Can’t See the Forest for the Trees
In an email sent out just a year ago, I was discussing mindfulness and I was very happy to receive many emails from readers with good things to say about the practice of mindfulness.
I have continued to learn more about mindfulness and its practical application in our busy lives. This email will expand on the practice with an example that may be relevant to many readers. Let’s start with some basics:
A Brief Description of Mindfulness
Adapted from Jon Kabat-Zinn, “Mindfulness for Beginners.”
Mindfulness means being aware of what you are thinking about. Regardless of what that is. It is not about changing your thoughts in any way. It is about not letting our thoughts rule our lives. And to do this, we need to be aware that our thoughts are our thoughts, just that and nothing more. Behaviors and emotional reactions spring from our thoughts. These can both help us and harm us.
So if we practice becoming more aware, more mindful of what we are thinking, we are less likely to go down paths that are not in our best interests, and we are more likely to make more mindful choices about how we want to proceed in a situation.
But I do this already – I know what I am thinking!
Actually, we don’t know what we are thinking until we step back in our minds and notice what we are thinking. This is called becoming aware, and this awareness is the only mental capacity that we have that is robust enough to balance our thinking.
Is thinking an illusion, then?
No, it is a mental process that grants us significant abilities – to perceive what is happening around us, to imagine the future, to see alternatives and many other elements.
Just how do I do this?
It takes practice, courage, willingness, curiosity and energy to be mindful. As a first practice step, sit in a chair and just let your mind flow as it will. Notice the thoughts and how they stream through your mind, even if you don’t necessarily want them to.
As you go through your day, and you notice some emotional response or feeling, step back in your mind and ask yourself: “What am I thinking just now?”
Why practice mindfulness?
Practicing mindfulness can result in many benefits, including increased energy and creativity, clarity of thought and release from the prison of our emotional habits.
Our brains use 20-25% of our bodily energy. So at the end of a long stressful day at work, immersed in the pressures of a deadline, for example, we can be pretty much “out of gas” at the end of the day. But we also have busy home lives, which also take energy.
Being mindful can have the effect of conserving energy that might otherwise go to things like anxiety over the deadline, stress over the status of other projects, anger at the bad driver or Congress.
You could say that the most useful time to be mindful is when: you are busy, nearing overload, trying to do many things, emotionally charged, balancing competing tasks. In short, just about any time!
A practical example
There are many sayings in our languages that represent great wisdom, and that have been around for a long time. One of these is: “Can’t see the forest for the trees.” Or, you can’t see the Big Picture because you are concentrating on the Details.
We can apply this to a project that you might be working on. The exercise here is to become aware of which perspective you have at a given time. Are you looking at the Big Picture or focusing on the Details? You might think that you always know this. I suggest that most of the time we are just thinking without being aware of what we are thinking about.
This example has a another aspect as well. Most of us have a strength in working with either the Big Picture or the Details. These strengths are fine, but as we become more aware of them through mindfulness we can perhaps see if we are hanging out in one aspect when we would be better served to be in the other. Becoming more aware of your strengths is also a great aspect.
And yet another element here is the mental energy cost of switching between the two perspectives. This is a form of multi-tasking that can use tremendous amounts of energy. So if you are aware of where you need to be, it’s easier to stay there.