Have you ever driven your usual route to work when you were actually going somewhere else that day? We, as ‘normal’ human beings, have sixty to eighty thousand thoughts a day! Can you imagine having that many thoughts? “No, surely she’s making that up.” “I can’t believe it.” There are two more for you. Yes, we have thousands upon thousands of thoughts about all kinds of things, from what to cook for dinner, what to wear, what somebody else is wearing, to whether the weather will be good today or not, and to plan accordingly. Our minds are crowded with thoughts and so, sometimes, we are so busy thinking, we forget that we aren’t driving to work today. Autopilot takes over. We do what we are used to doing in the absence of anyone at the helm, so to speak, and suddenly find ourself in the wrong place
Your brain makes neural pathways for those very occasions. Connections amongst the cells that have become default settings. Routines like getting up in the morning become habit. You probably don’t think about whether to have breakfast, get dressed or shower first, you just do it while your mind busies itself thinking about what lies ahead.
A lot of our habits and routines are programmes that we’ve formed as a result of repetition – hence the driving to work scenario – but we are also prone to running programmes that we learned at a very early age indeed. For example, have you ever found yourself talking to your children in exactly the same way your parents used to talk to you? “Eat up your greens, they’ll put hairs on your chest.” or “You’ll sit there until you’ve finished!” You probably swore to yourself that you’d never say that to your kids, but in a moment of exasperation while you’re thinking about how late you will be out pops a parent-child programme from your past.
Think of it like an old-fashioned tape recorder – for the first seven or so years of your life you record how people behave, especially your mum and dad, so when you hear yourself talking to your pets or children like your parents, your autopilot just pressed play whilst you were thinking about something else.
That is great for us most of the time, and has admittedly got me out of a few sticky situations, but on occasions where the thoughts are repeatedly negative or fearful they can contribute to forming anxiety or depression. It is only when we consciously think about what is happening, when we are present in the moment, that we remember there are other choices we can make. But on an average day, it’s reported that you probably operate from your fully present and conscious mind about five percent of the time. That means thinking eighty thousand thoughts a day takes up most of our day. In fact, sometimes I haven’t even fitted them all in by bedtime, and lie awake running through a few more!
Being fully conscious and aware in the present moment is known as Mindfulness, and it gives access to that liberating experience of choosing how to act.
Falling in love is a mindful experience – you are completely present in the moment, fascinated, learning, creative, playful, sensing and paying attention to this other being. You’re not commenting on, thinking about or comparing to other things in that moment – you are truly with the other person body and soul. You may feel a sense of heightened ’nowness’, of being truly awake or alive, but you’re not judging that experience or thinking about it, though that may come later, you are just there in the moment. Time has no meaning, but afterwards you may think that time sped by or stood still. Learning a new job or performing a favourite skilled hobby can have the similar effects of unleashing your creativity and inner joy.
You can train your brain to become more mindful. Try this: set an alarm to tell you when time is up, and focus on your breathing for sixty seconds. Breath in to the count of four, hold for four, breathe out to the count of four and hold for four, and keep repeating. Go on try it now.
How did you do? If you found yourself wondering when the alarm was going to go off, or that this is a stupid idea, or that you haven’t got time for this, then you stopped being mindful and started thinking. Do it again until you can go for the whole sixty seconds without a single thought or judgement about how you’re doing.
Researchers using the technique with children, found that getting them to lie down with a stuffed animal toy on their stomach and watching it rise and fall as they breathed, had a marked effect on improving the children’s attention spans. Some schools in the USA went a step further and adopted what they called ‘Quiet time’, a form of mindful meditation. One inner city school, used to violence, graffiti and absenteeism, reported that in one year of Quiet Time, absenteeism was down forty-five percent, grades were up and they suddenly found they had the highest happiness levels amongst students in the city. Other schools reported better self-esteem, higher grades and stress levels down amongst students, and teachers additionally reported that they, themselves, were less emotionally exhausted and more resilient.
Being fully conscious in the moment allows you access to the creative parts of your powerful mind. You can choose your behaviour. You can choose to use something you learned on that awesome training course. You can respond to your kids as you would want to. You’ll find yourself feeling more satisfied with yourself and your actions, and happier all round. So, do you want to start making new neural pathways today? It takes about three weeks of constant repetition to make strong enough neural pathways to become a default programme. In three weeks time, do you want to feel happier than you do now or are you happy to carry on as you are?