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Demystifying mindfulness: Why it is hard to be mindful?

We so value mindfulness that we sometimes put it on a pedestal. The problem is that, when we put something up there, it starts to feel like an ideal that is difficult to reach. So we slide into perfectionism. We get intimidated. We forget that mindfulness is very much part of our evolutionary heritage.

At a very basic level, being mindful is simply the opposite of being mindless. This is how our distant ancestors survived in the wild, noticing dangers as well as opportunities, as opposed to wandering mindlessly.

In our daily lives, we are often mindless. Not because we're lazy or deficient, but because we are geared to function efficiently. Which means we are geared to not doing something unless we absolutely need to do it. And we certainly can get away with being mindless much of the time. For instance, there is no need for us to have anything like the degree of mindfulness our hunter-gatherer ancestors had when we walk in the woods.

So being mindful requires us to override our default mode, to go beyond what is efficient. Does this mean we have to force ourselves to do it? Not really. Straining our attention works only short-term, it is not sustainable.

It's good to remember what "attention" is. What we call "attention" is our natural aptitude to orient to what needs attention. So "attention" is not something we strain to do, it is what happens under circumstances that warrant it. To use an analogy: Hunger is not something we strain to do, it is the sensation that comes up when we need to eat.

The mind strives for efficiency. Think of it as going through a scanning process to determine whether anything requires special attention. As long as no special danger is identified, as long as things seem familiar, within the norm, there is no reason to trigger attention.

So, in order to be shift from mindless to mindful, what we need to do is to set the stage for that. How do we do this? By realizing that we do not have all the information we need. To do this, we need to interrupt our default mode. We need to pause. We cannot be mindful unless we pause to interrupt autopilot.

Now, why is it so hard to do such a simple thing as taking a pause to be mindfull? It really helps to understand the obstacles, so we can be responsive rather than reactive to the challenges of life. Hint: When we have trouble doing something simple, chances are it might be a protective mechanism against a perceived threat.

In case this all feels a little abstract to you, here is a concrete example. This 30-send video shows why, for some of us, "listening" has a bad connotation. It's good to understand why, and to see how things can be different.

It's not so much about "listening" as it is about the nature of the relationship:
- It doesn't feel good to be forced to listen.
- It feels really good to feel the deep connection that comes from listening to somebody we want to listen to.

Similarly, forcing ourselves to be more mindful is not necessarily the most effective way. It helps to better understand the context, and what it means to us.

See: Articles: Functional definitions of mindfulness


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