There are many themes which we could reflect on when talking about the MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) programme. One thing to say about it at the outset is that it has a very substantial scientific evidence base. It has been around for over 40 years and has stood the test of time. As the name of the course would suggest it is very helpful for people who are dealing with stress and anxiety. Certainly that is very relevant in this post COVID 19 world. Anyone who is paying attention can see that there is a lot of stress and anxiety in the world right now.
However, mindfulness offers us so much more than a way to cope with stress!
The 8 week MBSR programme is a deep dive into the practice of mindfulness. I have been teaching it for a few years now and I have the sense that everyone who participates in the course gets something different out of it. One lovely aspect of mindfulness practice is that we begin to see things differently. I am reminded of the famous quote by Marcel Proust: “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”. This is a story about my own experience learning to practice mindfulness and learning to see with “fresh eyes”.
Around the time I first learned how to meditate, something amazing happened to me. It happened one day, quite spontaneously.
I was working as a newly qualified solicitor at the time and I used to walk down a little lane way to the train station on my commute to work. It’s not an especially beautiful lane way – a concrete footpath, metal gates on one side and some shrubs and bushes on the other side. I must have walked this exact same route a thousand times before.
Except today it was different.
I couldn’t explain it but it was as if I was seeing this place for the very first time. I saw bees moving frantically amongst the flowers. The colours were so incredibly vivid. Were these same flowers here yesterday? Had someone come in the middle of the night and changed everything? It felt like that. There were so many details I had never seen before. It was disconcerting and in a way, almost frightening. I was usually a very brisk, purposeful walker but now my pace slowed. I looked around. There was so much life. So much movement. I felt an emotion that wasn’t at all familiar to me in those days…. pure joy. I could feel it intensely in my body. I just wanted to bask in all this beauty. I had been asleep, dead and now, finally I was awake.
It’s not an uncommon experience when someone starts to practice meditation. As we start to slow down and stop living so much in our heads, we can experience a shift in perspective. Sometimes it is more gradual and subtle, but in my case it was quite sudden and dramatic.
In the weeks and months that followed, I came to relish my daily walk down this little lane way. I didn’t listen to my iPod anymore. I listened to the birds signing and the wind moving in the trees. Every day I came to the start of the lane way expecting something magical.
Except I was never able to recapture that first moment of pure wonder. Over time walking down the lane way again became a familiar routine. It wasn’t an enchanted place anymore. Gradually, I slipped back into my old way of being. I still enjoyed my walk to work and I still found it nourishing to be outside but the magic was gone – at least for the time being.
Why did this happen?
The Irish writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch once said, “people from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us”.
Can you imagine what it would be like? If you were that person from another planet who had never seen a flower before? How do you think you would react? You would almost certainly stop whatever it is that you are doing. You would quite naturally ask yourself the question: “My God! What on Earth is this wonderful thing?!” There is probably a sense of intense curiosity. Maybe you move closer to investigate? All your senses are alert. What does this object look like? What does it smell like? What does it feel like? Maybe you notice all kinds of tiny details which are only evident when your look very closely…delicate and intricate structures, subtle shades of colour, an intoxicating scent?
How do you think you would feel in this moment?
Except here on Earth flowers are everywhere. They are common place. We see them all the time. Occasionally we might see a particularly beautiful flower and remark on how pretty it: “Oh, another flower, a yellow one. That’s nice.” It is a fleeting moment. There might be appreciation but there is no real curiosity, no enchantment, no wonder. For most of us, we certainly aren’t driven “mad with joy”!
We have all probably experienced how something wonderful becomes mundane over time. We slowly start to take it for granted. Little by little, the shine wears off. It’s what happened to me in the weeks and months following my initial experience walking down the lane way. Without knowing it, I stopped seeing the world with fresh eyes.
This is simply how the human mind is conditioned to work. If something is very familiar and is not a threat, we generally don’t pay much attention to it. Another sunset. Another tree. Another forest. Another river. Another mountain. Whatever. We’ve seen it all before. They all blend into one.
On the other hand, if something is new or different we are naturally curious and we want to investigate. We stop. We pay attention.
Think how it is to be on holidays in a new city. Everything is a little bit unfamiliar. There is so much of interest. People look different. We might not understand or recognise their unique language and mannerisms. The architecture is unusual. The trees and birds are different. Is this new city that much nicer or more interesting than your own home town? Objectively, probably not. So why is the experience so much more enriching?
It turns out that the new environment is not the deciding factor at all. The experience is enriching predominantly because of our mindset. We are curious. We are exploring. We are seeing with fresh eyes. There is a sense of wonder. Quite literally the quality of our attention determines our experience. If we could adopt this same “holiday” mindset in our daily life in our home town…if we could see with fresh eyes all the time, then surely every day would be a holiday.
So what are we to do when the mind is so conditioned to ignore the things in life which are familiar?
How do we cultivate this sense of wonder and curiosity which is so crucial to a nourishing, enriching experience?
Well, it’s extremely simple albeit it took me a long time to figure it out myself.
The first step is to realise this natural tendency the mind has to ignore information which it deems to be “non-essential”. Our habitual state is to not pay attention. In order to break this habit one first of all needs to recognise the existence of the habit!
The second step is to realise that attention is a tool. We control that tool. We always have a choice. At any moment, we can stop and choose to pay attention to something. More importantly, we can also choose “how” we pay attention. We can zoom in or decide to take a broader perspective. We can choose to engage a particular sense. Our eyes are like a camera. Our ears are like a microphone. Our skin and our nervous system allow us to explore our world in incredible detail. Try it right now. See how much control you have over how you experience the world. There is always a choice.
The third step is a little bit more subtle and looking back I can see that it is the aspect that was missing from my approach when I was walking down the lane way all those years ago, trying in vain to recapture that elusive sense of awe and wonder. We must let go of all expectation. The more I “tried”, the more I approached that lane way with a memory of “how it was” and an expectation of “how it should be”, the further away I moved from the open curious state of mind which invited my initial experience. Only a gentle, open curiosity, a willingness to look again with “fresh eyes” and see things exactly as they are with no filter, no explanation and no comparison can open the door.
Easier said than done? Try it. For a start, when you are out in nature stop putting names and labels on things: “that’s an oak tree, that’s a blackbird singing”. Words sometimes stop us from seeing with fresh eyes. The next time you see a tree, maybe imagine that you are like that person from another planet Iris Murdoch talked about, who is seeing a tree for the very first time. Seek out the mundane, ordinary places and look with fresh eyes: your back garden, your local park, the little lane way you walk down every day on your way to work.
Let go of expectations.
This isn’t something which is complicated or new. Every single four year old experiences the world with a natural sense of curiosity and wonder. We have just forgotten how.
Try it and see for yourself.
- Barry Lee
The next MBSR online course stats on Thursday 7th May