One of my big realization or Ah-Ha! moments happened in college, in a sociology class called Modern Social Problems. The professor was great. I already had him for Sociology 101, and I loved how he blended lectures with stories or examples that we could relate to and discuss as a class.
One day he asked for a show of hands in response to the following question:
How many of you remember driving to class this morning?
Laughter and giggles broke out as faces looked puzzled, chins were rubbed, and hands were raised and dropped a few times. I raised my hand at first but, after thinking about it, I realized there were stretches in my ten-mile commute that I definitely didn’t remember. Finally, in a class of about twenty-five students, not one hand was raised.
I forget exactly what the discussion topic was all about, but I do remember this: it was one of my early realizations of how our minds can be so busy with our thoughts that we aren’t truly present. In our minds, we’re often replaying events from the past or imagining the future. Sometimes we’re having imaginary conversations with people we know and maybe some we don’t. We’re not in the moment, we’re not conscious of our surroundings, we’re not mindful. We’re not “in the Now.”
If you can picture being on auto-pilot while driving, imagine that a deer suddenly jumps out in front of you.
You didn’t see it coming. Your emotional response is some combination of surprise, fear, shock, horror, or panic. In a split second, you decide to swerve to the right.
You weren’t paying attention. Because you were startled, you just reacted in the best way you knew how at the moment. But it didn’t turn out well for the deer, for your car, or for you. You realize later that you had other options, and now your mind is filled with could haves and should haves and worries as you drive your rental car to work.
Things often go the same way with our communication. If we have sudden, unexpected emotional responses to something someone says or does, we’re likely to react without considering options, and the option we choose is usually the one we know best from long habit. And it might not be the best option.
“But that’s normal,” I hear someone protest. Sure, it’s very normal and typical. But is it peaceful? Is it compassionate? Is it about choice? Is it even related to what the other person said or did?
If the deer is headed to your right, why would you swerve to the right if you’re trying to avoid it? If you had been looking—if you were mindful—you would have seen other, better options.
The same is true in communication. There are options that we might be aware of during a relaxed, calm time, if we think about it. But at the time of a sudden emotional upset, we forget they’re there. We can’t see them, and we react out of habit because that’s all we can think of in that split second. We just react.
Thing is, we can’t learn to respond in an emergency situation—think spouse, parents, kids, friends, neighbors, colleagues—if we don’t practice. If we aren’t familiar with our thinking and emotional responses during calm times, how can we manage them at stressful times?
Are you on auto-pilot and lost in thought when you’re interacting with or talking with someone?
Maybe you’re planning the next thing you’re going to say. Maybe you’re making judgments about the other person. You might be a million miles away and just responding enough to make the other person think you’re listening. Maybe you’re responding with your same ol’ same ol’ and matching story for story, tale for tale. Maybe you’re making hints that you have to get going, and you’re getting frustrated that the other person isn’t responding.
Maybe you’re just reacting, and maybe you’d like to do something different and get different results. Maybe you’d like to be more aware of options and make better choices.
One way to change our communication habits is to practice mindfulness in everyday activities.
Mindfulness is simply being in the moment and being aware. It can also be about “watching” as various thoughts and emotions arise, when and if they do. It’s about being in the Now and being aware of what is going on right here, right now. Nothing else. And the only way to become more mindful is to practice.
Here are some exercises you can do any time, with no special skills or preparation. The goal is simply to become more aware of your thoughts and emotions while you’re engaged in ordinary tasks.
1. Wash the dishes. Feel the water, feel and smell the soap. Look at the shine on the clean dishes. Just wash the dishes.
2. Eat. Really eat, and that’s all. Whether it’s something healthy or not healthy or a sweet treat, enjoy every bite of it. Chew slowly and purposefully. Notice texture, warmth or cold, the flavor and smell.
3. Drive. Watch everything and everyone around you without judgment. Cars ahead, behind, and to the side. Feel the steering wheel, the gear shift, the seat. Look at trees, houses, grass, garbage at the side of the road.
4. Sit. Just sit. It doesn’t have to be meditation. You can be on a train, a plane, or in your living room. Just sit and breathe.
5. Walk. While walking, notice your breath and how your body feels. Feel the air, the warmth or cold, the roughness or smoothness beneath your feet.
6. Run. Pay attention to your breath, the movement of air on your cheeks, the scenery that passes, the way the road or path feels to your feet. Notice smells and sounds.
7. Listen. Really listen to someone. Instead of talking, pay attention to any thoughts that arise in response. Ignore them. Try to respond only to the speaker. Say “I hear you” or “I understand.” Ask questions, and resist the temptation to voice judgments or give advice or tell your own story in response.
8. Shit. Forget the magazines or newspaper. Go to the toilet, do your business, and only do your business.
9. Sing. Really sing. Play your favorite music and sing along. Or make up your own tune. Involve every part of yourself in it. Sing it, hear it, feel it.
10. Pray. If you don’t pray, substitute affirmations or positive self-talk. Recite a poem that you like, or express your dreams and goals out loud. Listen to yourself. Hear your voice. Smile. Breathe.
During any activity, we can practice mindfulness. We can be aware. We can be in the Now.
If we are mindful, we will see that we have options. We will see that a deer has run out of the forest and is headed in our direction. We will see that there are no cars to our left, so we can swerve safely in that direction. We will know that no car is behind us, so we can slam on the brakes safely. We will know that if we just keep driving, the deer will safely cross the highway.
The key thing to remember is that you are not your thoughts and you are not your emotional responses.
Thoughts and emotions are not you, they are not your inner essence, and they do not have to control you. You can contemplate thoughts and emotions and reactions and observe them during any activity. This is part of what develops mindfulness. Only when we become aware of our thoughts and emotions–instead of being them–can we become mindful, aware, and in the Now.
If you don’t see the practical application of this exercise at this particular time, never fear. In many future posts, I’ll refer back to this one as well as two recent posts on triggers and living in the now because the topics are so integral to interpersonal communication.
Thoughts? Comments are always welcome.