How does mindfulness enable us to have more choice in our lives?

Most of the things we do in our daily life are automatic. Most of our actions, most of our behaviours come through our past experiences and learnings. In other words, we are creatures of habit.

So for instance, when we get up in the morning and follow our usual morning routine, most of us will do exactly the same thing, in the same order unless something changes. And we won’t need to give any of this routine our attention, because we can automatically do these things. This is because we have done them many times before, and so we don’t need to pay attention to making our cup of tea, or drinking it for that matter. And so what often ends up happening is that while we take our morning shower, our minds can drift off to think of things like work, or what we might eat for dinner later that day. This is all fine, but it might mean that we don’t actually enjoy the cup of tea we made because we don’t fully experience drinking it. And we might not get to actually enjoy our shower because our minds have gone off somewhere else.

The more we repeat a behaviour, the more automatic it becomes. Do you remember when you were first learning to drive and it was so difficult? You had to pay attention to every single little action of driving. Where the gear stick is, which gear you are in, where the next gear is, making sure your hands are in the right place on the steering wheel, looking in your mirrors, having to think where the indicator is, on the left or on the right of the steering wheel. There is a lot calling for your attention. And at the time you think “this is never going to become automatic”. But it does. Because you repeat the same thing over and over again, so that the actions get embedded into your implicit memory. And so now when you drive, you don’t need to give it any attention. You can drive whilst holding a meaningful conversation with ease. You no longer need to pay attention to what gear you are in or changing gear. And so the mind can be used for something else. Sometimes however, you may be so much in the mind that you have driven past where you intended to. Or you arrive at you destination and you think “how did I even get here?”

So how does mindfulness give us more choice in our actions?

The last examples were fairly benign, but imagine you’re having a discussion with your partner about some difficulty in your life and the discussion starts getting heated. Before you know it you are disagreeing on something, and then this turns into an argument. You end up snapping at your partner, and you later regret this. That action of snapping at them, most likely comes from a learnt behaviour. Maybe you learnt from your parents that snapping or shouting was how you deal with that type of situation. Our behaviours usually come from our past experiences. The fact is, that you snapping, was probably quite automatic. You probably didn’t really feel that you were making a conscious choice to snap. You probably didn’t think “right, I’m going to shout at my partner now”. It might even feel that you didn’t choose to do it. That it just happened. But the fact that you later regret this, indicates that you had a different choice in that moment. Regret means we had different options and alternative ways of behaving.

And so through mindfulness practice, we become more aware in the moment. We become more aware of our thoughts, of our urges, tendencies and actions. This means that we have more choice. So in any given moment, we have the opportunity to do something different. We just need to have that awareness, in that moment.

To have choice you need to be aware. You need to be present in the moment. There is a gap between a situation and your response. And you need to be aware of that gap.

So if when you are having a difficult discussion with your partner, you may start to notice the feelings of frustration or anger arise within you. And with mindfulness practice you can get to a point where you recognise these feelings quicker and quicker, and so you say to yourself, “ah, I recognise what is happening here. I recognise these familiar feelings building up within my body”. And this recognition gives you more choice and freedom in how you respond. Mindfulness is about getting to know ourselves, even the parts we don’t like. And so if you take the time to practice mindfulness and get to know these uncomfortable feelings of frustration or anger, then you will be more familiar with them and will recognise them sooner and sooner. This can only benefit you and those around you.

Mindfulness practice gives us more freedom and more choice. In the moment we can pause, take a breath, and respond with awareness, rather than react automatically. You can break free of your habits and patterns, and you will learn that just because you did something in a certain way yesterday, doesn’t mean you have to do the same again today or tomorrow.

Each time we practice mindfulness, we exercise the part of the brain that is responsible for responding, rather than reacting. So we can train the mind to give us more opportunity to respond. A study by Harvard found that mindfulness can help people create a one-second mental space between an event or stimulus and their response to it. That one second could be pretty invaluable!

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