Finding a balance between things is something I need to work on more and this was a very timely reminder thanks.

  • lornasmithers

    Barely any of my inspiration has ever come from focus. In fact it usually comes from the unexpected, drunkeness and disorientation. Yet without the focus there would be no balance to play non-focus off against so the latter wouldn’t be so effective. Focus works so non-focus can have effect? If that makes sense at all?…

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