Mindfulness is a bit of a buzz phrase at the moment, but what does it really mean? In my own journey I have discovered many ways that help me to focus, relax, and regain some control when everything seems to be moving too fast. This article will discuss two key elements which are essential for building Emotional Intelligence.
The first is consciously becoming aware of your surroundings. That is, deliberately noticing little, inconsequential things that normally wouldn’t merit attention.
The second is to observe these things without judging, which is much harder than it sounds. It involves temporarily turning off the part of our brain which associates meaning. This meaning filter is why so many little things pass by unnoticed. They are judged to be unimportant and so they just don’t show up on the radar. In this way, the mere act of focusing attention on things that don’t ‘mean’ anything has already disrupted the usual pattern of judgement.
Let’s say I’m making myself a cup of tea. Do I notice the tiny bubbles in my freshly boiled water? Do I count them? Do I observe their pattern? Do I watch them come in and out of existence? Normally, the answer is no. My brain’s meaning centre has unconsciously judged that focusing my attention in this way would not be a good use of its resources. Instead my mind is busily working out how I’m going to finish all my tasks today so that I have time to get ready for that dinner party tonight that I’ve been looking forward to all week!
Being mindful is therefore to simply observe the fact without associating meaning. My coffee is not good or bad… it just is. When the digital clock on my microwave reads 11:00 it is merely light. It does not indicate time, or imply that I’ve already wasted half my morning. This forgetting of meaning can be very difficult at first and that’s why focusing on little things is a good first step… Looking at the little bubbles in my tea, it’s easy to see that they don’t mean anything.
This simple yet often elusive skill of disassociation comes with practice, but it is invaluable in many areas. By observing myself I can notice (without judgement) the meaning I place on things. Sometimes this meaning helps me to understand the world and live within it. Other times the meaning is somewhat arbitrary. Looking at the clock… am I really ‘running out of time’?
Learning to merely observe phenomena opens the door to a powerful opportunity. I get to choose what meaning I decide to associate. Of the many thousands of ways I could view this situation… which will I choose to see?
“Lost my job, it’s a new opportunity! More free time for my awesome community!” – Everything is Awesome
So how does this link in with Emotional Intelligence?
Awareness is the first step toward mastery. Only once I am aware of an emotion do I have the opportunity to go about changing it. If I feel myself becoming frustrated I can take a break or voice my frustration to change my surroundings. The same is true when dealing with others. If I recognise frustration in my colleague then I can take steps to reduce it, or channel it into a powerful motivation to act. In general, if I notice an emotion, pause for a time, and hold it without judgement, I can then calmly imagine many different ways to see the situation before choosing what it means and how I will respond.
Real life dictates that in order to act we must judge. Judgement can therefore not be withheld indefinitely. The mastery of mindfulness allows a choice via a temporary suspension of judgement. It represents a pause on our unconscious associations and their automatic reactions.
Mastery of this skill is mastery of self. I am no longer a slave to my instinctive knee-jerk reactions. I have a choice, not complete power, but a choice, and this choice is my freedom.