3 ½ Helpful Hints for Becoming More Mindful of our Surroundings

By Christopher Joseph

Paragliding-AnnecyMeditation is sometimes portrayed as a purely inward occupation – a naval gazing pursuit of knowledge about the inner landscapes of our mind! Whilst an awareness of our minds inner workings: our character traits; our predominant habits; our tendencies to judge etc. are useful insights that can be gained with practice over time, they are not the whole story.

Mindfulness is far more than just a ‘bare awareness’ of our internal makeup as individual human beings – it’s a rich and intelligent appreciation of our ever changing ‘internal environment’ of thoughts, feelings and emotions, in the context of the ‘external environment’ we currently inhabit.

It is often said that life is a dance, and this is true of the relationship between the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ aspects of our mind. Many a time I have questioned why I feel a little tired, drained and lacking in inspiration, only to realise that I’ve been locked up in a dark office for several hours without having taken a break! (I say ‘locked up’ in a metaphorical sense of course before you start getting worried!)

Stress can often arise from a determined, sometimes slightly obsessive desire to control a particular aspect of our lives. We can often become fixated on getting a particular result, and when it doesn’t turn-out as expected we can sometimes become frustrated, annoyed and despondent. Often we re-double our efforts, and become increasingly more determined to control that which may not be completely within our control – we can become ever more narrowly focused on ‘solving’ a particular issue and lose sight of the ‘woods for the trees’.

This is exactly why developing the ability to be regularly mindful of our surroundings is so very important. It gives us the ability to ‘zoom out’, to see the ‘bigger picture’, to put things in perspective. In doing so we are able to develop a breadth and depth to our awareness, to feel more spacious – we can still see the trees but we also know that there are woods, and where we are within them!

So, how can we become more mindful of our surroundings?

Helpful Hint 1: Tune-in your senses.

One of my lasting memories of my grandmother’s house was the old TV set she had in the corner which came complete with an actual tuning knob for tuning in each of the four channels!

A key element of developing and staying mindful of our surroundings is learning to tune-in our senses. It might help to imagine that you have a tuning knob for each of your five senses. As you sit here right now reading this you can alternate individually through each of your five senses – your sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell and imagine that you are tuning each one in to their optimum level by turning the individual tuning knobs. If you actually do this simple exercise (and I recommend that you do try it) you will probably find that you develop an overall experience of your surroundings that is far richer than you’d had previously, and ultimately an experience that is far more interesting and engaging, and easier to stay mindful of.

Helpful Hint 2: Drop labels and judgements.

Easier said than done I know – but it’s the intention that’s key here.

So often we simply just do not take-in what’s around us. Our minds have a limited capacity for what they can process at any one time – we have a limited bandwidth so to speak. That’s exactly why we learn from an early age to compartmentalise things, to develop labels and judgements: That’s a chair; that’s a car; dark grey clouds mean the threat of rain and are bad, sun and clear blue sky mean fine weather and are good etc.

These labels and judgements are necessary in order for us to process everything that comes at us, and for us to function, but they can close us off from truly experiencing our surroundings if we never step beyond them. A key element in developing mindfulness of our surroundings in this respect is learning (or relearning) to experience the world afresh through the eyes of a child – learning to experience things again as if for the very first time.

Being in nature, because of its inherent primeval beauty and diversity, can play an important role in reigniting this child-like wonder about the world around us, as I have discussed in a previous article: “Nature and its Role in Mindfulness”. When we learn to begin to drop labels, concepts and judgements about our ‘natural’ surroundings then we are more likely to be able to foster the same attitude of curiosity to our more familiar ‘man-made’ surroundings such as home and work.

A useful mindfulness exercise to practice in this respect is to become particularly aware of one of your senses, such as listening to sounds. As you close your eyes and simply ‘take-in’ the sounds around you notice how readily your mind wants to label and judge each sound: E.g. traffic – unpleasant, bird song – pleasant. As you do this exercise see if you can step beyond this natural tendency to label and judge the sounds and simply ‘record/observe’ them as some form of ‘natural orchestra’. In doing so rest your attention on the quality (volume, tone, pitch, duration etc.) of the sounds rather than any inherent meaning that you previously might have given them.

Helpful Hint 3: Change your surroundings.

Maybe you can remember a time when you were on holiday, perhaps somewhere abroad, somewhere you’d never been before. Maybe you can remember noticing how different everything was? Maybe the different shaped and coloured houses from the ones in your own country? Maybe the different landscapes and scenery? Maybe the different cars, buses and trains? Even the sounds, smells, and taste of the food may have been different?

Often, for the people who have lived there for many years, the sights, sounds and smells will be all too familiar and they will have stopped noticing them – they will just have become part of the background to their lives. The same can happen to us when we become so used to the things around us that we no longer take interest in them, and they become humdrum, and no longer warrant our attention.

Through changing our surroundings, even if only temporarily, we can learn to reawaken to our external environment, to consciously notice the things around us, and to take an interest in them again. Then, when we return to more familiar surroundings we may find that we notice things that we had never really noticed before.

Whilst developing mindfulness of our surroundings maybe a great excuse to take a holiday it’s not absolutely necessary! We can change our surroundings in so many ways. We can visit new places in our locality, we can redecorate our houses, and dare I say we can even change where we work!

Helpful Hint 3 ½: Change perspective on your surroundings.

This is an additional ‘half a hint’ as it’s related to the previous one!

Often it is difficult to permanently change some of our surroundings, at least in the short term e.g. where we live or work. It’s always possible, however, to change the perspective we take on our surroundings.

Recently I had the pleasure of doing a tandem paraglide flight over lake Annecy in France whilst I was there on holiday. I’d already been camping in the area for two weeks and I’d visited the area last year, including climbing many of the surrounding mountains, so I was relatively familiar with it. The unique ‘birds eye’ perspective that the paraglide flight gave me, however, completely transformed the way I viewed my surroundings, and it was a very rich and engaging sensory experience – especially the take-off!

I’m not suggesting that in order to change your perspective on your surroundings you need to take a paraglide flight over your home (although if you get the opportunity go for it) or even stand on a chair in your office (especially if it’s of the swivel variety!). On a practical level simply changing where you sit at work, altering the route you take to work, or even just moving some furniture around can help enormously in freshening up your experience of your surroundings, reengaging your senses, and invigorating the qualities of curiosity, intrigue and playfulness that are such an important element of mindfulness.

Hopefully the hints given above prove useful to you in developing a greater sense of mindfulness of your surroundings. In doing so we can develop a healthy ‘breadth’ to our awareness which serves to balance the inner ‘depth’ of awareness that often comes from focused meditation. In the language of Breathworks, by developing a breadth as well as a depth to our mindfulness practice we can become ‘bigger containers’, and as a result we are less susceptible to being swayed by the inevitable ups and downs of daily life.

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