From Mindlessness to Mindfulness: Getting Off the Autopilot

What separates us from robots is the ability to wake up and experience the beauty each moment offers — the power to choose a mindful, conscious way of living

A robot sitting on top of the hill | Mindfulness concept

Introduction: Mindlessness in daily life

The other morning, while getting some breakfast food from a kitchen cabinet, I started to turn around and stepped on my cat Sparky’s tail. He meowed loudly in pain and kept clear of me for a while after that. I felt terrible about it, a supposedly superior human being like me inflicting pain on a tiny creature! And, unfortunately, it’s not the first time I’ve done this. After my mind finished mechanically running its standard excuse—that cats should know better than to get underfoot of big, clumsy humans like me—I remembered, for the umpteenth time, that a little mindfulness—remembering I’m in a room with Sparky, who isn’t smart enough to not get underfoot—and taking half a second to glance around before I turn would prevent this.

It’s not the first time I’ve vowed to be more mindful and not step on either of my cats.

A few weeks ago in my university class on humanistic and trans-personal psychology, I made a comment on a woman student’s remark that came out sounding quite sexist. I realized the possible implications of what I was saying about three quarters of the way through the sentence, too late to stop it effectively. Several students immediately made other remarks about the topic we were considering, and the discussion went on. I intended to come back and apologize as soon as an appropriate moment occurred, but I got involved in the discussion and forgot about my intention.

A few days later, another student came by my office to tell me that she had been upset by my sexist remark, and that several other women in the class had been, too. It was not only upsetting in and of itself but totally out of character from what they had come to expect of me. I apologized in class that afternoon and was able to use my slip as a salient example of the suffering caused by mindlessness, but meanwhile, several people had felt bad about it for several days.

I rate this second example as causing more suffering. My cat seems to forget my stepping on his tail after a few minutes, but the pain we cause other humans through mindlessness, through lack of simple, basic consideration of others’ feelings, can go on for a long, long time. I inadvertently added a little to the reservoir of human suffering. Did some of those I hurt take some of their feelings out on others, thus multiplying the suffering even more?

A moment of mindfulness, ten minutes of mind wandering

A couple of weeks later, I joined several other transpersonally oriented psychologists and psychotherapists in a discussion that touched on the nature of evil. Now evil is not a word with which I’m comfortable. There’s no doubt that people occasionally act in terrible ways and hurt each other badly, but I try to see and encourage the higher possibilities in people, their better sides, as much as possible.

When my turn came to say something about what evil is, I apologized for not having a clear grasp of it and not liking to deal with it. The best I could say at that moment was my feeling that evil is more than just a matter of hurting others; it has something to do with enjoying hurting them, with feeling powerful and getting pleasure from knowing you’re hurting them. I confessed that I had enjoyed hurting people at times in my life and was particularly disgusted by and afraid of that kind of feeling, even though I had to admit that I had the capacity for it. But I insisted, truly, that I tried to never indulge in that pleasure.

The next day, I was driving in the fast lane on the freeway, trying to be mindful of the world around me and my internal state. This practice of mindfulness in the midst of daily activities and some formal sitting meditation are my fundamental spiritual practices at this stage of my life. I wasn’t being very successful at it just then: a moment of mindfulness, ten minutes of mind wandering.

I noticed that a man was trying to pass me, but I was blocking the fast lane and there was too much traffic in the other lanes for him to go around me on the right. Well, I felt I was going fast enough and it was just too bad if he would have to wait a minute to get around me. Suddenly, I realized that, for all my claimed aversion, I was indulging in evil. I was enjoying another’s suffering and feeling powerful and satisfied with what I was doing and feeling.

Mindlessness creates suffering

Admittedly, this was a pretty petty evil as evil goes in the world, but it was nonetheless evil by my own understanding. I had not been mindful of my own convictions. On a deeper level, I had not been mindful of my real, deeper nature, which is, I believe, something that is not totally separate from others. So the suffering I was causing the man in the other car was also suffering I was causing myself. I was mindless of our fundamental connectedness, of my own belief that in some real sense we are all one and that to hurt another is to hurt oneself.

Mindlessness. A word, a string [I mistyped “sting,” which is very apropos] of letters that calls for considerable contemplation. The word refers to a real class of actions that creates immense suffering in our lives—it’s a conditioned way of perceiving the world that categorises situations simplistically and evokes habitual responses, both inwardly and outwardly. Reality is constantly changing, though, and subtle shades of differences in situations are often undetected. Thus, our ‘conditioned’ habits of perception, thought, feeling, and acting lead us into many mistakes.

We can have levels of mindlessness, ranging from simple inattention [to the immediate physical world] through insensitivity [to our interactions with others we care about] to a deep and fundamental mindlessness [about our most important values and real nature].

Mindlessness is automatic

People walking around
We do not need the slightest bit of mindfulness to get through everyday life

Remember when good news, bad news jokes were popular? l’ll start by giving you the good news. The good news is that because our deeper nature IS really wonderful, there is hope! We can become less crazy. We can have more vividness and realness in our lives and can get in better and better contact with our own deeper nature. Part of the good news is that there are a lot of techniques for doing that, although they often require social support. They are hard to do solely on our own.

The bad news comes in two major formats. One is that we have been programmed and conditioned to have a miserable view of ourselves and life, a programming that gets us into trouble all the time. The second part of the bad news is that not only were we programmed once but the program has become automatic, runs all the time, and is constantly reinforced by the mindlessness of our society. We do not need the slightest bit of mindfulness to get through everyday life; we can run totally on automatic.

We get up in the morning and, too typically, within a few minutes we have worked up tensions. Tensions here, tensions there and, by the middle or end of the day, tensions everywhere. Tensions we often do not consciously know we have. Yet we carry them all day, and they feed on each other, increase one another. It is incredibly fatiguing and wearing on the body and on our selves.

Are we all mindless robots?

G. I. Gurdjieff, the Middle Eastern mystic, who had a no-nonsense, don’t-bother-me-with-bullshit approach to things, put it simply: most of the people you see on the street are dead. They are walking and talking, they have careers, they can get elected to high political office, but they are dead. Their real inner essence, their soul, their spirit, whatever you want to call it, has become so buried under the mass of automatic programming that, for all practical purposes, they are machines, and there is no hope for them.

I do not like statements about there being no hope for somebody—they are contrary to my hopes and temperament—but practically, a lot of people are very deeply immersed in their conditioning, and there is not much chance they will do anything about it. They will live and die as programmed automatons. And we are all like automatons to far too high a degree.

Yet, it is possible to learn to be mindful in our daily lives, to see more accurately and discriminatingly and to behave appropriately toward others and our own inner selves. The results cannot be fully described in mere words, but words like freshness, attentiveness, beginner’s mind, perceptual intelligence, or aliveness point in the right direction. A stale, narrow life of habit and conditioned perceptions, feelings, and actions can slowly be transformed into a more vital, more caring, more effective, and more intelligent life.

Mindfulness: the answer

Mindfulness practice, in its purest sense is simply this: be aware of what is, what is here in this moment. One of the very important aspects of mindfulness training is that you learn more and more to see your own beliefs, to see them in operation, to test them, and to start seeing the consequences they have for your life. Then you will eventually have a chance to make decisions about whether you want to continue to believe them or to change them, rather than just assuming that they are true.

We have to train ourselves to be vigilant, however, because so much of our mind is automatized; it just runs by itself, taking away our liberty. [The first thing to note about mindfulness is that it is not particularly hard at all to be mindful. It does not take a really strenuous effort to make yourself become mindful and more present. The effort is very small. The problem is remembering to do it! We forget it all the time. It is not hard, but we just do not remember to do it.]

In formal mindfulness meditation practice, such as vipassana meditation, you do not attempt to change or “improve” what is, you try to refrain from judging it. When you are aware, however, of tension being “voluntarily,” [even if unconsciously] held, there is usually a natural reaction to relax it. This is not always true, but generally mindfulness tends to bring about relaxation. It is hard to keep on doing something stupid, being unnecessarily tense, when you consciously know you are doing it. It is easy to be stupid, to be uselessly tense, when you have forgotten you are doing it or never knew you started doing it in the first place.

Halting mental abstractions

If you are in a situation where you are receiving sensory here-and-now stimulation, to be mindful is to be aware of that sensory stimulation in a relatively “raw,” unabstracted form. By that I mean that in our ordinary state of consciousness, we almost never stay in simple, direct contact with what is actually happening around us.

We see a rose, for example, and there is a moment of sensory contact. The light rays from that rose reach our eyes, turn into neural impulses in the retina that then reach our brain, and then get transformed into consciousness somewhere. We all know that roses are beautiful things. What usually happens when we see the rose, though, is that almost instantaneously an automated abstraction process takes over that gives us a symbol, a semi-arbitrary construction about a rose. We throw away most of the actual physical appearance of that rose, and, in our consciousness, it is replaced by a standardized symbol of roses.

The symbol is almost a completely verbal symbol for a lot of people. It is as if we went blind a tenth of a second after we saw the actual rose and then heard the word “rose” in our heads. A bunch of stored memory associations [including pictures, touches and smells] about roses immediately pop into our heads.

What we then experience is very much our past history of roses, enculturation as it has been shaped in our personal experiences and in the cultural programming that gave us our attitudes about roses; we may see, smell, and feel very little of the actual rose that is right in front of us this moment.

If you see a rose and actually stop your wandering, abstracting mental processes and come into the present for a moment, really look at the rose and really smell it, something happens that is nourishing. If, on the other hand, you see the rose but do not make the effort to come into the present, you are hardly nourished at all by the experience.

Mindfulness is nourishing

If the body does not get enough of certain basic chemicals, metabolic compensations are made which are forms of illnesses and which have various symptoms. Gurdjieff said we suffer from the parallel to vitamin deficiency diseases; these are perceptual deficiency diseases.

So, really paying attention creates a kind of food that nourishes. As you learn to become more present, more mindful in everyday life, you get a rich diet of this kind of nourishment. This process is, in my personal experience, subtle, not necessarily a special thrill. It produces a gradual shift in you, one of the results of which is that you feel happier and you start to function in a more healthy way.

The easiest way to illustrate the vital importance of mindfulness is to consider non-mindfulness.

Have any of you ever done something stupid because you have missed out on some important cue in your environment through being involved in fantasy? We all have.

We are usually not very aware of the world around us, in spite of being well equipped to know it. We have, for instance, an extraordinary set of physical senses. When you really investigate our physical senses, you realize that they are incredible feats of engineering. If you have normal hearing—if you have not listened to too much loud rock music, which too many have now, unfortunately—and you go into a room that is absolutely soundproof you do not hear nothing. You hear a slight hissing noise. What you hear is the noise of the air molecules bumping against each other! This is an incredibly faint noise.

All our senses are in credibly good shape, and yet most of us miss all sorts of things, because we live in a waking dream.

The dreams we have at night are quite safe, actually, because we just lie there in bed.

We do not do anything in the physical world that could get us into trouble. The “dreams” we have while we are awake, however, get us into a lot of trouble, because we are not in clear, accurate touch with what is going on around us, yet we act, and reap the consequences of our actions.

Staying in the present… even if it’s boring

Woman walking at the park gazing the flowers: Mindfulness in daily life
There is beauty even in an everyday, ordinary moment if we take the time to be in the present and are open to it

The trouble with ordinary “reality” is that a lot of it is dull, so we long ago decided to leave for somewhere better! We leave reality for at least two reasons. One of them is that sometimes it is just so-so; other times it is full. In both cases, we “leave”— we go into a fantasy world in our heads which provides a certain amount of immediate relief. The problem is that it then becomes automatic to leave all the time, to go off to fantasy places. Then, when we try to be in reality, we are fighting against years of accumulated habit.

To learn how to live in the moment, you must learn to stay there even when it is not very “interesting” by your ordinary self’s standards. Actually, if you really get there, deeply sense the here-and-now, it is very rare that here-and-now reality is not interesting. It is a matter of depth.

Sometimes it is a matter of accepting. “I am fully present, my body is uncomfortable, I am bored, and that is how it is.” Learning to be present and attentive to the moment under these conditions is a necessary skill for deeper development.

If you know how to get into reality, if you know how to be mindful of it, and you then consciously choose to send your mind somewhere else, that is a very different matter than if your mind always gets automatically sent somewhere else the moment things get dull or threatening.

I’ve done exactly that many times when I have been sitting in formal meditation. I sit there, I get quiet, I get clear, and it is nothing special. I think, “Well, look, God, I am doing what you said, I am doing meditation, how come this is not fantastic?” I complain that my experience is not up to what I think are my standards! In terms of real growth, though, I now realize that this judging is more internal material to look at: Why am I so demanding? Why does the universe have to be so special for me, on my terms, every instant?

Rigpa: Incredible, wonderful and perfectly ordinary

When the lama [Sogyal Rinpoche] teaches about realization in mindfulness, about the enlightened state of mind, he talks about it in two quite different ways, which drives me a little crazy.

One is when he talks about this wonderful, incredible state of Rigpa, of enlightened mind and all that. There are hymns written about this state and long poems of praise of it and ceremonies celebrating it, so it must be very special. Then, every once in a while, he mentions Rigpa as being “perfectly ordinary.” What? The part of my mind that wants something special says, “What do you mean, perfectly ordinary? I’m not here for the perfectly ordinary! Where’s the thunder and lightening? Where’s the psychedelic vividness, the fantastic insights, the mystical something or other? I want more!”

And yet when I have suffered a lot from my mind going off on endless jags of craziness, which is its common mode, and I get a moment of just being present, what a relief it is! How natural, how simple just to be present and not be creating dramatic, delusory scenarios moment after moment. How wonderfully ordinary!

Now I’m not saying that if you don’t sense the world and your body every instant that you’re a failure. When I read science fiction, for example, I do not try to keep good track of my surroundings; I take the trip. I do my reading, of course, in situations where nothing external is required of me. If the telephone is ringing, I am not so immersed in the book that I will miss it. There is a skill we need to develop, however, of being present when you are walking around in a world where things happen.

There is a skill in being able to be present when you cannot really act adequately just by dealing with the surface level of things as they are manifesting to our ordinary, consensus consciousness, where you have to get deeper into them in some way. Many situations in our lives require more depth, but unless we’ve developed the capacity to be more present, more mindful, we won’t recognize these situations.

And don’t forget, there is the important skill of accepting being bored sometimes!

Relationships need nourishment too

We need attention. We need rich sensory impressions as much as we need Vitamin C. If we do not get them, we develop various kinds of psychopathology. A classic example is when children who do not get enough attention from their parents are deliberately bad. The attention you get when you are being punished is much better than starving for attention.

We think acting bad just to get attention is a weird thing that happens with some children, but actually, as adults, we do it all the time. A lot of the quarrels we get into, the situations that go bad and cause stress, are actually implicit, subconscious maneuvering on our part to force attention. It is better to have somebody yell at me than to be ignored. A lot of the “karma” we create, a lot of the obligations we get into, a lot of the interpersonal relations we set up, are ways of forcing attention from other people, but they are not psychologically clean. They have hidden motivations; they involve psychopathology; and they generate a lot of negative side effects.

Gurdjieff talked about not getting the full nourishment of impressions, not the full food, but watered down food. Consequently we become more voracious, driven, we eat “junk food” of impressions, we eat anything—we’ve got to have it! But if we become more present in everyday life to what we are actually experiencing in a sensory way, right now, moment by moment, we here-and-now start to nourish ourselves.

Then, a very interesting thing happens: we start to get into cleaner relationships with other people because we do not need them so desperately to fill our attention needs. We do not need people to shout at us or to seem intensely in love with us and then break up with us by having a wonderful quarrel that seems to give us a lot of attention, because we are more self sufficient.

Why care about being mindful

Mindfulness in practice: Man relaxing in the office
We are always in some other world mentally, far away from what’s happening here and now, especially at the slightest sign of boredom

We are shaped tremendously as infants and children. Our essence gradually loses its natural sheen, shrinks and goes underground, and false personality grows, dominates, and gets almost all the attention. Most people do not know about the falseness of their ordinary personality except as a sense of unease, a sense that something is not right or authentic. They may experience this unease later in life as the popular midlife crisis, as when you turn fifty, being, say, a successful lawyer and you suddenly realize, “I don’t like being a lawyer! I never liked being a lawyer! I did this for my parents—it’s not me!” There are many variations of this scenario, unpleasant enough that many people turn to the bottle or get a lifetime tranquilizer prescription or become workaholics, anything to avoid facing the thought that they have lived a terribly unauthentic life.

Part of the purpose of trying to awaken, of becoming more mindful, is to start to see yourself more clearly and understand your “psychological machinery,” all the automatic reactions that are running your life. Then, as you start to be able to disidentify with the machinery, you start to see its parts even more clearly. Eventually, you start to discriminate more finely, noticing, say, “Yes, this part is a very deep part of me, this other part is false, it was grafted on to me by force of circumstances and psychological pressure.” Or something like, “This sound like my mother’s voice speaking in my head, not mine!” If you become really successful at this practice, the ordinary personality gradually weakens and “dies,” loses its automatic grip, and your essence grows.

That is a tricky process. After you start discriminating between your essence or deeper self versus your false personality, you then have to re-parent yourself. You have to take these parts that were suppressed while you were still a child, that are often very tender—they are down there somewhere, even now, deeply protected—and draw them out gradually, nourish them, encourage them. Then you can become what you really want to be, which may be [but not always] very different from what you have been most of your life.

Mindfulness in daily life

» Training yourself to be present will help you breakdown the operation of this automated mental machinery

Gurdjieff said that one of the best ways to become mindful in everyday life is to use your body. For instance, feel the sensations in your right hand now. Are they in the future?

No, they are now.

Where are they?

They are here.

Using your body as a tool to be more present is not the only way to be more present or more mindful or the only way to stabilize.

For example, there are two major consequences of focusing in your body. One is to be more present, more here and now. Because you have more of your attention directed to sensory input, you can more accurately perceive the world around you, which is a great advantage. There are times when you have to do that, even in spite of pain. There are external things you have to be very careful about, whether you are suffering or not.

The other major consequence of using part of your attention to focus on the body is the development of the stabilization that I mentioned earlier. Instead of every thought carrying you away, you have an anchor in the present moment through your body.

» Chanting a mantra

There are other kinds of anchors available. For example, some people follow a discipline where they sub-vocally repeat a mantra all the time. A way you can think about this practice is that the mind has got only so much available. Let us pretend that you could measure how much attention you have and that there are only a maximum of ten units available at any given moment. If you have nine units of it deliberately focused on something, then the one unit available for other stimuli to catch cannot do much to create mischief in you, in your psychological system. If somebody tells you are an idiot, but you are so busy saying your mantra internally, it is like water off a duck’s back. You don’t have enough spare attention available to feel really offended.

So constant use of mantra is another way of stabilizing, a way of reducing suffering. It is an extremely useful technique at times, in certain situations. I am suspicious of it as a general way to live your life though, because there are times when it is really important to know exactly what is happening now, because, for example, that truck is going to be around the corner in a second and if you are not listening to external sounds and seeing external sights, but are in a state of great pleasure induced by your repetition, you may get run down! Even if you normally want to stay away from the body because of painful sensations, you do need the skill to get precisely here when you think it is critical.

» The musical body: An experimental exercise

Man listening to music in headphone
Music makes for a great vehicle to get into our body and tune into its sensations

To bring us more into our bodies, I am going to have us do an experiential exercise that runs for roughly half an hour, an exercise called the musical body. You can do it with almost any kind of smooth, flowing instrumental music—not music accompanied by words, though.

It is a multilevel exercise. At one level, this is a way of being nice to yourself, because you pay attention to your physical body, and your physical body likes having attention paid to it. On another level, it is a way of training your ability to focus. On a third level, it is a way of nourishing yourself. And on a fourth level, it is a way of preparing yourself for other, more formal, day-in-and-day-out mindfulness exercises. Basically, it’s about living in your body in the here and now, where life actually exists, instead of beside it or ahead of it or behind it.

Pick some smooth, soothing, flowing instrumental music that lasts for about half an hour. Arrange the situation so you won’t be disturbed. Start the music and lie or sit comfortably. After relaxing for a couple of minutes, listen to the music in your feet. That is, focus your attention to feel whatever actual sensations are in your feet and ‘imagine’ that you hear the music there. [It’s easier than it sounds.]

After about a minute, feel the sensations and hear the music in your ankles. Then, at roughly one minute intervals, progress to your calves, your knees, your thighs, your genitals, your buttocks, your hips and abdomen, your chest, your shoulders, your upper arms, your elbows, your forearms, your wrists, your hands, your fingers, then back up to your shoulders, your neck, your face, and the rest of your head. Then sense and feel the music in your whole body until it ends. Get up slowly afterwards, retaining a sense of your body.

The assignment

Your assignment is to use this little musical body boost you have gotten for getting more into your body and maintaining contact with your body while you are getting to lunch, through lunch, getting back from lunch, and driving or being a passenger.

What I want you to try to do now is to keep a part of your attention always monitoring what is happening in your body. I emphasize: what is happening in your body, naturally. That is, there is no special way you are supposed to feel. I am not going to tell you that you should feel comfortable or uncomfortable, hot or cold, good or bad, or tense or relaxed. I am inviting you to keep some part of your mind, 10 or 15 percent, in touch with what your body is feeling at any moment, while you also pay clear attention to whatever else you are doing.

You may find it helpful to move slightly slower than normal to maintain the body contact, but just slightly. And look both ways when you cross the streets.

What if you forget?

Now, if you are human, you’re probably going to forget many times to do this mindfulness exercise during lunch. All of you who have made any attempts at this kind of practice before know that you are going to forget to do it. What then?

When you discover that you have forgotten to do it, you have two options. Option one is that you spend a minute or two feeling guilty and berating yourself for being so bad that you forgot it and then come back to actually paying some attention to your body and the rest of what you are doing. Option two is going directly to doing it again, coming directly back to sensing your body and surroundings.

If you find option one is forcing itself on you, then try to be fully aware of the way in which you are berating yourself and sense your body at the same time.

This does not mean that you should have a horrible time at lunch! Do not get hysterical and fanatic about this. It is very hard to be present when you are hysterical. Just try to keep a little bit of your attention, 10 to 15 per cent, monitoring what is happening moment to moment in your body. Do not try to fix these sensations into something solid, do not try to keep them from changing, and do not try to make them be anything in particular. Just notice whatever they are, moment by moment.

If you find it hard to keep track of your body in general, if that seems to be too tiring or you cannot pull it off, reduce your focus. Just keep track, say, of your arms and the rest of what you are doing and perceiving externally. If that is too hard, you can bring your internal focus down more, say, to one hand. So if worse comes to worst, just keep some awareness of what one hand is doing while you are ordering lunch or talking with companions at the table or driving to a restaurant. Keep a general openness to whatever the feelings are in your body.

When your compulsively interpretive mind comes in and has to figure all this out, when it is taking you away from actually keeping track of your body and perceptions, you might try the trick of saying to yourself, l know you are the best thinker in the world and can really think and analyze wonderfully, and I will get to you later, but meanwhile I am going to notice what is actually happening now.

Your sense of your body will change if you do this practice. But I must warn you of a tricky part. If you have a particularly good experience one time when you do this, if you feel you are really in your body and really present, your mind will, unfortunately, tend to take that as a “standard.” It is going to say, “Oh, this is what doing it right is like,” and then start rejecting future experience because it does not feel exactly like “standard.” Things are changing in reality all the time. If you move into a mode where you unknowingly want to repeat a former pleasant experience, instead of doing sensing what is happening now, you’re in trouble.

» The morning mindfulness exercise

Woman meditating early morning
Spending just 10 minutes with ourselves in awareness can help us be more present throughout the day

The technique I am going to describe now is one Gurdjieff taught. In the formal sense, it is intended to be used in the morning, the first thing after waking. It takes about 10 or 15 minutes to do when you first learn it, but you can get it down to two or three minutes with practice—although it’s more satisfying to do it for a longer period when you can. When you are particularly tired during the day or are finding it really hard to get into any kind of contact with your body or the here and now, you can sometimes just close your eyes for a minute and then rapidly do this morning exercise. It refreshes your ability to focus and, of course, it serves as a reminder that you have a more important aim in life than just hurrying along. The morning exercise, as it’s traditionally called, isn’t hard to do, but, like most mindfulness techniques, remembering to do it is really the most difficult thing.

Ideally, this is done first thing when you wake up. Most of us, when we wake up, the first thing we focus on is our troubles. What do I have to do? What are my problems? What should I really have done yesterday? Last month? Is it any wonder that we have lots of troubles all day? We get into that trouble mindset immediately. I don’t know if it solves anything to automatically think of problems first thing in the morning, but it certainly increases our worries.

This exercise isn’t only for the first thing in the morning; you can do it at any time to settle yourself and increase your contact with the present moment. I’ve often called it the priming exercise, an analogy with priming the pump to get it going. Here, priming your purpose and sense of contact.

The first step in the morning exercise, as I teach it, varies for people. If you are the kind of person who can hardly remain conscious until you have had your first cup of coffee, you might have to have that first cup of coffee before doing the exercise. On the other hand, if you are a person who is in a full worry fit within three seconds of opening your eyes, you have to do this before you start your worry fit. The point is to do this before you put on your ordinary personality, before you start your ordinary set of worries, preoccupations, plans, and concerns.

This practice is like the musical body exercise in some ways. You systematically go through your body, but the pattern is somewhat different. It is a way of sensitizing yourself to the facts that: 1] you have a body; 2] you have a body not only in the sense of some kind of concept about having a body, but also in the sense of actually feeling your body, getting real, direct contact with it; and 3] it is also psychologically symbolic, because to do this means that you consider your deeper self important enough to take 10 quiet minutes with yourself at the start of the day. A lot of people resist doing the morning exercise for that last reason. Their self concept is so poor that they think it is not right to take 10 minutes just for themselves. Well, a little hedonism is all right.

You can do this exercise sitting up, or in some formal meditation posture. If you might fall asleep again, certainly do not do it lying down. You can do it sitting up in bed if you are reasonably awake so that you do not just drift off.

Steps for the morning mindfulness exercise

Now let’s do it. You take a moment to settle into your position, close your eyes, and take a moment to relax. I’ll guide you through the morning exercise now.

[Reader, you can get a lot out of reading this exercise slowly and doing it, even though your eyes are open.]

Focus your attention into your right foot. I want you to open your mind to whatever sensations there are in your right foot at this moment…and this moment…and this moment.

There is no sensation in particular that you should look for or try to make happen. Whatever is there is what you focus on. It might be numb, as if nothing is there. It might tingle. It might be warm or cold. It could be painful or neutral or pleasant. Whatever you experience in your right foot moment by moment is fine.

Just open your mind to sense as openly and clearly as possible whatever is there.

I want you to savor the sensations in your right foot. It is as if a dear friend gave you a glass of wine or something special he or she had cooked and said, “Really taste this, it’s special and subtle.” You would just want to suspend your thinking and expectations, open up your senses and grok—to use a seventies word from Robert Heinlein’s novel Stranger in a Strange Land many of you probably remember—the sensation. So just grok your right foot, just be open to whatever sensation is there.

Now move your attention to the lower half of your right leg. You can let your deliberate focus on the foot go. You do not have to reject the foot, but just focus on sensing whatever is in the lower half of your right leg now. If you drift off into thinking about things, just come back to sensing whatever the sensation is there now.

[When you are doing this on your own, the guiding principle is to spend a few seconds on each of these parts just sensing them, a few seconds after you have gotten good contact, then move on to the next part.]

Now move up into the knee and the upper half of your right leg and sense whatever sensations are there…

Now move your focus up to your right hand and open your mind to sensing whatever is happening in there.

Now sense your right forearm and the sensation or pattern of sensations is happening there.

Now sense, grok, savor, whatever you experience in the upper half of your right arm. Remember there are no “right” or “wrong” sensations, just sense whatever is happening moment by moment. Sense, not think about, sense.

Move your attention across your body now to the upper half of your left arm and sense whatever is there.

Now down through your elbow to the lower half of your left arm.

Now sense whatever is happening in your left hand. While you are focusing on these various parts, it does not matter if sensations from other parts of your body come in. Neither grasp them, nor reject them, nor get totally lost in them. Just focus on the designated part.

Now the left hand and fingers.

Now move your attention down to the upper half of your left leg. Sense whatever is happening there.

Now move your attention down to the lower half of your left leg.

Now move your attention down into your left foot.

Now I want you to widen your focus of attention to sense both feet and both halves of your lower legs…and both halves of your upper legs, simultaneously. Sense your legs, including the feet.

Now I want you to widen your focus even more, and while still continuing to sense your legs and feet, sense your arms and hands at the same time, so you are sensing your arms and legs, hands and feet all at once.

Now while continuing to sense your arms and legs, add in actively listening to whatever sounds there are.

Hearing is a more dominant sense than feeling, and so more of your attention may go to hearing than sensing, but I want you to listen and sense your arms and legs simultaneously. Really listen in the sense that you are open to hear whatever sounds that actually are audible at each moment. There is nothing special you need to hear or any special way of hearing it, just listen and sense your arms and legs.

This listening while sensing your arms and legs [or your whole body] can be a valuable formal meditation in and of itself, but we’ll just do it for half a minute or so as part of the morning exercise.

Now, in a moment I am going to ask you to expand your field of attention a little wider and slowly open your eyes, while simultaneously continuing to listen actively to whatever sounds there are, and to feel your arms and legs.

Vision is our dominant sense, so looking will take most of your attention. So it is like putting fifty or sixty percent of your attention in vision, maybe thirty percent in hearing, and ten percent or so in sensing the sensations in your arms and legs.

Slowly open your eyes now, while continuing to sense your arms and legs and to listen actively to whatever sounds there are.

Now, with your eyes open, I want you to look actively at things. That is, I want no blank-eyed stares at anything, because looking fixedly at something is quite hypnotic. I want you actually to actively, curiously look at something for a few seconds and then shift your eyes to something else for a few seconds.

Actually look, don’t just park your eyes in a certain direction. Actually look at something and then move on to something else in a few seconds.

» Sensing, looking and listening

Man doing the mindfulness exercise after waking up in the morning
When we wake up and before putting on the worrying caps, it helps to simply spend some time sensing, looking and listening

You are in your bodies now, you are sensing the pattern of sensations in your arms and legs. And you are also hearing, actively to whatever sounds are happening from moment to moment. You are actively looking at various objects, taking them in, like a curious child, looking with “beginner’s mind,” like seeing some things for the first time.

All of you are practicing a quiet, yet powerful, mindfulness technique, one descriptively called sensing, looking, and listening. It is a technique that Gurdjieff spoke about as self remembering. It is a way of being consciously present to the moment by: 1] using your kinesthetic senses on the one hand; 2] actually listening to things; 3] looking at things; and also by 4] simultaneously making the small effort it takes to keep your attention deliberately divided. This fourth point is very important. You never let all your attention go into sensing or just into seeing, but keep it divided, just a little bit in touch with your sensations, the arms and legs, looking actively, listening actively. Sensing, looking and listening is a way of being present.

Conclusion: Ideas about mindfulness are not mindfulness

The practice of sensing, looking, and listening is also a process of training in mindfulness. Instead of letting yourself be captured by whatever situation happens to come along and grabs your attention, by the fact that you have resolved to keep a little of your awareness in your senses and to look attentively at things as they come, and listen attentively to the quality of sounds as they come, it is not so easy for things to grab you up. It is not so easy for automated thinking to be activated.

I cannot, however, stress strongly enough that, while reading about mindfulness is helpful, ideas about mindfulness are not mindfulness. Thinking about being present is not being present. The ultimate value of this text lies in the degree to which you try out the mindfulness practices and apply them in your life. Otherwise, the material herein, instead of starting to grow into a reality, will remain only pleasant fantasies about what could be.

Adapted with permission from Living the Mindful Life by Charles T Tart, published by Shambhala Publishers, Boston, 1994.

A version of this excerpt was first published in the August 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing magazine.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

Charles Tart
Dr Charles T Tart, PhD, is an authority on mindfulness and is internationally known for research with altered states, transpersonal psychology, and parapsychology. He is executive Faculty at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto and Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UC Davis. He has authored over a dozen books and more than 250 articles published in professional journals and books. His most recent books include Mind Science: Meditation Training for Practical People and The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together.


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