The word mindfulness seems to be everywhere, but what does it actually mean? French Psychiatrist Christophe André defines living in mindfulness as “paying regular, calm attention to the present moment”, the practice of which allowing us to “radically alter our relationship to the world, ease our suffering and enhance our joys”. In his new book, André teaches how to use art to practise mindfulness in twenty five lessons, including Edward Hopper’s 1940 work, Gas. Sign up to the Think Smarter newsletter to get a wealth of brain boosting content from some of our top non-fiction authors sent straight to your inbox, every week this January.
You were passing, and you stopped. There was something special – the light, perhaps, at that time of day when night starts to cast its shadows and the glow of electric lights forms islands of humanity in the darkness. Or was it the softness of the air? Or the dark mass of the forest all around?
You notice the silly detail of the Pegasus on the illuminated sign. The big red Pegasus with its three little brothers, impatiently longing to fly up into the sky and the nothingness of night. This effigy of Pegasus strangely anchors your attention. And now you are present to all the rest of this banal, ordinary moment. You become aware of the petrol vapours and the blandly silly tune coming from the radio that is playing somewhere inside the lighted house.
It’s neither the beauty nor the oddness of this moment that touches you, stilling your body and soul. You don’t need beauty or oddness to stop the flow of your movements, thoughts and plans. You stopped because this moment is unique. Because never again will you see exactly what you are seeing now. Because never again will you experience exactly what you are experiencing now. This is it – you have understood. You’ve stopped because you have realised what matters most. You are living a bit of life. How can you forget this so often? You forget that being alive is a stroke of luck, that every moment of life is a miracle, snatched from night, death and nothingness. How can you forget all that? Never forget to live. Now, for example. Raise your head and look around you with the eyes of a new-born, as though you had never before seen what you’re seeing now.
‘Never forget that every mind is shaped
by the most ordinary experiences.
To say that something is ordinary is to say that it is of the kind that has made the biggest contribution to the formation of your most basic ideas.’
Paul Valéry, Mauvaises Pensées et autres
Switch on your awareness more often
We rouse our awareness when we encounter things that are beautiful, unexpected or overwhelming. We tend to spend the rest of the time as robots, active but absent. Sometimes we wake up. Our era scatters our lives with signposts (‘Over here!’ ‘Over there!’), from advertising (‘Look! Listen! Taste! Now!’) to carefully delineated moments when we ‘have to’ be enchanted or moved (cinema, theatre, museums and galleries). So many signposted certainties – yet our lives are not guided tours! If we allow ourselves to be manoeuvred in this way we become hollow spirits – dead or deadened souls.
We need to love things that are ordinary and banal. We must look at them and respect them. We must open ourselves up to the density of the everyday world. Mindfulness does not need any special environment in order to happen. True, some surroundings can be more helpful or favourable, but mindfulness can come to us anywhere. As long as we make a little effort. As long as we remain awake and present.
Not doing but being
We are always busy doing – flitting from one action to the next. But though we’re very active, we are not present to what we are doing. Our mind is often filled with intentions, or memories of other actions.
Take this painting. How many of this gas station’s customers have never noticed what is shown here? How many have seen nothing at all? ‘I’ll fill the tank, pay and drive off again. I’ll get to the motel on time, it won’t be too late, I’ll ask for my usual room, I’ll put my things away, I’ll brush my teeth thinking about my day’s work tomorrow, I’ll set my alarm clock so I get up in time, then I’ll watch whatever’s on TV and think, “I hope I sleep well so I’m in good shape tomorrow” …’ There have been too many days when I’ve done lots of things, thought lots of things, but when I haven’t actually lived, haven’t felt alive, haven’t even noticed that I’m alive. A robot.
In absolute terms it’s no better to be than to do. We need both. But that’s the point, we need both. And the mental mode that our lives leave out or are quick to exclude, quite unconsciously, is the being mode. In our societies the ‘default’ mode is doing. Mindfulness gently reminds us to come out of doing and – even for just a tiny little moment – go into being.
Just be here: life as an exercise in mindfulness
The instruction is simple: we must intensify our presence to these benign moments and inhabit them through awareness. We must stop being ghosts and come out of limbo, which isn’t death, of course, but can be a form of non-life. Making ourselves present means making ourselves alive. For real.
We need to observe ourselves experiencing. Here, where we are, not only in special circumstances. We should observe ourselves experiencing everyday life – even boredom sometimes. For example, while waiting or on the way to something, why not take advantage of the time to feel that you are here, and the way in which you are here? Stop waiting and be here! One day, during one of my conference trips, I was waiting for a train on a station platform. I was waiting for it good and proper – checking the time, scanning the horizon and wondering if it would come from the right or the left, knowing all the while that it wasn’t due for another ten minutes. But I kept on wondering whether it was coming from a different station (it would arrive right on time) or whether the station I was at would be its starting point (it would be at the platform some time before and I could board it). In short, my mind was all cluttered up with unimportant, pointless thoughts. Luckily I realised this (I don’t always). Suddenly I saw myself waiting for my train, like a dog waiting for its dinner. And I thought, no, I can’t go through my life like that, not even a little bit of my life. So I remembered my patients and the exercises of presence to the world that we regularly practise. And I just did what they do, what I ask them to do. I left the mode of action behind (or rather of going round in circles, given that I was doing nothing but waiting and checking whether my train was coming on time or late) and I went into the mode of presence. I forgot about the time and the horizon at the end of the track and I focused my attention on my breathing and the way I was standing. I gently straightened up and opened my shoulders. Then I also opened my ears and listened to the station sounds – murmurs, the sound of wheels on rails – and the conversations of the birds. I observed the light of that spring day, the slow movement of a freight train at the other end of the platform, the clouds, all the railway equipment and the signs and buildings in the distance. I sniffed the cold smell of metal that you often get on station platforms. It was amazing how much there was to see and sense. Amazing how interesting and calming it was to be intensely there, present to my life at that moment. When I boarded the train I was unusually serene. I hadn’t waited for it at all. I had just lived my life and taken nourishment from its moments.
We must take time just to be here and be aware. We must be aware that we are alive. Does that mean doing nothing? Not at all, it means living. Living in awareness, touched by ordinary things, jostled by normality. It means being enlightened by the benign and ordinary – dazzled and delighted by life.
A lesson in mindfulness
We must make ourselves sensitive and present to all the things we have stopped looking at. All the ordinary, everyday things, the things that have stopped attracting our attention. We must let ourselves be touched by the everyday instead of subjugating and trampling it unseen. We must invite the world into us and discover its subtlety and diversity, rather than seeing in it only things that reflect our current obsessions. This is easy to do; it requires just three things: wanting it (wanting to exist in the real world rather than a virtual world that is impoverished by our narrowed attention), allowing it (having decluttered our mind and expanded our awareness) and doing it (raising our head, opening our eyes and really looking).
This lesson was taken from Mindfulness: 25 ways to live in the moment through art, Christophe André (Rider).
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