One of the clever features that most brains are equipped with is ‘autopilot’. When your mind realises it’s in a situation it recognises, e.g. your route to work, your lunch after the first bite, tying your shoelaces, it stops paying attention. It’s a useful feature because it saves processing power. The problem comes when you spend huge swathes of your day on autopilot, because life goes by without you noticing.
Do you tend to walk quickly to get where you’re going, unaware of anything you’re passing? Do you have a feeling of doing things just so you can get on to the next thing? Do you find yourself preoccupied with the future and the past?
If you’re thirty years old, you can expect to live about another fifty. It’s not unreasonable to imagine you are only fully aware of the present moment for two of the sixteen or so hours you’re awake. That means your life expectancy is now only another six years and three months! (OK, so you’re not dead when you’re not paying attention, but you’re not fully alive either.)
If you could double the number of hours that you were truly alive and in your senses each day: smelling the roses, hearing the birds, feeling your emotions, seeing a baby smiling before it falls on its face… in effect, you would be doubling your life expectancy. Now imagine tripling or quadrupling it.
I’ve been to conferences on how we might be able to dramatically prolong the human lifespan. But you can achieve the same effect by living a more mindful life. And it won’t just feel longer, it will be happier, healthier you will have stronger relationships, not least with yourself.
Ruby Wax points out in her book Sane New World, that paying attention helps you to taste, see or experience something as if for the first time, and that novelty is a component of happiness. You rediscover the sense of wonder you had as a child when everything was exciting and new. When was the last time you said “Wow! A fire engine!”?
When you experience novelty, neurogenesis takes place, which means your neurons are connecting and making thicker clusters of information. If fact, the part of your brain used for learning and memory, the hippocampus, is only active during uninterrupted focus. How many tabs and draft emails have you got open right now that might be preventing you from remembering anything you did today?
There was a nice article last week’s Big Issue, in which Shelley Trower challenged readers to tune into the sounds of the city as they walk:
“On your journey, stand and listen differently, to attend to what usually goes unheard. Listen to all the sounds going on in that place, at that moment. What kinds of sounds can you hear? It may be early morning, or late at night; you may be near a building, or a road, or a station, or on a bridge- places you never noticed before but where you might, now and again, pause to listen.”
But why wait until you’re on walk? You could close your eyes for two minutes and try it right now…
If your workplace could do with some Zen, get in touch for a free taster session.