I am finding that the first cup of coffee in the morning is the ideal time to experience how quickly mindfulness vanishes, if in fact it was ever present. Mustering mindfulness first thing in the morning is quite a feat in any case: if you can remind yourself to be fully aware tomorrow morning, just watch what happens in the mind as we move from being asleep to being awake and then getting out of bed.
Walter Murch wrote a brilliant book on film editing called “In the blink of an eye“. Without doing too much violence to the beauty of his ideas, he found that film cuts work best in a scene when (were you in the scene yourself) you would blink. As an experiment, just put your gaze on what ever is in front of you now and then turn your head to look at something to your left or right and you will see immediately that you blink in the process of turning the head. More: when you blink, you literally do not see the sweeping movement your eyes make moving from the forst object of attention to the second, even though your eyes are still open before and after the blink, and still capable of ‘seeing’ all of this movement. This is one kind of a reflexive brief ‘going to sleep’.
A wonderful teacher with whom I worked for many years, spoke often of the mind’s habit of “checking out”. The more closely I watch my own mind it is clear that checking out happens with remarkable frequency and rapidity, and often the checked out periods are astonishingly short. And there are a number of phenomena that can point us to the rapidity and depth of this checking out. In my own case, it is obvious any time I find myself being even the slightest bit clumsy. After bumping or dropping anything, a quick replay of the memories of the immediate preceding seconds will show me that I was simply not present in the instants before the “accident”. This is one kind of example where mindfulness has simply disappeared.
Another, perhaps more familiar, example is the experience of driving a well-known route and becoming aware at some point that the previous ten minutes are simply not part of your memory. Reflecting on this, it is amazing that accidents are not more common but what happens is that there is a lower level of awareness operating which is taking care of the driving requirements. Reflection and introspection suggests that driving is very much a physical skill set and one where most of the skill resides in the physical body as a set of extremely well-known habits.
But let us return to first thing in the morning before the morning coffee. You will find that your awareness is much less present than usual and that the phenomenon of blinking has a much longer lasting period, relatively speaking. To put this another way, our bodies are moving through familiar routines but the mind is in a different space only returning occasionally to the task at hand. Where is it? I must watch more carefully but normally it is just in the future, considering matters like what will I do once the coffee is actually next to my bed and whether I will write a blog or not.
Another great teacher with whom I worked over a fairly long period of time claimed that the development of a second attention was one of the solutions for avoiding the mind’s many reflexive habits. For me (and this took a long time to acquire) having a quantum of attention in the abdominal region around the navel and inside the gut itself has been enormously helpful. If I have sufficient awareness in this area I can literally experience the body reorganising itself to become angry, for example. And if the awareness is strong enough and quick enough, I can introduce a pause and follow that up with a conscious decision whether or not to repeat this action that I have repeated 10,000 times before.
One of the reasons I am so keen on a regular stretching habit is that it simply makes us that much more aware of what is going on inside the whole body at all times, not just when one is stretching. In fact I am thinking these days that the activity of stretching itself is simply a platform to a whole suite of increased awarenesses which lead to increase mindfulness in all activities. This works by simply having more of the mind in contact with what is going on in the body at any given time.
So, to use a mundane example, if you have been stretching trapezius and levator scapulae regularly, the next time you are working at the computer you may be able to actually feel your shoulders rising towards your ears—whereupon you can make a decision to let them relax again. My contention is that if you do not have a regular stretching habit for this part of the body, you will simply find one day that this area is painful and tense most of the time. Increasing awareness of the sensation from the body to the mind simply increases awareness of the body’s internal state and this is gold. I feel that awareness of what’s happening the body is simply the fast track to mindfulness in daily life.
I returned to writing this blog having just been to the toilet and having had a shower. What extraordinary experiences! When I am at home I always use my squat toilet, so to begin with there was the activity of getting onto the squat support. Squatting down is experienced as a marvellous stretch for the lower back and the ankles; likewise, my feet in contact with the cold surfaces of this support was a very strong sensation. If one is present in the moment of voiding one’s bowels, one becomes aware of the extraordinariness of something being part of the body and no longer being part of the body. The sensations of the experience are something to marvel over, I find.
Then the suite of sensations of: turning on the shower; the coldness of the handles; the sounds of the water; the sensations of removing one’s clothes and then stepping under warm water—all are indescribably attractive. And in that moment I was reminded of one of my teachers who said, “If I ever start a spiritual school, it will be called the Being happy for absolutely no reason at all school. How wonderful and how perfect.