Mindfulness – an introduction
The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character and will. . . . An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.
William James, Principles of Psychology, 1890
Near the turn of the 20th century, the celebrated Harvard professor and my favorite psychologist, William James, made a startling observation. He noticed that the ability to focus our minds by bringing our attention back to the present moment was the indispensible skill that enabled people to take control of their lives and achieve their potential.
Okay, hardly a discovery worthy of a Nobel Prize. And you don’t need to be an air-traffic controller to know that some activities just need absolute presence of mind to lead to better outcomes. But more than a century later, that simple observation has had a profoundly positive impact on the lives of millions of people.
According to James, the ability to bring your attention back to the present moment repeatedly leads to “better judgment, character and willpower”. And, he cautions, if you lack this ability, then you cannot say you are the “master of yourself”. He went on to insist that the best education would be one that helps to improve this ability.
Now that’s something we can all agree on. Think how often during the day you find yourself tired, stressed and irritable, your only refuge being momentary daydreaming about the past or future. Anxious thoughts pinball in your head, making it near impossible to power down and relax. For many people, this condition ramps up at the end of the day when they finally find themselves alone with their moods. Perhaps it was Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher, who understood this dilemma better than anyone when he observed: “All of man’s miseries stem from his inability to sit alone in a room.”
Although James was a genuine optimist, he was also honest enough to admit that, “It is easier to define this ideal than to give practical instructions for bringing it about.” What he noticed was how difficult it is to simply control what we pay attention to. Our feelings and thoughts literally seem to have “a mind of their own”.
We’ve all had the experience of reading a book, for example, and getting to the bottom of the page before realizing we have no idea what we just read. We were actually thinking about something else entirely, while continuing to read the words on the page. Our minds are easily distracted by memories and daydreams, not to mention the persistent “to-do” list.
As frustrating as this can be at times, the more serious challenges come from the emotional turmoil in our lives caused by the unwel-
come thoughts and emotions that create so much of our suffering. At any given moment, our peace of mind can be easily disturbed as we find ourselves reliving a hurtful memory or getting caught up in worry and anxiety about the future. And even when we are able to focus on the present moment clearly, we can find ourselves reacting strongly to minor irritations or disagreements with those we care about. We are easily demoralized by our circumstances or increasingly fatigued by relentless overwork.
If any of this feels like your reality, you’re not alone. In a revealing study published in the November 12, 2010 issue of Science magazine, psychologists at Harvard University used smartphones to collect data from more than 2,000 people who were asked to report what they were doing, thinking and feeling throughout the day.
The data revealed that on any given day, while performing a range of activities, our minds are wandering about 47% of the time. And, perhaps of more concern, the study revealed that we are unhappiest when our minds are wandering, compared to when they are focused on what we’re actually doing. The study’s title says it all: ‘A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind.’ The researchers concluded: “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”
For many of us, the personal emotional cost is tied to negative mood, psychological stress, rigid obsessional thoughts, worry, unhappiness and exhaustion.
It appears that William James was certainly ahead of his time, but he could never have imagined how his simple observation would lead ultimately to the discovery of mindfulness – one of the great scientific breakthroughs of the 21st century for dealing with these problems effectively. Nor could he have possibly known that the practical instructions for developing mindfulness were already more than 2,500 years old.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Martyn Newman Ph.D., D.Psych., is a clinical psychologist specialising in Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness. His new book, The Mindfulness Book: Practical Ways to Lead a More Mindful Life, was released in the UK on the 22 September 2016. To order click here.