Help me to observe myself asking this question
November 26, 2011 4:35 AM   Subscribe

I want to learn about mindfulness, to be more mindful. Also known as witnessing or distancing. The ability to be both within and outside a given situation, not to be overwhelmed but to have a part of your mind observe yourself and others all the time. I think this is what very expensive education can teach you.

I was reading these questions to David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, and it strike me that either he has a very good PR team behind him at all times, whispering into his ear, or he has the ability not to get tripped by a question but somehow remain aloof, even when the question is deeply personal. For instance, when asked about smoking cannabis at school his answer is 'this is a very good try'. This might be a silly example. but the point is the mindfulness required for this kind of answer. I read David Rock's "your brain at work" which is about this kind of thing and I read Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past" (this is perhaps the first time these two authors are mentioned in the same sentence, but the point is that mindfulness is a common concern for both). And somehow I don't feel I am getting any closer to acquiring this state of witnessing. I did try meditation in the past, but I am looking for something much more immediate. So what are the tools, the techniques, the devices one can employ right away to be more mindful?
posted by slimeline to Education (19 answers total) 64 users marked this as a favorite
Look also for self awareness. Awareness of one self and one's tendencies, habits and weaknesses (in acceptance of them) also allows one to distance oneself and observe from the 30,000 foot level (as some describe it), giving a perspective of the whole, rather than that of one of the players. An analogy that comes to mind is that of the director.

For myself, I found that this came with age and sheer experience of living, coupled with taking the time out to introspect and become aware of one's own frames of reference and lens through which I perceive the world. Writing also helped me a lot to gain clarity.

Once you begin deconstructing past events and analysing them, you are also gaining insights on the background, the layout and the motivations of the actor or the landscape of hte operating environment. Then, when you are in such a situation again (as in Cameron's case, I'm sure many of these questions have been expected and/or rehearsed) you have the 'experience', if not of the same situation, but the experience of the knowledge and analysis (which again, Cameron must have a team deconstructing all these events).

That makes me think that books on public performance and/or PR for political or other public figures may have such information.
posted by infini at 4:49 AM on November 26, 2011

Playing Ball on Running Water is intended therapeutically -- the basic concept, blending Zen Buddism with Freud, is that people with anxiety, depression, procrastination or other mild mental or social disorders are, essentially, disordered, so should work on that from the bottom up -- is all about mindfulness and may be what you're looking for. There are a number of books in the series; Constructive Living, which I haven't read, sounds like a more generalized approach.
posted by dhartung at 5:51 AM on November 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

The Cameron example you give is not, really, an example of mindfulness but rather of a person who has many years of experience in thinking critically, being in the public eye, etc. He's merely providing his own gloss on the quality of the question, either as a way to pause before answering or to honestly express amusement, or both.

What gives me pause is your fundamental misunderstanding of mindfulness, namely that there are 'tools, techniques. . .devices' that can be 'employ[ed] right away'. And no, it is not something that is taught by 'very expensive education'.

Mindfulness does not come 'right away', because we are always battling ourselves and our tendencies to, for example, dwell on the past or anticipate the future, thus missing the present moment, being absent from where (and when) we are. Wanting mindfulness to start 'right away', actually, is a prime example of the kind of state of mind that is constantly getting in the way as one tries to be more present in the moment.

Unless you are prepared to strive and fail, again and again, at mindfulness, over time, I'm not sure you understand what you think you want.

The best book on mindfulness from a Buddhist perspective is Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana.
posted by gsh at 6:02 AM on November 26, 2011 [27 favorites]

Have you ever considered taking up a martial art? I say this, because I always perceived a pretty blatant contradiction in those Buddhist monks who will cut the sleeve of their robe so as not to disturb a sleeping kitten despite the fact that it takes time out of their busy schedule of chopping wood, carrying water and beating on one another with staves. Then, one day, while doing my own martial thing I started having moments exactly like you describe - being both within and outside of my situation - intently thinking about what my opponent and I were doing, but not having the luxury to think in words.

I don't know that a martial art is necessary for this - I've since had the same experience doing other things which require mental immediacy like turning wood on a lathe and playing certain very mentally challenging but fast paced video games.

The problem difficulty with training yourself to adopt this frame of mind is that you must have the requisite skills to do without contemplation before you can do it. If an absolute beginner at wood turning, for example, is not going to have that sense of selfless timelessness - they're just going to pop their piece of wood out of the centers or tear a big chunk out of it or the like.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:04 AM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

You: The ability to be both within and outside a given situation, not to be overwhelmed but to have a part of your mind observe yourself and others all the time. I think this is what very expensive education can teach you.

A lot of that boils down to getting enough experience, whether that's in a business sense, a political sense or in practicing mindfulness.

gsh: Unless you are prepared to strive and fail, again and again ... over time.

I think that's the 'expensive education' you've got in mind, but the cost isn't necessarily a financial one, it's the time, persistence and resilience needed to get really good at what you do.

Live your life with focus, attention and self-awareness, be prepared to fail and always be prepared to reflect, and you'll start heading towards what you're trying to achieve.
posted by dowcrag at 6:15 AM on November 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

I read the Cameron interview and had the same reaction: God, he's good, fielding all these questions on totally different subjects! Then I thought about it, and realised that the interview told me absolutely nothing about Cameron that I didn't already know. He gives nothing away. More than that, there's something eerily impersonal about a lot of his answers, as if they're being uttered by a highly intelligent robot.

I think 'mindfulness', or 'distancing' or whatever you want to call it (in this case I'd call it quick-wittedness) can come at a cost, if it prevents you engaging deeply and thoughtfully with the subject under discussion. Cameron's bland detachment is not necessarily an advantage for a politician. I admire people who are prepared to do some of their thinking in public, but in Cameron's case I don't feel I have the slightest idea what's going on inside his head.
posted by verstegan at 6:18 AM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this is not mindfulness. You just learn how to handle an interview. I took a class or two on it once. It's really, really simple. I think it probably boils down to a couple of key tricks:
  • stay on target (message). If you have a position you want to push forward, make the answer about that instead of the question directly.
  • If someone disagrees with your position, the best possible way to handle that is suggest that they are misinformed and to present your position as being eminently reasonable.
  • If attacked or criticized, the best possible way to handle it is deflect it with humor.

posted by Deathalicious at 6:27 AM on November 26, 2011 [5 favorites]

I sometimes like to view ourselves as consisting of a multitude of needs and interests. Maybe these maps to separate parts of the brain.
These needs wax and wane independently. When one of these multitudinous parallel drives gets strong enough it comes to the attention of our sequential conscious analytical mind. This is approximately our inner voice, the one that we tend to identify with. The part of ourselves that feels it's in the driver seat.
It's up to the sequential single track attention to add some similance of consistency to these warring drives. If only so that other people can trust us and we can collaborate. And so that we progress through life, instead of flitting around like a moth chasing highs.
It's almost as if that conscious sequential mind is two dimensional and dealing with the parallel multitudes is like 3+ dimensional phenomena manifestating themselves in this two dimensional world. We're trying to ride the alternating surfacing waves.

So how do we get continuity? How can we socialise with insouciance, go with the flow socially and still be clear headed and on time at work the next day?
Personally I feel that how much continuity we manifest differs between people and between ages. As a toddler it seems as if we can get distracted from sadness almost instantly; the sad emotion is gone and seems replaced by happiness. That discontinuity can be seen again when we're teenagers: wanting to be seen as cool by that person you have a crush on seems to supplant all other needs. And later on when the crush has waned we feel foolish about the lengths we went to to get noticed. That's my experience at least.
And then when we get older the roller coaster of emotions becomes easier to manage. People are no longer either our total deepest friends or our enemies. People are not totally strange or our deepest soul mates. Even when I hang out with friends somewhere I don't loose myself completely. And when I need to collaborate with annoying people at work that doesn't completely overtake me either.
So what can you do about this besides getting older and accepting your type of personality?
I think its helpful to use the tools of mindfulness in remembering ourselves.
That is: during a night of socialising and drinking I briefly remember my other drives, the other things I've got going on. Not on an intellectual level but as feelings of situations that I also want. F.i. That I want to visit my SO in the morning and be vivid, not have a hangover. Etc.
It's a skilled exercise in attention; briefly remembering our other drives and then focusing on the current one again. And then still be a little foolish in trying to get the attention of that other person. But balanced with a bit of realisation that next week we'll be crushing on somebody else.
posted by joost de vries at 6:29 AM on November 26, 2011

The ability to be both within and outside a given situation, not to be overwhelmed but to have a part of your mind observe yourself and others all the time. I think this is what very expensive education can teach you.

This is what lets shysters fleece rubes every day. It plays to the feeling that you are somehow "too uneducated" to understand the world around you, and if you will only send the shyster $100/1000/10000/first born child, all will be revealed. Don't send it.

I think that's the 'expensive education' you've got in mind, but the cost isn't necessarily a financial one, it's the time, persistence and resilience needed to get really good at what you do.

Amen. Nothing but time and practice.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 7:14 AM on November 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Mindfulness meditation has helped me a great deal to achieve this kind of detachment. There have been several cases when I found myself dropping into a mindset very similar to the meditative mindset in stressful situations, which seems to be the effect that you're looking for.

Once, when angry, I found myself saying to myself, "Wow, my heart is really hammering away. Interesting." And that split second of detachment and observation helped me to handle the situation better, because I was able to see that I was angry, and make a deliberate decision not to act in anger in front of a large group (i.e. say something stupid that made me look bad to the people I was arguing with and everyone else in the room), but to say that we were going to have to discuss the question at another time. Mindfulness helped me make the right decision.

Once I was on the cusp of an argument with my husband, and suddenly dropped into the observational mode, and realized, "Huh, look at that. I'm being defensive." And just like that, the defensiveness was gone and, instead of jibbering and attacking him in return and ruining both our days, I was able to say to my husband, "That thing you're criticizing me about? You're right. I want to work on that. Can you help me?" Argument averted, because of just that one eyeblink of mindfulness.

As far as I am aware, there aren't any shortcuts. To pick a very un-Buddhist example, if you want to be able to shoot a gun with accuracy in an emergency, the way to do that is to practice in a calm setting, doing it as perfectly as you can, again, and again, and again, until dropping into that perfect-firing mode becomes automatic and you can do it without conscious effort even under great stress. There isn't immediate any way to gain that ability. It takes a months or years of deliberate practice. If you want mindfulness to become an automatic response, you have to meditate daily for months and years—although IMHO the benefits of meditation begin to appear in small ways very soon after you begin your practice.

I second the recommendation for Mindfulness in Plain English, I'll add Turning the Mind into an Ally by Sakyong Mipham.
posted by BrashTech at 7:48 AM on November 26, 2011 [7 favorites]

If you want an immediate tool, look no further than your own breath/body
Breath Awareness Meditation - Eckhart Tolle Webcast
Eckhart Tolle - Reconnecting with the body

I also believe that life's vicissitudes does a wonderful job in helping us increase consciousness/mindfulness/awareness - also being in tune with nature, pleasure/pain. Things that hinder or get in the way of mindfulness would, imo, include "distractions" like: television, daydreaming/fantasizing, intoxication, hate/lust.

I was also going to point you to "Mindfulness in Plain English"
some other content:
Tolle's "The Power of Now" and "A New Earth"
An idea about "How To Be In The Present Moment"
Eckhart Tolle: Intense Presence, Presence with Thoughts and Emotions, Unconscious State
posted by mrmarley at 7:53 AM on November 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I read an interview with a very skilled politician! I’m sure the journalists were very frustrated by him – as they couldn’t get him to argue. What I read is someone who is not reacting on a personal level – even to some very provocative questions. He may have a good P.R. firm or loads of confidence or multiple privileges or on medication or has a group of people around him (including family) that takes care of his day to day needs – any of this can reduce stress and anxiety.

I also think it’s about emotional competence – how well you understand yourself (feelings/needs) and your experiences (values/beliefs) - that can determine how you respond/behave. You might find it through meditation, religion or through other personal explorations. Some people get it (or are given it) right away and others spend their lifetime looking for it.

We all have different levels of “normal functioning” – and it would be a very sad world if we all became automated, like this politician.
posted by what's her name at 8:11 AM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding BrashTech's recommendation of mindfulness meditation. This greatly improved my ability to recognize my own emotional reactions as they happen, acknowledge them in a non-critical fashion and take the time to consider how I wanted to handle them in a productive fashion.
posted by browse at 8:37 AM on November 26, 2011

Another way to become more "mindful" -- if that indeed is what you are seeking -- is to embark on learning something physical and hard. For me it was learning to row crew. I had never (except for childbirth!) been so intent on my own powers of focus. I have a friend who is learning to sculpt and he too feels such targeted focus, such laser-like attention to what he is doing, it's as "mindful" as he's ever experienced.
posted by thinkpiece at 9:41 AM on November 26, 2011

David Cameron is not being mindful. He is a skilled politician raised in the British upper class with extensive skills in answering questions in ways that make him look good. These answers don't go all the way down -- this isn't who he is on the inside. This is how he has learned to present himself to others as part of his social position and his job as a politician.

Learning mindfulness, while worthwhile, has absolutely nothing to do with it.
posted by 3491again at 11:26 AM on November 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

A good book to learn mindfulness techniques is Full Catastrophe Living
posted by radioamy at 11:46 AM on November 26, 2011

Mindfulness is an oddly physical thing.

I learned mindfulness by taking yoga classes. I wasn't even trying to learn it, because at the time I didn't realize that it was a thing I didn't have. I just wanted to be a little more flexible, and I thought it might help with some hip pain. Then, quite suddenly and automatically, this mindfulness thing was there -- the slightly goofy yoga teacher called it "witness consciousness." The mindfulness was an emergent characteristic of the process of doing yoga. I'm sure other physical activities, like mentioned above, could produce the same result. It's very much worth learning, however you do it. It's what gets me through the day.
posted by Corvid at 12:26 PM on November 26, 2011

Best answer: Mindfulness, I think, is something you practice rather than something you acquire. I agree with others that David Cameron doesn't seem what I recognise as mindful - I think he is shrewd and tutored. Part of mindfulness means that you become aware, and this allows you to be more empathic and compassionate.

I first came across mindfulness when I was coming out of a period of heavy depression through therapy and reading - not a manual, but just reading a variety of books that appealed to me in various stages (as you've mentioned) thoughtfully as I tried to emerge from my fog. I had been trying to practice meditation for a few years during a graduate degree - mindfulness actually helps me tremendously with thinking analytically and work in general, but at the time I thought it wasn't 'working' and I kept thinking 'why can't I do this more efficiently and quickly? Why can I not achieve?' I believed in some way it would give me some kind of heightened moral/social/mental power if I did manage to be mindful - which now looks pretty funny and a bit delusional. I then started doing yoga and I was always a swimmer and walking and running helped too. As Corvid says, it can just come unbeknownst to you through movement.

However, I think it is something like reminding yourself to be aware, listen, know your breathe, recognise, remember, etc. It is also about being aware of the ebb and flow of things, and being both within and apart from time and space, which is what helps me not overreact when I am angry or sad or afraid, but see it and respond to it. Part of it - for me - is about listening to myself and not being distracted by who or what is going on outside. Sometimes when under pressure from work or life, remembering to practice wanes a little, but I've found I can always pick it up again, and being able to pick it up again makes me confident in how I approach things and feel the moment of happiness clearly when they come along.
posted by iamnotateenagegirl at 2:05 PM on November 26, 2011 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: iamnotateenagegirl - this is spot on! thank you.
posted by slimeline at 6:03 AM on November 27, 2011

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