This article was originally published on LinkedIn on 2 March 2020.
They say “curiosity killed the cat.” Being too inquisitive could lead to danger. So don't ask too many questions. But one of the best advice I have ever received was from my very wise mentor Char Wilkins, who constantly reminded me when I was training to be a mindfulness teacher - “Curiosity will always get you out of trouble, Erin.”
That’s right, I have learned that there is no such thing as being too curious, as long as it was grounded in the practice of mindful awareness.
I used to feel really nervous about facilitating an inquiry into a mindfulness experience; posing a question like "What did you notice?" to a group of people, and potentially having every one of them stare right back at me in complete, deafening silence - it was unnerving. Silence was something I felt really uncomfortable with. Do they understand my question? Are they getting this? I would think to myself. I must look pretty amateur right now. They're onto me, they know I'm a phoney... Oh god, this is the longest anyone has not talked, ever. In reality, it was perhaps only five seconds of silence; to me, it felt like an eternity of awkwardness, self-doubt, and shame. My attention would get pulled into an internal whirlpool of self-judgmental thoughts, and before I knew it, I had lost sight of my original intention, which was to attend to and be present with the experiences of my participants. Throughout the rest of the session, dread and anxiety lingered behind every word I spoke, every question I asked, and every response I offered.
Char would ask me during our mentoring sessions, “What are you curious about, Erin?” This golden question prompted the start of a paradigm shift in my facilitation approach.
We have a strong tendency to quickly form judgments about anything and everything that arises in our experience. This usually stems from a place of fear or uncertainty, which we don't particularly like to deal with. We inwardly make assumptions and draw conclusions without taking the time to investigate what is really going on. The mind automatically runs scripts we are familiar with in an attempt to make sense of a situation. Your employee is staring at his phone during a meeting - that guy is not a team player. Your boss takes a deep breath in as you present your idea - nope, she's not buying this. Your partner texts you, "We need to talk," - is she breaking up with me? Your child avoids answering your question - why doesn't he ever respond to me? A stranger remains seated on the train despite seeing an elderly standing in front of him - ugh, what a jerk.
What might happen if we were to invite a little curiosity into our experience? The moment we become curious about something, our attention softens and widens, our judgments start falling away, and suddenly space opens up for us to witness the experience as it is, and to explore more possibilities. Your employee is staring at his phone - could he be attending to something urgent? Does he need support? Your boss takes a deep breath in - could that be an attempt to be more present with me? Your partner texts you - what is she concerned about? Your child avoids your question - is something bothering him? Does he feel safe enough to share? A stranger doesn't give up his seat - could he have a condition I don't know about?
And what happens when we stay curious and open ourselves to more possibilities? How might our interactions with one another change?
Coming back to my silent group of practitioners, I subsequently reminded myself to be open and curious about what was happening there and then, without the need for a specific answer or outcome. Moment by moment, I practised resting in the atmosphere of silence, observing not only the participants, but also my very own discomfort. After a while, I realized that silence was just silence, and all that awkwardness was really in my head. Curiosity had allowed me to turn towards my experience and notice the unnecessary evaluations I was reactively bringing in. There was nothing inherently right or wrong, good or bad about that silence. The only thing I needed to be aware of at each moment of noticing, was that silence was present. And this information was enough.
It was an epiphany, the moment I discovered that being curious about how things are, was more important than thinking about how things should be.
Today, I am comfortable enough to invite the entire group to rest with me in silence, even when we are supposed to be sharing. With this open curiosity, I see thought bubbles brewing in the group and patiently wait for them to reveal themselves; I discern appropriate moments for holding space, and the best opportunities to value-add; I bear witness to how each person - including myself - transforms from struggle, to knowing, to insight.
So, what are you curious about?
Video: How To Have A Mindful 2017
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Welcoming a More Mindful New Year
So we are nearing the end of 2016, and about to welcome a brand new year ahead. Have you set your New Year Resolutions yet?
As an advocate of mindfulness as a way of life, I invite you to incorporate mindfulness as a part of your New Year Resolutions. You might want to commit to doing one thing mindfully per day, or establish a more routine mindfulness practice. You might even want to get yourself formally trained in mindfulness, if you have been toying with the idea for some time. Perhaps you already have a New Year Resolution in mind, and you could be more mindful about achieving or sticking with it.
Here are some simple suggestions on how you can have a more mindful year ahead:
Doing one thing mindfully everyday: this could be any activity within your daily routine, such as brushing your teeth, locking your apartment door (we know how absent-minded we can be about this!), drinking your first glass of water or first cup of coffee in the morning, waiting for the bus, a household chore like washing the dishes - the possibilities are endless!
When mindfully doing that one thing you've chosen, you are essentially paying attention to what you're doing as you're doing it; multi-tasking is a big no-no in mindfulness practice, so don't for example drink your coffee and read the news at the same time. As you pay attention, notice the details using your five senses - see the colors and shapes with your eyes, hear the sounds with your ears, smell the scents with your nose, taste with your tongue, and feel textures and sensations with your hands and skin. When we open up our senses to what we're doing, we stay focused and the mind settles more easily into the present moment by moment.
Establishing a more routine practice: Those of us who have had training or experience in mindfulness would probably know that one of the most challenging aspects of mindfulness is keeping up with our practice. Whether it's because of our busy lives or a lack of commitment or some other circumstances, we have probably tried really hard to practice regularly, but there is just no denying that the real research-proven benefits of mindfulness come from a sustained, routine daily practice.
When it comes to establishing a routine mindfulness practice, I encourage you to 'start small' and slowly build up your practice. This could mean a simple awareness of breath for just 5 minutes every morning when you wake up or every night before you sleep. When you have gotten used to this 5-minute routine, extend it to 10 minutes a day, then 15 minutes, 20 minutes...
If you're commiting to longer mindfulness practices (such as 30 or 40 minute durations), you might want to break it up into several parts practiced over different times of the day. For example, split a 30 minute practice into 10 minutes when you wake up, 10 minutes during lunch time at work, and 10 minutes in the evening or before bedtime.
If you have been exposed to or trained in a variety of mindfulness practices (awareness of breath, body scan, movements, choiceless awareness etc.), you might want to start with a practice that you feel most comfortable with and can ease into more effortlessly. If you've established a routine of one particular practice, you might want to switch to another one that is more challenging to you.
Look for an App that helps you stick to your routine mindfulness practice - I highly recommend Insight Timer, a meditation App that not only allows you to track your practice hours (and achieve miletones!), you also get to connect with fellow mindfulness practitioners from around the world. Best of all, it's free!
Getting formally trained in mindfulness: Many people have probably thought about attending a mindfulness class, but have yet to act on it. If you've been thinking about getting mindfulness training, pick a class or program that allows you enough time to learn the skills and that scaffolds you through the learning process in a more structured way. We recommend the classic 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program, which is research-proven and usually taught by an approved facilitator in a group setting. There are important benefits to learning mindfulness in a group setting and over an extended period of time.
Being mindful about your New Year Resolutions: Maybe you already have a New Year resolution in mind for 2017 - such as learning a new language or mastering the guitar, and you're wondering if you might actually stick with it or achieve it successfully this time. The practice of mindfulness teaches us to focus our attention and minimize judgments or criticisms towards ourselves. With mindfulness, you can actually cultivate more patience in the process of learning the guitar, and offer yourself the compassion you need when things don't turn out as you had expected.
Can you think about how else you might be able to have a more mindful 2017? Share it with Mindful Moments!
Whenever I met with doubts or challenges in teaching the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, my mentor would gift me this timely reminder: "Erin, be curious. Curiosity will always get you out of trouble".
The cultivation of curiosity in mindfulness is an interesting practice to engage with. When was the last time you were truly curious about something? If you have observed a child figuring out the way the world works, you might notice the wonderment and spark in their eyes as they discover something new and interesting.
As a child, we were naturally curious and open about everything around us, and we simply wanted to explore. But as we grew up, fears, expectations and judgments set in, and we no longer approach things with genuine curiosity. We worry about the unknown or ambiguous, we reject repetition and avoid change, we seek concrete answers to the questions we ask, we tend to form biased perceptions, categorizing what we observe into stereotypes, and we almost always look to get something - usually a function or benefit - out of anything we see or come across.
Being curious about things is encouraged in mindfulness practice. In mindfulness, we practice a lot of acceptance towards the stresses and challenges in our life, but before we can even develop greater acceptance, we need to train the mind to see things just the way they are. We notice the prejudices and assumptions we tend to make, and learn to let go of preferences for things to go our way. When we are able to cultivate such genuine curiosity that is free from expectations and judgment, we usually experience remarkable changes to our relationship with the world around us.
Curiosity does not kill the cat. Instead, it can be your new best friend - a support you can depend on anytime, anywhere, and a gentle practice that invites you to approach life in an entirely different way. If you'd like to learn how to cultivate genuine mindful curiosity, do check out our 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program.
I get this a lot as a mindfulness practitioner and advocate - many tell me they would love to practice mindfulness, but simply can't squeeze out much time to do it. This usually happens when our idea about mindfulness is pretty much limited to sitting still for a (very) long time. I completely empathize with their concern, because to be honest, when you're already pressed for time to complete work deadlines, finish up your chores, and spend time with your family, who can afford to idle around on a cushion, not moving, and doing nothing?
But here's the thing: mindfulness does not have to be practiced in stillness, and it is certainly not doing nothing. When we are practicing mindfulness, we are actually training the mind to pay attention to the present moment, and that can take a lot of work on our part. While some mindfulness practices take place sitting or lying in stillness, others can be practiced in movement. Not all mindfulness practices are long - some can be short, or really, really short. And what's also beautiful about mindfulness is that it can be practiced almost anywhere, anytime.
How about practicing mindfulness while brushing your teeth? You might wonder how you could do that. All you need is something to place your attention on. Feel the motions of your hand and the brush moving up and down, back and forth; feel the sensations of brushing on the teeth, the gums, the tongue; feel the minty coolness and notice the taste of the toothpaste; notice the temperature of the water in your mouth. Notice the present state of your body instead of running through your to-do list in your mind.
Or how about when you're commuting on an MRT train? Instead of looking down at your phone (it is scary how uniform commuters look when everybody's heads are bowed down at their gadgets), notice your posture and the way you are sitting or standing; feel the floor at the bottoms of your feet; feel the texture of the pole you're holding on to; feel our breath in and under your nose.
You can also practice mindfulness when you're vacuuming your home, washing the dishes, driving, crossing the road, taking a shower, eating a meal, unlocking the door... The list is endless! Simply pay attention to what's present in your immediate environment - physical sensations in your body, movements, sounds, etc. This kind of daily life mindfulness practice, which we call informal practice (in contrast with formal practices of sitting on the cushion or chair or lying on the floor for a longer period of time), can last a few minutes or even just a few seconds or moments, but the benefits are tremendous.
That said, it is worth noting that both formal and informal practices are important in mindfulness training, and the best way to practice mindfulness is to find a balance between them both, which complement each other. While formal practice deepens our concentration and wisdom through observing the nature of our mind and body, informal practice allows us to incorporate awareness in our daily lives. When both practices are integrated as a way of life, we are training the brain's cognitive flexibility to effectively regulate our emotions, change our relationship with stress, and improve our health and well-being.
The author Erin is a Mindfulness Coach and Founder of Mindful Moments Singapore. Learn more about the research-based mindfulness training program she teaches.
Mindfulness Made Simple
When people come to know that I practice and teach mindfulness, quite a number of them would ask me this same question: What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a word that we see everywhere in the media and at our workplaces nowadays. Through reading editorials and articles, we probably have a roughly idea about what it is, although we may not really understand what it encompasses. Many of us define mindfulness as a kind of meditation, but this concept of mindfulness might stop at images of sitting still and quiet in a cross-legged position, attempts to empty the mind, or of other rituals such as prayers and chanting.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the classic 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, explains mindfulness as "paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally" (see source). If we tried to understand this definition conceptually, it might be difficult to fathom what this form of paying attention truly means. What do we mean by paying attention on purpose? Why the emphasis of the present moment in mindfulness? What does being non-judgmental have to do with mindfulness?
In this article, I will aim to explain in the simplest way possible the key words and terms used in describing and practicing mindfulness. It is worth noting that experiential practice of mindfulness is much more important for understanding what mindfulness is, than the terms I discuss below.
All of us have awareness. In the broader sense, awareness refers to the capacity of knowing or perceiving events, objects and situations. In mindfulness, we talk about knowing what is happening while it is happening, often referring to one's inner experience.
When someone makes you happy and you smile, you are aware that your face is smiling. When you are angered by another driver rudely cutting into your lane, you are mindfully aware of the grip of your hands tightening on the steering wheel, and the wave of heat rising in your body. You are aware of your own likes and dislikes, the thoughts and voices in your head, your emotions, actions and behaviours.
Awareness is different from reflection - reflection often takes place on hindsight, after something has happened and you're pondering about what had happened. Awareness takes place as the event itself is taking place, i.e. in the present moment.
There is a great emphasis on being present in practicing mindfulness. We cannot be practicing mindfulness if we are not in the present moment. By the present, we mean the here and now - what is going on in your inner experience at this particular moment.
The opposite of the present moment is the past or the future. The mind often carries us to the past to relive (and dwell in) memories, or carries us forward to think about (or worry about) the future. When the mind is engaged in the past or the future, we are no longer in the present moment.
For example, while you are having lunch, you start to worry about the business presentation you are about to give in an hour, or you begin to think about the comments your colleagues had made about your work earlier in the morning. Your mind is caught up about the past or the future, and you have lost the ability to pay attention to the present moment: i.e. the food on your plate, the tastes on your tongue, the way you are eating, etc.
In mindfulness, we are learning to be in the present, moment-by-moment - one moment at a time. We take each moment as it comes - learning to let go of the moments that have passed, and learning not to anticipate the upcoming ones.
Autopilot is the opposite of mindfulness. When we are mindful, we are aware of what is happening and what we are doing. But when we are in autopilot, we are doing something without being aware that we are doing it. For example, when we are driving, our mind shifts to autopilot and does the driving for us without us having to put too much conscious attention into the skill, and before we know it, we have reached our destination quite effortlessly. Autopilot is a function of the mind that allows us to carry out learned habits and skills efficiently, thus freeing the mind to engage in other activities or thoughts.
But when we are in autopilot, we also act out ingrained patterns of the past without knowing it, and some of these patterns are often negative or destructive. For example, when faced with new challenges, the mind automatically retrieves information about past failures and we react with the same cycles of fear and anxiety. Or we might shove unhealthy food down our body simply out of habit, or light a cigarette time and again without being aware of it until we have taken the first puff.
With mindfulness of the present moment, we learn to be aware of our negative patterns and behaviours, thus beginning to break out of our automatic patterns.
Mindfulness is one of the most effective antidotes to stress. When we talk about stress, we are referring not only to the stress itself, but also to the relationship we have with the stressors in our lives. These stressors can be internal or external, but more often than not, it is the stress we feel internally that really affects our health and well-being.
External stress is inevitable in life, and we often add on to the stress by reacting to the stress, such as allowing ourselves to engage in negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours. For example, your boss calls you into his or her office. This may feel a little stressful for you, but you tend to react to this initial (and external) stress by thinking: What does he want from me? Is she unhappy with my performance? And before you know it, these negative thoughts are taking over your mind, and you are ruminating not just about the stress at hand. Everyone in the office is looking at me with sympathy. This is so embarrassing. Why can't I do anything right with this job? What am I doing with my career? What am I doing with my life?
Mindfulness trains the mind to be aware of the stressors as they arrive, and learn to weaken and break out of the negative and automatic cycles of thoughts and emotions. With the practice of mindfulness, we are working on greater acceptance towards stress, without fighting with reactivity or avoidance or running away, thus changing our relationship with stress.
Doing versus Being
The modern pace of life, with its never-ending stream of tasks and communications, as well as roles and responsibilities we have to take on, has us engaging in the mode of doing all the time - we focus on to-do lists and check-lists; we think and plan ahead, we make decisions and problem solve.
Although these types of doing are important in getting us through the day, the doing mind also often gets into the habit of thinking non-stop, and we find that it gets increasingly difficult for the mind to shut off at night when it's time to rest and sleep. The doing mode also encourages the mind to make judgments and appraisals, assess and criticise, speculate and make assumptions, or dwell in what had happened (the past) and worry about what's to come (the future). For example, you might spend the whole night going through your to-do list for the next day over and over again, or get lost in regretting what you had done today at the workplace.
The practice of mindfulness encourages the being mode of the mind, and simply allows us to rest in the present moment instead of getting drowned in the turmoils of the inner mind.
As humans, we tend to be judgmental beings. We like to appraise things, people or events we encounter, deciding whether they are good or bad, beneficial or detrimental, useful or harmful. We have preferences, hoping for pleasant experiences to continue, and avoiding or pushing away unpleasant ones. We often want things to go the way we like, and when they don't, we react. These reactions we have greatly add on to the stress in our lives.
When we practice mindfulness, we simply pay attention to our inner experiences non-judgmentally. We learn to observe things just the way they are, without the adding of judgments, without preference, and without attempting to change the experience. Whatever that arises in the mind, we train the mind not to engage or react, but to simply observe non-judgmentally.
Paying attention is the fundamental practice of mindfulness. We always set an intention to pay attention at the start of each practice. We have learned how to pay attention - without judgment and in the present moment. But what are we paying attention to?
We can pay attention to anything that arises in our inner experience. To practice the foundations of mindfulness, we often start with paying attention to physical sensations of the breath and body. We also learn to pay attention to the physical sensations in movement. These practices help to anchor our attention to the present moment. As we progress along our practice, we learn to also observe the thoughts and emotions that come and go in the mind, without engaging in them.
Through paying attention this way, we acquaint ourselves with the nature of our mind, and over time we learn to concentrate better, increase our self-awareness, manage stress more effectively, shift the neurology of the brain to embrace more positive outlooks, and improve our health as well as emotional and mental well-being.
Do you have more questions about mindfulness, or need further explanation on a mindfulness term you have come across? Leave a comment, or drop Erin a message here or via email!
A friend of mine, upon seeing Mindful Moment's Facebook update on our Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program, sent me an image along with a cheeky question: which version are you teaching?
The image, which you may have seen before since it is commonly featured on mindfulness-related websites and social media, is a drawing of a man taking a walk with his dog along a row of leafy green trees and a big warm sun shining from above; there is a thought bubble above the man's head, showing that his mind is filled with thoughts about work, communications, tasks, traveling, etc.; and then there is another thought bubble above the dog's head, showing the exact scene they are in - the row of leafy green trees and the big warm sun shining from above. And then the big question on the image asks the viewer: Mindful, or Mind Full?
It is not difficult to understand from the image that despite taking a walk in a lovely environment, the man is miles away caught up in his own train of thoughts about everything other than the beautiful scenery around him - his mind is full. The dog, on the other hand, is noticing his immediate environment as he walks - aware of the trees he is passing by, and the warmth of the sun - it is being mindful of its surroundings.
My friend understood that, and his tongue-in-cheek question was, which version does a mindfulness teacher teach in an MBSR class? Mindful, or Mind Full?
I answered: Actually, both!
It is without a doubt that participants learn to be mindful in a mindfulness class - during practices we work really hard to pay attention to the present moment, instead of allowing the mind to be pulled away by the past or the future. But through practicing mindfulness, we might find that there is also a lot to learn from paying attention to a mind that is full!
What happens when the mind is constantly overloaded with checklists, to-dos, and tasks to complete? Or when the mind is playing an upsetting event that had happened over and over again? Or when the mind loops questions about uncertainties, or when it frequently airs an unpleasantly critical, judgmental voice?
Through practice, we might discover that the mind virtually never stops, and is almost always full, or at least filled with something. Even though we frequently hear the advice: "Clear your mind" or "Empty your mind", we can be sure that this "emptiness" we are hoping for as a relief from the never-ending busyness of life will not last beyond a moment before the mind begins to be filled up again. It is equally important for mindfulness practice, then, to train the mind to be mindful of the present moment, and also be mindful of the mind that is full.
It is worth highlighting here that it is not enough to ponder over the "Mindful or Mind Full" question as an intellectual exercise. Only personal experience from engaging in mindfulness practices can bring us true insights and discoveries into the nature of the mind. And I invite you to further explore this with mindfulness training.
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So You Think You Can't Sit Still?
Some people, when asked if they would consider practicing mindfulness, would almost immediately respond: "But I can't sit still for even one minute!"
A common misconception about mindfulness, is that the practice requires one to sit quietly, cross-legged on the floor, with your eyes closed, and... basically do nothing. You are not allowed to move or talk, and you are supposed to empty your mind.
The truth is that a mindfulness practice is far from doing nothing. In fact, there really is a lot of work involved. It might look like a practitioner is just sitting there, not thinking, not feeling. But there is so much more to the experience.
In a typical mindfulness practice, we are training our mind to focus and pay attention to the present moment; we are observing the nature of our mind systematically and non-judgmentally; we are inviting curiosity into the experience and learning to accept that whatever that comes up we are okay with it. We are developing the capacity to watch the endless stream thoughts and emotions in our mind without engaging with or reacting to them. We are cultivating patience, building compassion, and collecting moments of equanimity.
Mindfulness is also not just practiced sitting. We regularly practice mindful walking, and do gentle stretching or balancing movements mindfully. Mindfulness should also be practiced in daily life - when we are eating, showering, driving, cooking, sweeping, working, or conversing with someone.
What other possible misconceptions of mindfulness do you think we could address?
Learn and practice mindfulness with us at our 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program.
You might be wondering what the big fuss over paying attention is about. You're paying attention all the time. You paid attention to what clothes you wore today; you paid attention to what breakfast you had this morning; you paid attention to saying goodbye to your loved ones before leaving the house; you paid attention to what your colleague shared with you about the challenges of the project; you paid attention while driving back home from work.
Well, did you really?
In mindfulness, to pay attention when doing something is to know that you are doing it while doing it. It is knowing what is happening while it is happening (1). And it is also more than just that. To practice mindfulness is to practice paying attention in a meaningful way, with awareness of each present moment of the experience.
When you are changing into your clothes, you are fully aware of the movements you are making, instead of thinking about the presentation you are due to give that morning. When you are having your breakfast, instead of checking your emails on your phone, you are aware of the food and colours on your plate, the dance of flavours on your taste buds, the presence of your family at the breakfast table. When you say goodbye to your loved ones, you are fully aware of your child's small, warm body hugging your own, and of your partner's kiss on your cheek.
But why is this important?
We are often living through life without really being there, without being fully present, and more often than not, before we know it, the moment is gone. This happens even more in our technology-driven world, where we feel compelled to check our phones almost every minute of the day and accomplish so many things all at once. We run on auto-pilot in an environment filled with distractions and stressors. We are multi-tasking and striving all the time, not knowing when we should take a pause, and overtime breaking down from pressure. We lose ourselves in obsessing about past events or worrying about things that have not happened. We miss precious moments with ourselves and our loved ones.
When we learn to pay attention in mindfulness, we learn to cultivate this present moment awareness, to experience each moment "as a new beginning, a new opportunity to start over, to tune in, to reconnect" (2). To fully experience each moment is to live life to its fullest. And it works wonders for our sanity and well-being. Mindfully paying attention keeps our state of mind more balanced, grounded and at peace.
Learn how to pay attention by participating in the 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program.
(1) Rob Nairn, 1999, Diamond Mind: A Psychology of Meditation
(2) Jon Kabat-Zinn, 2013, Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation
About The Author
MiMo founder Erin Lee is a Mindfulness Coach and MBSR Teacher at Mindful Moments, and advocate of mindfulness as the way of life. She conducts the classic 8-Week MBSR Program, as well as the 8-Week MBSR Workplace Program.
Are you a mindfulness practitioner and have meaningful experiences or thoughts about mindfulness that you'd like to share? You can contribute an article on the MiMo blog! Please contact Erin to find out more.