In current discussion about psychotherapy and well-being, it seems like Mindfulness is everywhere. We are regularly reminded that what the Buddhists have known about mindful meditation for several thousand years, contemporary psychotherapy has cottoned onto in the last couple of decades! So what is Mindfulness? To begin answering that question (and perhaps never finish doing so), let's take a look at the popular image below.
Google "Mindfulness" and it won't be long before you come across this simple illustration of a stick-figure man taking a walk with his dog. The pair are walking away from us towards a horizon vegetated by four trees. The sun shines above their heads. The illustration is so simple, yet there is so much to say about it.
SO WHAT'S GOING ON IN THEIR HEADS?
We are privy to what's going on in the heads of the strolling pair, thanks to the thought bubbles. So, who's thinking what? Take the man, let's call him Mr Green. He's not having a good day! His mind is busy, full, active, elsewhere, a muddle. We have images of bundles of letters falling through the mail slot in a front door, cars honking, people crowding, loud music, an unhappy man (is it Green or his disgruntled friend/boss/partner, maybe, all three), even a pair of mismatched socks!....OH, THE HUMANITY!
Let's face it, Mr Green is having a REALLY BAD DAY! Or is he...? What's wrong with his day? He's out in the sunshine stretching his legs with man's best friend. What could be better? His problem is the thoughts that he's allowing to intrude into his walk. They are regrets about the past and worries about the future. They are only cognitive events (thoughts) that he is having as he walks. Crucially for our understanding of Mindfulness, they are not his present experience. So, what can he do about this? He can look to his companion.
Fido is plodding faithfully along beside him, seemingly just taking in the scene. It's not that Fido is empty-headed. He's not. He is being present in the moment, regarding the scene around him with all his senses, with curiosity and without judgment. He is letting his whole awareness be consumed with the details of the scene surrounding him. He might become aware of his name tag tinkling against the buckle of his collar, he hears it for a bit, acknowledges his awareness of it, then brings his awareness back to the scene before him, noting the sound of the breeze in the trees up ahead, the feeling of warmth from the sun on his muzzle, the coolness of the grass as it comes up and meets his paw pads. Fido is not dwelling in self pity over the rousing-on he got for chewing old Green's slipper last night, or wondering if tonight is tinned food or fresh meat, and catastrophising that it will inevitably be the tinned. He is thoroughly present and fully experiencing the moment he is in. Fido is an exemplar of Mindfulness.
SO WHO OR WHAT IS MINDFUL?
The caption under the drawing asks the question, "Mind Full, or Mindful?" It's a rhetorical question. It's clearly the dog who is relaxed, at peace, mindful. We can see that being mindful is making him happy, because his tail is up high concluding the arc of a jolly good wag!
Old Green, on the other hand, has got to be uptight! He's stewing over the road rage incident he was involved in days ago, seething over his neighbour calling him an "old fart" when he asked for the music to be turned down last weekend, wondering how he is ever going to pay all the bills that greet him in the hallway every night as he arrives home. Oh yeah, he must have another look in the bottom of the washing machine for that other brown sock, and goddamit, he really should delete the rubbish in his email Inbox (this morning, he noticed there were nearly 20,000 emails in there and 15,000 of them were UNREAD!) Of course, ALL of this is why he's going to get a bottle of wine from the bottle shop on the way home, just to take the edge off. The thing is, though he'll several times think, "this is my last top up", he'll tottle off to bed about 11:30 having put the EMPTY bottle in the recycling bin (and having never gone near that Inbox) and regret it in the morning because he's going to feel shabby all day. And to top it all off, when Fido answers the call of nature, HE has to pick up the 'steaming turd' and carry it around in a plastic bag until he passes a bin! You get the idea...
It is the dog, being present in the moment, lacking concern for the past or future, that is mindfully enjoying the walk. I love this illustration for how much it conveys with so little detail.
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So which one of these two dogs appear to be having regrets about the past
or concerns about the future?
Credit for the 'Mind Full, or Mindful' illustration to Henck van Bilsen