The Realism of Mindfulness
Mindfulness practices were not created simply to reduce stress help people focus more. Fundamentally mindfulness is about being able to examine and get used to reality as it is. So mindfulness is not something esoteric – but actually deeply realistic. Many times we are deeply unrealistic about how we or others function – and this leads to a myriad of forms of stress. In this time deeply affected by the COVID pandemic we wanted to share some insights on how mindfulness does not just equip us to cope better – but indeed can help us to see more deeply into the interconnections in our experience – and how mind, body and our actions influence each other. In this first article we will share some common causes of misperception, and then in look at some of the experiences we might be having during this time of the pandemic.
Many people think that practicing mindfulness is about learning to cope with stress, or about closing your eyes and learning to relax, while simultaneously emptying the mind, or about being in the moment. While mindfulness practice can contribute to better relaxation and greater enjoyment of the moment, the reason why such contemplative practices were established was much broader: These kinds of practices were created to be able to examine and get used to reality as it is. Mindfulness is about being realistic in its fullest sense.
There is good reason to believe, that a lot of the time, people are caught in their own versions of things and are thus not really in touch with reality around them– what might be more frightening – not aware of it. A familiar example: While the majority of leaders perceive themselves as very approachable, their colleagues are often afraid to speak up. These leaders are not in touch with the reality of their followers and reach inaccurate conclusions that may have serious negative implications for the company.
The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.Matthew A. Killingsworth
and Daniel T. Gilbert
The dark side: By being unaware we often create realities that are bleaker than they actually are
It is well established that our conscious perception is highly limited – and that most brain processing is happening at the subconscious level. Many people have heard about this – but do not really notice what is going on in their minds – and are thus not aware of what inner states often deeply colour their perception and actions.
Not being aware of the causes of our experiences in the moment – and therefore not being realistic about what affects our perception and drives our behaviour – can lead to problems in our working and personal lives. By being unaware, we often create realities that are bleaker than they actually are. We also spend a lot of time thinking about the past and the future, rather than being in touch with what is happening right now. Studies have shown that our minds are wandering about half of the time and that during this wandering our minds create and repeat narrations of ourselves in the world which in turn have the potential to filter what we see and how we perceive reality. Out of this, emotions may arise that are evolutionarily designed to create a biased view of reality, one where we act quickly without taking too much information into account.
While our judgements may be helpful in some instances, they form blind spots, making it impossible for us to see the whole picture. We may miss the resources that are available at any given moment because they are covered by perception mistakes. These examples highlight what our day-to-day experiences are often like:
Like a fish does not know what water is, we do not know what is real – that is until we learn to get in touch with reality.
Mindfulness is a practice that helps us notice our internal state, how our internal state is influenced, and how it affects our behaviour. We learn to understand the causality of things – and thus learn to become more realistic about how the inner and outer world influence each other.
So how do we cultivate this realism?
So how do we cultivate this realism? Without first-hand experiences and insights into the functioning of our minds and the factors that influence it, we will have difficulty noticing how limited our perception is and how often our behaviour is governed by an out of date program, rather than really connected to what is going on in the moment. There are short mindfulness practices that are useful to establish a practice of observing the present moment and stepping out of our narration of reality. In our taster sessions, we often invite participants to a simple, yet revealing mindfulness exercise.
We invite them to:
- Try to stay in touch with the physical sensation of the breath for 2 minutes.
- Not to judge themselves, but simply notice what happens.
When we invite people to practice this, their reactions range from eager engagement, hoping to experience a moment of peace and presence to resistance to trying a new-agey exercise. However, we are not so interested in the judgements – but in helping participants notice what happened.
We will take a closer look at a couple of mechanisms that are often noticed by participants and point out how they function and continually influence us.
1. Regulating our bodily functions
One of the first things people often notice in a short mindfulness practice is their biological state. They may notice symptoms of stress like a short breath or a racing heartbeat. Then, by resting their mind on the breath, they may instantly feel more relaxed. This signifies a switch from the activation of the sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system. Most people have an overactive sympathetic nervous system, which invariably leads to a distorted and limited perception of reality in which we respond strongly to stimuli, rely increasingly on automatic responses, and have limited access to advanced cognitive functions. While even a short exercise like the one outlined can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, we often fail to notice that we are stressed in the first place or – ironically – feel too stressed to take a breath in order to halt the stress response. By breathing mindfully for a couple of minutes, the reality of feeling quite stressed can often be altered to a reality of feeling calm and composed which in turn changes our perception of our resources and the nature of the problem. It is a simple exercise, doable at any moment, with a noticeable impact. Taking a couple of mindful breaths is nothing that really needs to be newly acquired, it is an inbuilt function. So instead of merely accepting the notion that we feel stressed, we can easily get in touch with our bodily reality to induce relaxation – we just need to practice it. This can be understood as being more realistic than spending most of our time running around stressed and feeling we can do nothing about it. Many people have been running around for the last 12 weeks – breathless and somewhat hectic, not really aware of their ability to slow down at any moment.
2. Settling the mind rather than stimulating the mind
When we try to pay attention to an object with a low stimulus, like the breath, it is often difficult at first to stay with it. A common response is feeling a sense of boredom, struggling with staying with the breath, and instead looking for a distraction or deciding that meditation “does not work”. In the modern world, we have successfully been training ourselves to respond to high stimuli and to seek stimuli constantly from external sources (apps, Netflix, urgent issues), and therefore, we further a cycle of stress and overstimulation.
It is important to let this sink in – if we cannot settle our mind on low stimulus objects, and we continually pay attention to high stimulus objects, then we are continually stimulating ourselves. This is particularly apparent in these times – as people shift from reading news on their devices, talk to people on zoom calls, and then try to wind down with further highly stimulating Netflix shows. Not surprisingly, many people feel increasingly wound up.
When practicing mindful awareness, we start to get used to boredom and notice things that are not particularly stimulating – but important and relevant in themselves. We begin noticing internal events like a heightened body awareness and greater self-awareness and external events like noticing sounds or the mood in a room. Over time, we may even get more perceptive, heightening our awareness of small fluctuations of internal and external events. Imagine leaders in a company being able to ignite an inner state of curiosity – and keep it even when faced with difficulties. How would that change the culture and learning practices of an organization? To practice settling the mind on subtle objects and getting curious is a little like picking up a violin for the first time – don’t expect great results after the first session but repeated practice leads to significant changes.
3. Understanding mind-wandering and its effects
Many people also notice that they have many thoughts in 2 minutes. When we are busy churning thoughts, rather than being in contact with the reality around us, we stop noticing what is happening – within ourselves and in the work environment around us. It is important to note that we all have many thoughts. This is part of what the brain evolved to do. How many thoughts do you think you can have in the 2 minute-exercise introduced above? Our participants typically guess that they had 20 to 30 thoughts. If you add them up, it is likely that we are thinking more than 10,000 thoughts per day – often without being aware of it. As a result, our reality is blurred by our constant mind wandering. Mind wandering leads to a significantly reduced sensory perception (we don’t notice things around us) and it negatively impacts our mood. In the words of Harvard researcher Matthew Killingsworth: “A wandering mind is not a happy mind.” Many people will live their lives churning 10,000 thoughts per day, not being in contact with what is going on around them, without really noticing it. Is this being realistic?
4. The reality of time perception
Mindfulness practices like our 2-minute exercise can seem incredibly long for some participants and very short to others. This points to an interesting fact – we have no organ for time perception. Our perception of time is deeply influenced by our state of mind. Time perception slows down when we are present and aware, engaging in a novel or exciting tasks. Time perception speeds up when we engage in multi-tasking or passive scrolling of social platforms. Often people say that they are stressed because they have no time. But actually, they have no (perception of) time because they are continually stressed. In striving to have a more valuable and deep experience of time, it is crucial to be able to regulate your attention. Time claustrophobia will not be resolved by another time management tool, but simply by experiencing the present more often.
By beginning to settle the mind, and noticing what is going on, we can gain valuable insights into which mechanisms influence our access to reality and how to overcome them.
We cultivate an appreciation of reality through an understanding of a number of mechanisms:
- We learn to be both aware of stress and to stop the automatic behaviour that so often goes along with it – thus shifting from a very narrow perception, dominated by automatic and often emotional responses, to more conscious processing.
- We learn to get curious about our experiences and in turn sharpen our perception – noticing the details of what is going on in our life, rather than remaining stuck in our own narration.
- We learn to see the causalities in our experience – and begin to gain insights into how things affect us and how we affect others. We learn to experience ourselves as deeply embedded in a net of interdependence.
When we present mindfulness for the first time in an organisational setting, we are often met with a fair degree of scepticism. A scent of the esoteric often seemingly hangs over mindfulness. There is reason to believe it may be the other way around. Because they are deeply caught in their mental narratives, people tend to be out of touch with reality. Cultivating mindfulness fosters contact with reality and getting used to reality as it is. It paves the way for noticing more clearly what is happening in the present moment and responding more adequately.
Are you in touch with your reality?
Sources: Matthew Killingsworth (2010), Harvard University, Mark Wittmann (2019), IGPP Freiburg, Megan Reitz & John Higgins (2019), Hult Int. Business School