On a recent trip with a charity organization to a school in Uganda, one of the things that struck me most about the interaction between the teachers and their pupils was the way they addressed one another.
On our first day, a middle-aged male teacher attempted to get the attention of a group of around seventy or eighty students in an outdoor area that did not allow his voice to travel far. Instead of shouting at them to be quiet or angrily threatening extra homework or detention, he asked loudly and clearly;
“Are you with me? Are we here?”
To which the students replied in bored tones after a few moments of fading chatter, suggesting they were used to answering this question:
“Yes, we are here.”
This direction of the students’ attention to the present moment—as opposed to calling incessantly for attention and giving them a reason to deflect it from him—succeeded in affirming to the students simply that someone in their midst wished to speak to them and wanted to ensure they could all hear.
Both the effectiveness and accuracy of the phrase stuck in my head. It succeeded in bringing not just the students’ attention to the forefront of the gathering, but also the minds of all those within range to the present moment. There was no room left for daydreaming, idle chatter, for worrying about things that didn’t matter right at that minute. We were there. It didn’t matter that the topic of discussion was merely a description of the events that would be taking place that afternoon; everybody heard it.
The practice of mindfulness aims for the same thing: awareness. It is a complete acceptance of yourself and your mind in a certain moment at a certain time. It is being aware of what is happening around you, and being able to notice the individual thought processes that only you can recognise in yourself.
If something happens, how do you react? How does your brain automatically respond? How often have we later regretted irrational responses, saying things like “I didn’t really think that through,” or “I probably shouldn’t have reacted like that”?
The process of training your brain to think rationally is not something we can achieve overnight. It takes a long time before we finally figure out what works and what doesn’t work. It’s an extremely personal and internal thing, and everyone is different.
To even think to force your thoughts out of your head and into your present surroundings is an achievement, because it means you’ve become aware of the futility of the thoughts all mushed up in your brain.
Think of this: right now, you’re sitting (or standing) wherever you are, reading these words off a screen, maybe scrolling the side bar to go down further or maybe glancing up at someone who’s sitting or walking by you. Ultimately you’re expecting to finish this article soon, maybe unsure of how to react to it, or already trying to figure out why your thoughts are racing ahead to what you’re going to have for dinner or what to wear tonight, and then kicking yourself for realizing the lapse of attention to the present. It’s that simple. You are here right now. Nowhere else.
Awareness is only half the battle, however. The most challenging aspect is to actually implement rational thinking into your everyday thoughts, and to build a steady practice of routinely checking back with that part of your brain to ensure you’re still here. It’s an ongoing process, and one that I don’t believe can ever be truly perfected—even by those who are practiced in mindfulness.
Because life throws things at us that we do not expect. Things happen—things that no amount of judging or guesswork could ever predict. But this is why practicing mindfulness is all the more critical. If I’m prone to letting my thoughts wander irrationally through everyday problems, then who’s going to be surprised when I lose control in a moment of crisis?
It is so important to be aware of ourselves because we are ultimately the only ones who have control over our minds and bodies. Being mindful is a skill that everybody should be able to tap into in a moment of need. And when we do slip up, we can pull ourselves back to the present moment to allow space between reactions.
Now, I’m going to get a hot chocolate in the café outside.
“Are you with me?”
Author: Jenny Ní Ruiséil
Editor: Caroline Beaton
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