In my three and a half – almost four – years away, I often used to wonder about this: was it just Asia that was gadget obsessed? Was it just in Hong Kong that people were walking through the street staring at their phones, doing crunches in the gym while watching movies or dining with loved-ones and Facebooking it on their phones? Or was the same mind-bogglingly, brain-numbingly bewildering thing happening in my own, old, homegrown, handpicked, strawberries and cream, cream and jam, jam and bread country too? Well, as my conversation with Niamh revealed, my image of ye olde England, where men in bowler hats, carrying umbrellas and copies of The Times gave way to women and children, and chimney-sweeps tipped their hats to the G’vnor, was a little out of date. It may only have been four years since I left, but the technology revolution has made another turn of its cataclysmic wheel since then, and left us…. left us… left us…. Sorry, what was I saying?
Oh yes, a little distracted.
The conversation had started with Niamh jokingly asking if I was having a more relaxing Sunday than the one she found me ravaged from – a positive nervous wreck! – the previous week.
“Yes,” was my answer. “Indubitably.” (Because we do all speak like that in England.)
The previous Sunday I had woken up in somewhat of a panic. Something wasn’t right. Daylight was streaming in through the curtains, but this was still the middle of a long English winter: what time was it? Surely… no! It was 9am and my phone alarm hadn’t gone off. In fact, my phone wasn’t even on, nor was it turning on, and after trying the fool-proof ‘two buttons for ten seconds’ method, still nothing. Dead. As a dodo.
Well, this was not good. I’d been meaning to Skype with my boyfriend at 8am (4pm Hong Kong time) and he’d be wondering where the hell I was. It was also the day the first chapter of my dissertation had to be handed in (because it never rains but it pours!) so, plugging my phone into iTunes to see if iT knew what was wrong, I attempted to get on with my essay, checking every two minutes to see if life had been restored. It hadn’t, and as the hour passed I could feel my temperature rising, my anxiety soaring… It was as if it was my life that was hanging by a thread, rather than that of my iNaniMate iPhone.
Aiya! as they’d say in Hong Kong.
Of course, by the end of the day – cycling into town to take it to the shop and cycling back with it in the same unconscious state; spending several hours on Apple’s very unfruitful website, then on Skype, trying to get a replacement one sent out and this one taken away to be fixed; and finally resorting to throwing myself into fifty laps of the pool just to chill the heck out! – I had it sorted, my essay sent off and my boyfriend reassured that I wasn’t a) dead b) annoyed at him or c) crazy…?? No, I’m afraid on that score I had demonstrated to myself just how much more obsessed I was with my iPhone than I was with my boyfriend/work/PJs [delete as appropriate].
The episode taught me a valuable lesson. Having arranged for a replacement to be express-deliveried to me, I went to bed that night actually quite relieved. For the next 48 hours I would be without a phone, yes, but I would also be without the constant ‘beep, burr, cheep’ of messages, emails, reminders and alarms that punctuate my every waking thought. For how many times in the middle of a chapter, a page, a sentence, do I glance across, swipe open and check to see what new message has arrived, as if it is an oracle from Delphi I am expecting and not another circular from the department alerting me to yet another irrelevant seminar or call for papers that I will throw straight in the trash? Without my phone I might be free to be with my own thoughts again. I might actually get some work done!
This was exciting, a brave new world. And as I related the story to my friend, and told her of my intention since then to keep my (replacement) phone at arm’s length and on silent during study hours, she had a similar story of self-discovery to relate.
Leaving the house one morning in more than her usual hurry, she’d made it all the way to the tube station before realising she’d left her Blackberry behind. Panic! Should she go back for it? There wasn’t time, but – and here’s the curious thing – the first thought that went through her mind was: what would she do on the train without it? How would she pass the time if she didn’t have her phone to scroll through, browse Facebook or check emails on?
Well, she said; she soon remembered. Her favourite thing to do, the thing she had always done before when she had nothing else to do:
“I just sat, and thought. It was quite nice,” she said. “I could just relax.”
Relax. Ahh, there’s a word. And here’s another: moment. Being in the moment.
Mindfulness takes more than just a raisin
This idea – newfangled, strange and subversive though it might sound – is garnering a lot of attention right now. I mean, it may have been being practised for thousands of years in India, Tibet and the East, and for the past several decades by new age types in America and the West, but it’s only in the past few years that its importance has been sufficiently proven by science for big business to sit up and take notice. Heck, Time magazine even ran a front page article on it this month.
And, as I started to read this latest rallying cry from another among the burgeoning numbers of mindfulness revolutionaries, I have to admit I smiled. “The raisins sitting in my sweaty palms are getting stickier by the minute,” the article begins, as the writer carefully fondles the small dried fruit, places it provocatively in her mouth, giving even Nigella Lawson a run for her money in the food-porn stakes (that is, if Nigella ever ditched the ham on camembert on brioche and went in for a single, solitary, sweaty sultana). I smiled. I smiled because I’ve been there. Been there, done that, bought the book and CD combo.
After years of stressing my way, first through high school and uni then out in the world of work and, well, life in one of the world’s most densely populated cities, I too have resorted to Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques (as Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-educated scientist calls it) or Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT, as Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University and Dr Danny Penman call it). I too have tried finding “peace in a frantic world.” And I tell you something, it takes a lot more than eating a raisin – slowly. That woman on the front of the magazine: the blond-haired smiling angel, eyes closed and smiling as if she can actually taste nirvana? Well, you’re gonna need a whole stack of raisins and a whole heap of time to reach that level of bliss, especially if, like me, you’re reduced to a nervous blubbering wreck by the loss of an iPhone. But if you want to get off the treadmill of emails, messages, videos and PANIC! it is a start.
That minor freak out over a phone, that meltdown when you lost your debit card, the fact that you were so distracted and in such a hurry that you lost your debit card in the first place…. They are all signs of stress, and as we all know stress and anxiety are becoming a world-wide epidemic. Every day a quarter of a million people miss work because of it, and 75% of all illness is thought to be stress-related. Not you? Well, stress doesn’t always look stressful. Think about it: whether on a roller-coaster, about to take your first deep-sea dive or preparing for that big meeting, presentation or deal, how do you feel? Your foot’s on the gas pedal, your heart’s pumping, adrenalin’s rushing, your senses are heightened. You’re doing okay, you tell yourself. You’re alert, alive, ready for a fight…
Or, alternatively, preparing for flight. That’s right, because the same chemical reaction is taking place as it would if you were trying to escape from a burning building, being chased by a saber-toothed tiger or about to be hit by a truck! Your body is responding to a challenging, potentially dangerous situation by releasing a flood of hormones into your blood stream. You might think you can handle your demanding caseload, your difficult clients and your demented boss, but over time stress stops being helpful – stops helping you to perform – and starts to affect your health.
Lapses in memory and concentration, mood swings, negative thoughts or feelings of being overwhelmed are all common symptoms of stress and can quickly spiral out of control and into depression or, worse, suicide. While we in the West might like to think this is extreme – a worst case scenario – the facts speak otherwise. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety is the most common mental illness, affecting 40 million adults or 18% of the population and costing more than $42 billion dollars or a third of their mental health budget each year.
Still think you’re not one of the stressed?
How do you feel when you perform badly on a test, when you get negative feedback from your boss, lose a client or a deal? Have you ever stopped to examine your thoughts? Well, if you are one of the many prone to negative thinking you will think it is You: it’s your fault, you are the failure, it is your stupidity or lack of attention that has got you into this mess. Wow. Within ten minutes you have gone from being on top of the world, in control, calm and happy to down in the dumps, down on yourself and down on the world. Ten minutes. According to Oxford Professor Mark Williams that’s all it takes someone who has recovered from depression to be spiraling back down towards suicidal thoughts. Scary huh?
And what about your behaviour at this time? Can you spot the signs? Did that second chocolate biscuit ease away the nerves in your stomach, or did you start looking forward to that glass of wine after work? Do you have trouble sleeping, or are you sleeping too much, putting things off for another day? Is your sex drive diminished? Or do you find yourself sticking closely to a routine, a comforting, reassuring ritual – coffee out of a certain cup, an order to your day that cannot be broken? If so, you might be one of the 1 in 50 people who engage in obsessive-compulsive behaviour to help them deal with stress.
Then there are the tension headaches, thrush (oh boy!), frequent colds, digestive disorders, heart disease. And what about Alzheimer’s, Diabetes, accelerated aging and premature death? You might say it’s life, just stress we can’t avoid: it happens. But the sooner we learn the limits of our tolerance to stress and how best to manage it, the better.
Abandon positive thinking
It’s estimated that we have anywhere between 25,000 – 50,000 thoughts every day. That’s a lot of thoughts. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some say in what they are, to choose our thoughts like we do our clothes? But how, I hear you cry, can we possibly make sure that they are all positive, beneficial, life-affirming, career-enhancing…?
According to The Wall Street Journal we shouldn’t even try. Positive thinking shouldn’t be our goal, for the path to happiness – as anyone who’s suffering a break-up and been told “there’s plenty more fish in the sea” will affirm – does not lie in Polly-Anna platitudes, bumper-sticker brainwashing, sunshine and rainbows. Instead of trying to cheer yourself up by searching for that silver-lining, the Stoic philosopher Seneca advocated a more cautionary, some might say realist approach to thinking about the future. If, for example, you are fearful of losing all your wealth, he said, you should face it: “set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?'” For some reason, I feel Seneca had my iPhone in mind when he said this, but perhaps that’s just me.
This Negative Path Psychology is a volte face of the typical “think big, dream big, achieve big” ethos of capitalist big business, whose goal-orientated approach, says Professor Sarasvarthy of the University of Virginia, can lead to a distorted set of values – such as lying and cheating, or working at the expense of your health or family commitments – or even to underachievement.
Which is not to say one should live a shiftless life of no hopes and dreams, fearing the worst possible that may happen. Far from it. But it is to say that mindfulness is not about false smiles and empty words. What it is concerned with is Seneca’s “scantiest and cheapest fare.” It is, as in the exercise of eating one raisin at a time – looking at it, observing it closely, paying attention to the feel, smell, look and taste of it – all about bringing your full awareness into the present moment, to what is happening right here, right now, to how you feel, what you’re afraid of and simply sitting with that. It’s about facing your own thoughts and not trying to change them, not judging them, but simply noticing them as they come and go.
So mindfulness isn’t rocket science, nor is it a new weird or wonderful craze that has just been invented. It’s a workout for the mind that really is as simple as sitting and doing nothing. And the effects can be staggering.
As Professor Mark Williams explains: “When people train in mindfulness, what we see is the brain patterns changing.” The part of the brain (the neo-cortex) associated with empathy, and with experiencing the world as it really is, begins to uncouple from the part (the pre-medial cortex) associated with the narrative aspect of the self. If these parts uncouple, we can activate our compassion without activating over-thinking. In practice what this means is that every time something goes wrong – your cat knocks tea all over you in an attempt to be cute or your boss schedules a meeting that clashes with your lunch plans – you will be in a better, more resilient, more tolerant place to deal with it. You will not blame yourself, or get angry at others, or start thinking that life has it in for you. You will be able to rise above it, quit crying over spilt tea and get on with making a second, much nicer cup.
But did I say simple? Remember those 25,000 – 50,000 thoughts we are said to have every day? Umm, well they can take some taming. Just sitting for three minutes and noticing what you think can be hard work if your mind is chattering away like a monkey, jumping from branch to branch. Liz Gilbert’s depiction of meditation in Eat, Pray, Love is no exaggeration. Believe me. But luckily we don’t have to dedicate our lives to yoga or master pranayama or learn to chant in Sanskrit.
Ten minutes makes a difference
As little as ten minutes’ quiet reflection every day can help effect those changes in the brain. And if you need a little help, here are a few tips:
– focus on your breath: without trying to control or change it in anyway, simply observe your breathing, the in and out, the way the belly and/or chest rises and falls
And when you start thinking what to have for breakfast, how you’re going to pay for your car repairs, whether you have time to be meditating at all right now or when the ten minutes will end and you can get on with those tax returns?
– bring your mind back to the breath, without any judgement or sense of failure.
Breath not working for you? Choose a candle to watch, or a phrase to repeat, a song to sing, or if like my boyfriend, food is your thing, do an eating meditation – a raisin or your whole breakfast. But pay attention. In Bali I was entranced by nuns performing a moving meditation: walking very very slowly through the temple gardens barefoot with their eyes closed. Bliss! Okay, so you may want to make sure there are no thorns, stones, bugs – do it indoors on the carpet. However you choose to meditate – with a yoga practice or a run, or in a long hot bath at the end of the day counting the bubbles as they burst – bring your full attention to the act.
And however hard it is, don’t give up. Just remember, you’re not the first, nor the last one to struggle to find peace in their minds, but if you can’t find it there, where can you? As Goldie Hawn says, “Peace can’t be achieved in the outside world unless we have peace on the inside.” See? The mindfulness revolution has already begun!
In American high schools students are practising yoga and mindfulness for 15 minutes at the beginning and end of each day and showing vast improvements in their SAT scores. In end-of-life care centres patients are benefiting from meditation’s ability to ease pain, suffering, loneliness and fear. In the army, soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder are gaining resilience – showing a 50% reduction in symptoms of stress and depression – thanks to mindfulness-based therapy.
Big business is tapping into this resource too. As with the American Dream, we have been fed the myth that we are successful only as long as we are capable of juggling several tasks and projects at once, of multi-taking and managing our time to cope with the ever increasing demands of work, family and social life. Isn’t it apparently that that makes women so much better and smarter and more capable than men? The fact that we can do everything at once? Gee, thanks! Which ever MAN came up with that idea deserves, as my mum would say, to have a broom shoved up their a*se and made to sweep the floor as they go along! Because in a world in which our attention is constantly being diverted by multi-media messages, advertising slogans, news alerts and political spin, project-management is becoming a health hazard, a toxic unattainable goal. We are no longer multi-tasking: we are multi-failing.
Mindfulness is a choice
But we needn’t. Thankfully companies are sitting up and taking notice with the likes of Apple, Deutsche Bank, McKinsey, Reebok and Starbucks incorporating mindfulness practises into their Human Resources toolkit. But if, like my friend Niamh, you are working for a less mindful and more mindless employer – think Spanish Inquisition, minus the Pythons – then at least remember that it wasn’t always this way and make a choice. We can’t always choose what happens, but we can choose how to respond and sometimes… The best response? Well, let me defer to an old Cambridge professor who taught me this lesson and you can judge for yourself.
Many years ago now, before the days even of the iPhone, when I was back living in Hong Kong, I’d made a date: to meet with an old Chinese professor of Physics visiting his 104 year old mother who lived in Hong Kong. Yao is a dear old man and when he announced he was coming over at Christmas, we made an arrangement over email to meet on Boxing Day in Tsim Sha Tsui MTR station from where he’d take me for some good Indonesian fare. I couldn’t wait. Then on Christmas Day I got a call: my boss had scheduled a lesson for me right before lunchtime the next day. I couldn’t say no and I couldn’t get out of it, and although I emailed Yao I got no reply. He’d warned me he wouldn’t have internet once he arrived at his mother’s and he didn’t have a mobile phone so, what to do? My lesson would overrun our arranged meeting time and even if I ran to the station I’d be at least half an hour late. He’d think I’d forgotten, or worse. This was a disaster!
So, I got to work as early as I could, hoping my student might be there to start early too. No such luck. I whizzed through everything as fast as I could. And I ran. I was half an hour late, breathless and haunted by the image of Yao hanging around on the station platform waiting for me for 20 minutes, looking at his watch, scanning the crowd and then, finally giving up, thinking the worst of me and never offering to take me out again.
But when I arrived there he was. Yao! I was so relieved and as I explained and apologised he just smiled at me amused.
“What would you have done though?” I asked, hoping that this if nothing else might convince him to please get a mobile phone.
“I would have waited,” he said, as simply as that.
As far as Yao was concerned, he could wait for me. There was nothing else he had to do and nowhere else to go. He didn’t have a device to pass the time watching TV or checking emails or tweeting his annoyance, but as far as he was concerned we’d made an arrangement and it was only a matter of time until I arrived. He had all the time in the world to wait for me, and as a result…? I will always remember that day and him, but that was Yao: he had his own time. He never lived by anyone else’s. Some people are just like that. They are timeless. Oh to be timeless too!