What Does Living Mindfully Actually Look Like?
In one sentence, to live mindfully is to not live habitually. Mindfulness experts like Dr Joe Dispenza and Dr Bruce Lipton have been quoted as saying that research shows on average, most people live their lives subconsciously 95% of the time. In other words most people are on auto-pilot, are not aware, function habitually throughout 95% of their day! If you always do what you have always done, which is what it means when you live subconsciously 95% of the time, then it makes sense that you will always get what you have always got. As Einstein declared, it’s insane to think that you can get a different result if you keep doing the same thing.
To live mindfully is to remember, the majority of the time, that you have a choice. You see, when you live habitually you forfeit your choice. Being mindful is remembering that you have a choice, and recalling the elements of that choice. If you are a smoker for example, your urge to smoke is habitual, you don’t even have to give it a thought. Your auto-pilot can have you pull out a cigarette, light it up, and draw on it, even before you’ve thought about it. In fact, the only time you really think about is when you’ve run out, you’re in a non-smoking area or you have serious health issues as a result of smoking.
To have a choice, there has to be awareness of your current behaviour and its outcomes as well as knowledge of an alternative behaviour that would result in more serving outcomes. Choice requires more than one way of doing or approaching things. In the Buddhist approach to mindfulness, they teach that three things prevent one from being mindful. (This is my take on their Three Poisons teaching.) The first is ignorance, when you are totally uniformed, where you don’t know that you don’t know.
The second is avoidance, where you have been informed of more serving alternatives, (in other words choices) but for various reasons you choose to keep living habitually. It’s like cigarette smokers who see the images on their packets of cigarettes depicting ways smoking can harm the body, which they ignore each time they have a cigarette. The third is attachment. This is where people try to use personal will to change their habits. They know that what they are doing habitually is not good for them, but they find themselves right back where they started, and in the case of dieting, much worse off.
So how does remembering you have a choice make a sustainable difference when actually changing the behaviour though will and discipline doesn’t? Neurological research shows that habits are the result of neural (nerve) pathways in the human brain that have become hard-wired so as to speak. Unless there is an alternative neural pathway, the brain will resort to using the most established pathways. These are our habitual/programmed behaviours. For a new set of behaviours to exist there first has to be a new neural pathway.
For a new pathway to be formed (for there to be a choice, an alternative), there has to be new information programmed into the brain. At EAP, this is what we call being aware. Strengthening this new neural pathway requires regular stimulation of the pathway. It’s like walking through a field of long grass. The first time you do it, it’s quite a challenge, but with each repeated walk through the field, the grass gets more trampled and the route become clearer. Eventually you wear a path through the grass and crossing the field is like a walk-in-the-park so as to speak.
The key with neural programming is that the brain doesn’t differentiate between what is real and what is imagined. Several experiments with control groups consistently showed only a 20% deficiency in strengthening outcomes where an actual exercise group and an imagined exercise group were compared. The significance of this was that not only was engagement in actual exercise easier with the ‘imagine’ control group, but their rate of bridging the 20% deficiency was rapid.
What this means for people practicing mindfulness, is that maintaining awareness of the new neural pathway builds it, eventually making it a viable alternative to the old habitual pathway. In mindfulness, there was never any demand for making a choice only observing the choice, and typically people are naturally inclined to repeat their old habits. With the alternative neural pathway now being developed, there comes a time when no will or discipline is needed to begin acting in ways aligned with the new neural pathway. The new behaviour is easy to adopt because the neural program has already been established.
So what does this mean in terms of how one lives life mindfully, each and every day. Since mindfulness is what creates the new neural pathway, having an expanded awareness of a more serving alternative is essential for you to be mindful at all. The commitment then is to seeking out alternative ways of being that are more beneficial and more loving to you and to others. That would be things like finding healthier alternatives to smoking, and any other addictive patterns. Finding healthier ways of being in relationship with others and with yourself. All of that requires research, like listening to others, reading books and researching on the internet. This would mean that time would be allocated to doing that research. Remember, you are looking for an alternative that will be more serving.
What activity will you have to forfeit to make the time needed to do that research? What activities will you need to forfeit to spend time contemplating how you could implement that new information into your life, and how you would benefit by adopting those changes. You are not being asked to do them, just to be aware enough to enable you to be MORE mindful. Over the next few weeks I will have a look at different aspects of life that could benefit through being more mindful.
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