My parents and my lecturers could never understand
Why I gave it up for music and the Free Electric Band.
Well they used to sit and speculate upon their son’s career
A lawyer or a doctor or a civil engineer
In the modern world with its lifestyle of continuous connection and instant availability, it is not surprising that we seem to have become afraid of being alone.
As a social species, human survival has depended on being part of a group. The greater the crowd, the smaller the chance of any one person being eaten.
There is safety in numbers.
The accompanying fear of silence, presumably related to the silence that falls when a predator is close at hand, seems to go beyond a sensible degree of anxiety about our safety, to a genuine fear of being alone with our thoughts.
Now a days we seem to equate being alone with loneliness, and there is a negative perception of those who like their own company or solitude. After all, it is perceived as one of the key personality traits of a serial killer, or school shooter.
There is a huge difference between being alone and being lonely. After all, it is common for people to feel lonely even when they are part of a group.
This sense of isolation is stressful in its own right.
With the mobility that twenty-first century existence requires, has come a breakdown in our sense of belonging. We have no ready-made community from which to gain support.
Strangers, those from outside of our group, pose a potential threat. This makes it that much harder to reach out to new neighbours, or to develop a new community for ourselves. This sense of isolation is stressful in its own right.
Humans are a social species, and we are at our best as part of a close-knit, social group. It is for this reason, that the forced isolation of solitary confinement works so well as a form of torture, or as a punishment. When we are isolated we have a greater sense of danger, leading to chronic stress responses.
It is very different when we actively seek solitude. A Tibetan monk, meditating alone in a cave for years at a time, shows none of the adverse psychological effects of someone who has had isolation imposed upon them. Being alone permits a greater level of understanding of our inner world.
Mindfulness is the process of living in the present. Mindfulness does not add a commentary to events,but reveals it to us, and so allows us to be right here, right now.
This means we can respond to what is really happening, and not create problems that are not there. When we use our past experiences to predict the future it can be problematic. Our internal chatter, concerns about past mistakes, or worries about the future, all get in the way of helpful decision-making.
Solitude, whether physical or mental, gives us the time and opportunity to allow our running commentary to die down. The mental space that then becomes apparent can be used to heighten our awareness of what is actually happening, and not what our automatic processes tell us is happening.
These automatic sub routines are part of our innate survival mechanisms. The conscious mind can only access a small percentage of the incoming stimuli from our environment. Because of this, we have found ways to monitor our world depending on previous experience; this is intended to help keep us safe and so requires a rapid response.
When our mind is busy these processes are not accessible to conscious thought, and so cannot be changed, or challenged when they are out of date, or no longer needed. This reprocessing is one of the aims of treatment for PTSD.
A still mind permits some of these unconscious settings to reach conscious awareness. When this happens we can edit these subroutines and so alter our automatic responses, bringing them more into keeping with the present reality.
One of the problems of living in the busy, modern world, is the constant intrusions into our mind that is generated by the assorted electronic gadgets we have come to rely on. This frequent arrival of a multitude of notifications adds considerable extra stress to our modern lives, triggering our fight or flight responses even more. There is also increasing evidence that this information overload generates so called Attention Deficit Trait.
This constant state of interruption, and the associated sense of threat, not only reduces our ability to pay attention, but also prevents us from being aware of how things have changed around us. If we are unable to monitor our environment we are unlikely to notice when it changes, or perhaps, more importantly, when our responses to it are out of date and need to change.
Change can be dangerous.
The main thing that our threat detection systems notice is change. A simple example of this can be seen when we get dressed in the morning. Initially, when we put on our trousers, we are aware of their touch against our skin. Yet, before we have managed to get out of the bedroom, we have usually forgotten all about them. Later, when it is raining and our trousers get wet and are blown against our legs, we become aware of them again for a moment or two, this lasts until our automatic systems are sure that this changed sensation does not represent a threat. In this way we avoid overwhelming the limited bandwidth of our conscious mind with unimportant details.
However, not all sensations that are kept below the surface are as benign. Most of our automatic thoughts and behaviours were laid down when we were much younger, and still actively developing as human beings. They can cause problems, because the pace of modern Western life gives us little time to reflect on our internal world, and so gain an understanding of what causes us to react in the way that we do. Too often we overreact to the events, or situations in which we find ourselves.
Mindfulness is a process of being present, with our thoughts, emotions, and experiences. We are present in the here and now, experiencing our life as it unfolds, without reference to past fears or future expectations. When we take time to practice mindfulness, we stop the constant rush of thoughts and become aware of the commentary that we add to our present experience. We remove unnecessary judgement from the equation.
Western life gives us little time to reflect on our internal world
Even a few deep breaths can be enough to break into this unhelpful cycle. However, it is longer periods of practice that eventually allow us to get beyond the everyday chatter and noise of our working brain.
When we practice for longer periods we notice that the volume, and frequency of our thoughts begins to decrease. It is when this happens that we are able to pick up the background noise, usually drowned out by our present experience, which contributes to our automatic behaviours and beliefs.
Silence is golden.
When we can hear our background thoughts we are able to start modifying them so that they are more in tune with our present circumstances. This enables us to respond more appropriately to what is happening in the present, instead of dressing up current events as though they were re-enactments of our past life. This is also the idea behind psychoanalysis, the process of free association overcomes the noise of daily life to allow our deeper, unconscious processes to be available for examination and change.
One thing that we can do to help this process of developing awareness along, is to set up, or use, routines within our daily life. If we always take the same route to work, we no longer have to exert much energy on navigation, and instead can use the time to reflect upon our current experience.
When we are able to mull over our thoughts about the world, it helps us to understand our internal world view in much greater detail. Then, as we become aware of out thoughts and beliefs, we can challenge the picture of the world that we have created for ourselves, and have used as we have lived our lives so far.
There is no correct or right solution to the problem of how to live our lives. That kind of certainty is usually generated by other people who wish to influence us.
Mindfulness allows us to be more aware of ourselves and so creates greater freedom to have the life we want.