Just in case mind

When my grandmother died, she had a cellar full of old nails, pieces of string, tools she hadn’t used in years, old clothes, shoes, crockery and books. Having lived through two world wars and the depression, she did not like to throw anything away. Her flat upstairs was neat and tidy, but downstairs in the cellar was a different story. Hers was an era before ‘planned obsolescence’, where she used the same record player and radio she’d bought as a young mother after the war, right until her death. She valued her possessions and looked after them, treating everything with care and respect so it could last as long as possible. Yet she also had a cellar full of rusty nails she’d never use, old clothes which could have gone to someone else – all these possessions stored below, just in case.

Our mind is often the same – storing old information and memories ‘just in case’. We evolved like this to give ourselves the best chance of survival in an environment full of threats out in the open savannah. Anything with a hint of danger had to be remembered, and to be readily retrievable. I hear a funny rustling sound? I spin around in panic just in case. Perhaps it is the wind in the bushes, perhaps it is a tiger about to attack. But I’d better react immediately and instinctively, just in case.

Most of us would like to be able to move on more quickly from past hurts, to let bygones be bygones, to enjoy a beautiful afternoon walk in the park instead of stewing over something which happened days or weeks or even months ago. Our mind is full of rusty old nails we’ll never use, but which we cling on to in case they might come in handy one day. These patterns are hard-wired into our brains, and they’re designed to keep us safe. Unfortunately, this just in case mind can also bring with it a great deal of unnecessary suffering, and can significantly reduce our ability to enjoy life.

A regular mindfulness meditation practice can help us become more aware of these patterns, and to become less caught up in them. We do need some of this threat-based information, and it pays to look after it, just as my grandmother looked after her radio and other possessions all her life. We want to learn from our mistakes, to ask ourselves next time we find ourselves in a similar situation – ‘now remember what happened last time, that didn’t go so well, what might you do differently today?’ Yet much of our stress is caused by our just in case mind, that cellar full of rusty nails, and a regular mindfulness practice can help us clear some of that junk out, and choose to keep what’s actually important.

Weekly practice idea:

Write down some of the rusty old nails you keep in the cellar of your mind. In what situations do they mainly arise? By writing them down, you bring them out from the cellar of old memories into the living space of awareness upstairs, where it’s much easier to find an appropriate place to keep them (which may well be the rubbish bin!).

Anja Tanhane

How hard can it be?

There are any number of good definitions of mindfulness, but one I find particularly useful to work with is this one by Jon Kabat-Zinn:

‘Mindfulness is an awareness which arises through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.’

Therefore, in order to be more mindful, all we need to do is to:

• Be aware

• Pay attention on purpose (that is, actually remember to pay attention)

• Be in the present moment

• Be open to this moment in a non-judgemental way

• And go with the moment to moment flow of experience.

So honestly – how hard can it be?

Of course, what anyone who has ever tried to be mindful for more than a few moments at a time knows, living mindfully is not easy at all. This can be frustrating, because mindfulness isn’t exactly rocket-science. It seems patently obvious that the present moment is the only one we can ever be in – where else could we possibly be? We have taste buds, so eating mindfully and really tasting our food shouldn’t be an issue. Most of the time we’re not comatose or under a general anaesthetic, so you’d think being aware should not be an issue. We were taught at school to pay attention, so we’ve already learnt how to do that. And yet, and yet…

Given the benefits of mindfulness are so well documented (better health, more positive emotions, less stress, improved interpersonal relationships, greater efficiency at work, clearer thinking etc), why didn’t our brain simply evolve to be more mindful? Why do we need to go through the rigours of a regular meditation practice and attend courses and retreats – a discipline which many people find difficult to sustain even when they’ve had first-hand experience of the benefits? There is no simple answer to this question, but our brain did evolve over tens of thousands of years to help us survive in tough physical environments rather than complex modern technological societies. What served us well on the open savannah – constant alertness, embedding negative experiences deep into the brain so they can be recalled in an instant, being able to react without thinking to perceived danger – is often less than useful in the modern office.

It is up to us to experiment with our lives, to find out, through trial and error, what works well for us and what doesn’t. However, its’ much easier for us to gain insight into this when we are mindful of our moment to moment thoughts, feelings and sensations. It would have been nice to evolve with a more mindful brain, but really we’re fortunate to have ended up with the amazing human brain we do have, and if our brain needs the occasional time out to meditate, to rest and recharge, then why not allow ourselves this space in our lives?

Weekly practice idea:

Ask yourself from time to time – why is it difficult to be present right now? Be open to the answers which emerge – there is no right or wrong answer, only a gentle but persistent exploration of what takes us away from present moment experience.

Anja Tanhane