How Mindfulness Works

Koh Samet

I’m putting together an eBook for people interested in using mindfulness to overcome addiction problems. I will be giving this book away for free on my website. I’ll also share the chapters on here as I write them. Here is part three in the series – you can start with part one and part two if you have missed them.

I’ve just come back from a walk beside the sea. During my first year living here in Rayong, I would go for long hikes every day without fail, but now I’m lucky to manage it once a week. The novelty of living beside a tropical beach has worn off, and I no longer have the same level of enthusiasm to go there.

When I used to come to this part of Thailand on holiday, it all felt so much more wonderful. Unfamiliarity meant I was fully engaged in my surroundings, and this is what made my visits so enjoyable. My brain found novelty around every corner, and this naturally increased my level of mindfulness.

The claim ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ might sound a bit extreme, but I have no doubt that familiarity leads to mindlessness. I would define this mindlessness as a lack of enthusiasm for what is right in front of me.

“When there’s always biscuits in the tin, where’s the fun in biscuits?”
Gary Strang – Men Behaving Badly

Mindlessness means I’m functioning on auto-pilot. It happens when I’ve lost interest in my current environment, and my thoughts are directed elsewhere. This loss of contact with the present moment explains how I can go walking on a tropical beach and hardly have any memories of the experience afterwards.

A study by Daniel Gilbert suggests we spend up to 50 per cent of our time functioning in auto-pilot – this number is going to be much higher for those of us who are caught up in addiction.

Anything I do mindlessly is inherently dissatisfying. It means I’m rejecting the present moment because I feel it is lacking in some way and that it doesn’t deserve my attention. This process of familiarity turning to mindlessness not only makes walking on a beach less satisfying, but it sucks much of the pleasure out of being alive.

So what does living on autopilot have to do with addiction?

The more disconnected I am from reality, the less satisfying my life becomes. My initial enthusiasm for alcohol was driven by a desire to escape reality – although I now see the problem was never actually reality but my expectations of what reality should be like.

Choosing to live more on autopilot does feel comforting in the beginning. I remember during those early years of drinking, how much I welcomed the feeling of being numb to the world. I felt like I was getting away with something, and I didn’t see how I was being cheated out of my life. Ignoring reality also put me on a collision course with it.

The seduction of living in autopilot is that it can feel like a solution to dissatisfaction with life. The horrible irony is this dissatisfaction arises due to dealing with life on autopilot.

When I make the effort to go, I still enjoy my walks on the beach, but there can still be an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the experience. The problem is I have these ideas about what walking on a tropical beach should be like, but the reality never lives up to these expectations.

When my experiences don’t match my expectations, I feel disappointed, and this is where impulse for me to reject reality comes from. I become so focused on the mismatch between the story in my head, and the reality of what is there that I don’t even bother to investigate what is actually there in front of me.

What reality delivers is often better than my expectations, but my obsession with the stories in my head means I can easily fail to see this.

Every time I reject reality, I slip into auto-pilot mode. It means my behavior is not governed by what is happening in this moment, but by the stories in my head. To me it still seems as if I am making choices, but it is my stories that are pulling my strings.

Mindfulness is when I experience reality without the shit in my head getting in the way. Instead of looking at life through ‘I’ve seen it all before’ eyes, I’m fully engaged in what is happening right now. Rather than walking through life like a robot, I wake up to the wonderful gift of life.

Sometimes mindfulness happens naturally, but these moments don’t come frequently enough unless I make a deliberate effort to encourage them. Mindfulness practices are designed to train my mind to encounter this state more frequently.

There are various definitions of mindfulness practice but I like this one by Jon-Kabat Zinn:

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
Wherever You Go, There You Are

I used to believe the process of familiarity leading to mindlessness was just the way humans are wired, but this is not true. When I go for a mindful walk on my local beach, I re-experience the joy of being there like it was the first time.

Every moment is packed full of enough novelty to keep me in a state of permanent wonder. Things are in a constant state of change, and it is only the stories in my mind that are stale. Such thinking is generated by a scared inner voice that wants to protect me from reality, but it is this voice I need protection from.

“Mindfulness is neither difficult nor complex; remembering to be mindful is the great challenge.”
Christina Feldman

Mindfully walking on the beach might sound like a bizarre thing to do, but it is completely natural. All I do is notice things in my environment that I’ve never noticed before, there are always millions of new things to see, and it is like I’m seeing the beach with fresh eyes. When I do this, I’m focused on what is there and not the stories in my head. I can apply this same technique to every area of my life.

I’ve found having a formal mindfulness practice also helps increase my general level of mindfulness. I try to meditate at least twice a day for 20 minutes each time. I don’t view meditation as some sacred spiritual practice – it is just a practical tool for me.

I once believed giving up alcohol would mean the end of most of problems. This didn’t happen, and the reason so many people relapse is it doesn’t happen for them either. Life is what is and ‘being good’ is not going give us a free pass.

Mindfulness means we are no longer adding to our pain through resistance or misunderstanding. It gives us the ability to not only deal with life but to do so from a place of growing equanimity and serenity. This level of comfort is what I was looking for when I turned to alcohol and maybe it was what you really wanted too.

Check back for the next post in the series – Mindfulness versus Addiction Cravings

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3 thoughts on “How Mindfulness Works

  1. Well, you hit it out of the ballpark with the whole series, really. But now that this last installment has arrived, I especially love it. Thank you, Paul. It’s a wonderful New Year’s gift. I’d like to be specific, but you did such a good job of being specific that there just isn’t anything for me to say or add. That’s great writing. 🙂 Quite the teacher you have become, I’d say.

    1. Thanks Mary, I’ve been trying to put this stuff into words for a long time. It helps me make sense of it in my own head as well. I remember reading somewhere that the best thing to ever teach is whatever it is you most need to learn.

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