I was recently leading a mindfulness session on the beach in my local town of Whitley Bay. As we walked and moved mindfully we were surrounded by the sounds of the crashing waves, wind, dogs barking and a sports coach shouting instructions and encouragement. One lady, who had never been to a mindfulness class before, made a very acute observation. ‘I wondered’, she said ‘why I was happy to hear the noise of the wind and the waves, and notice the feeling of my feet on the sand but was trying to zone out the sounds of the dogs and the coach’. In her very first session of mindfulness she had noticed one of the fundamental patterns of activity of the human mind.
When we practice mindfulness, we aim to allow our attention to rest on any aspect of what is happening in the present moment. This can include what we see, hear, feel and sense about our surroundings as well as our own thoughts and feelings that are present in this moment. We set a very simple intention, to notice what there is to be noticed on a moment by moment basis. However, we soon become aware that the human mind does not naturally work in this way. Even when we are not trying to, we become aware that we have natural preferences for the kind of experience we want.
The lady at the beach session did not intend to favor the pleasant, natural sounds of the sea and the wind. She did not actively decide that she only wanted to pay attention to the subset of her experience that fitted her sense of what you should hear when you are on the beach. And yet she found herself doing just that. This is what our human mind does.
Mindfulness teacher Rob Nairn defines mindfulness as ‘knowing what’s happening, while it’s happening, without preference’. When we start to practice mindfulness we soon notice that our mind has it’s own preference. Without our conscious effort or awareness our minds are constantly sifting through information, sorting it out, giving preference to the pleasant aspects of our experience and trying to sift out the unpleasant. This is what the lady on the beach noticed from her direct experience.
Noticing the natural expression of this preference is the first step towards mindfulness. When we notice that our minds present information to us with this sort of inbuilt bias we can become less attached to the view that what we perceive is real or right. We can start to understand that our perceptions are unlikely to present an unbiased view of reality. We can start to understand that any information that we are aware of will already have been processed in the mind. We can start to really learn about our minds and how they work. The insights that we gain as we continue this practice will help us immensely in every area of our life.
Chris Penlington is a Clinical Psychologist and Mindfulness teacher who is passionate about providing accessible information and classes in mindfulness. She lives and works in Whitley Bay, close to Newcastle upon Tyne. http://www.resilientmindtraining.com