Stay Focused… Are you with me?!
–Mindfulness, and putting it into practice
On a recent trip with a charity organization to a school in Uganda, one of the things that struck me most about the interaction between the teachers and their pupils was the way in which they addressed one another. On our first day, a middle aged male teacher attempted to get the attention of a group of around seventy or eighty students, in an outdoor area which did not allow his voice to travel far. Instead of shouting at them to be quiet, or indeed angrily threatening extra homework or detention, he questioned, loudly and clearly;
“Are you with me? Are we here??”
To which the students replied in bored tones, after a few moments of fading chatter that suggested they were used to answering this question:
“Yes, we are here.”
This direction of the students’ attention to the present moment, as opposed to calling incessantly for attention and giving them a reason to deflect it from him, succeeded in affirming to the students simply that someone in their midst wished to speak to them, and wanted to ensure they could all hear. Whether a colloquialization of the English language or not, both the effectiveness and accuracy of the phrase stuck in my head. It was accurate in that it succeeded in bringing not just the students’ attention to the forefront of the gathering, but the mindsets of all those within range, to the present moment. There was no room left for daydreaming, for worrying about things that didn’t matter right at that minute. We were there. It didn’t matter that the topic of discussion was merely a description of the events that would be taking place that afternoon – everybody heard it.
The practice of mindfulness aims for the same thing – awareness. It is a complete awareness and acceptance of yourself and your mind in a certain moment, at a certain time. Being aware of what is happening around you, and able to notice the individual thought processes that only you can recognise in yourself. If something happens, something unexpected – how do you react? How does your brain automatically respond? How often have we later regretted irrational responses, saying things like “I didn’t really think that through”, or “I probably shouldn’t have reacted like that”?
The process of training your brain to think rationally is not something you can achieve overnight. It takes a long, long time; some longer than others, and any number of mistakes and badly thought-out responses before you finally figure out what works and what doesn’t work for you. It’s an extremely personal and internal thing, and everyone is different. To even think to force your thoughts out of your head and into your present surroundings is an achievement, because it means you’ve become aware of the futility and silence of the thoughts being all mushed up in your brain. Think of this – right now, you’re sitting (or standing) wherever you are, reading these words off a screen, maybe scrolling the side bar to go down further, or maybe glancing up at someone who’s sitting or walking by you, and ultimately you’re expecting to finish this article soon, maybe unsure of how to react to it, or already trying to figure out why your thoughts are racing ahead to what you’re going to have for dinner or what to wear tonight, and then kicking yourself for realizing the lapse of attention to the present. It’s that simple. You are here right now. Nowhere else.
The awareness is only half the battle, however. The most challenging aspect is to actually implement the rational thinking into your everyday thoughts, and to build a steady practice of routinely checking back with that part of your brain to ensure you’re still here. It’s an ongoing process, and one that I don’t believe can ever be truly perfected- even by those who are practiced in mindfulness.
Because life throws things at us that we do not expect.
Things happen; things that no amount of judging or guesswork could ever predict. If you’re prone to let your thoughts wander irrationally through everyday problems, then who’s going to be surprised when you lose control in a moment of crisis? It is so important to be aware of yourself and of the way your mind and body work, because you are ultimately the only one who has control over them. Being mindful is a skill that everybody should be able to tap into in a moment of need, and even if you do slip up occasionally, to be able to drag yourself back reluctantly to the present moment, is an achievement, and another obstacle overcome. Now, I’m going to get a hot chocolate in the café outside.
“Are you with me?”