I’ve got some terrible habits. I eat my lunch while I’m working and barely notice what my food actually tastes like. If I make myself a cup of tea, I find I’ve become so engrossed in something else that I forget about it until it gets cold. Or, worse still, I pick the cup up to take a swig and discover that the mug is already empty, although I have no recollection of drinking my tea.
It’s taken me a long time to realize just how much of my life I’ve been living on autopilot. When I did realize, it worried me a quite a lot; what else in life had I been missing out on?
In order to find out, I started doing daily mindfulness meditations a few months ago as a bit of an experiment. I was curious to find out what effect, if any, this practice would have on my automatic habits. To be honest, I was a bit skeptical about it changing anything but, boy, have I been surprised!
I am finding that mindfulness is not only bringing me a greater sense of awareness but that it’s also having a direct impact on my creativity. I’d never anticipated that it could have such an effect.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about being aware of the present: your body, thoughts, feelings, emotions, and the environment around you. It’s a technique which is ripe for providing sources of inspiration to creatives of all types, as it heightens your senses and curiosity.
I’ve been a visual artist for over 25 years, so I thought I’d gotten the ability to see and observe down to a fine art. How many people, apart from me, know what the shadow pattern cast on their bathroom radiator looks like? Not many, I’m guessing! I’ve spent the equivalent of many happy hours observing how the striped shadows fall in shades of grey.
So I’d assumed that mindfulness wouldn’t be able to teach me much about seeing the world around me. I was wrong again!
The first time I went out for a mindful walk, around a park which I must have circumnavigated thousands of times, I spotted the most beautiful chimney stack atop a nearby house. It was decorated with ornate swirls and had a spiky zigzag edge around its rim.
Why had I never seen this before? I have no idea. All I can think of is that I must never have focused on looking at the world around me as carefully as I thought I had. This got me thinking. If there were still so much more to learn about seeing, a skill which I thought I’d mastered, how much could there be to learn from the senses which I didn’t use nearly as much?
If, like me, you live in a city, you’ve probably become acclimatized to automatically blocking out a lot of the sensory over-stimulation around you. We become desensitized to a whole lot of white noise: the hum of traffic going by, the sound of passing trains, the beeping of alarms, and the conversations of passers-by.
3 Easy experiments to become more mindful
Our ability to live on autopilot is most noticeable when we are in environments or doing activities with which we are the most familiar. We are so used to them that we no longer pay them much attention. Here are three quick experiments you can do to see what you might be missing out on.
Experiment #1: At home
Settle yourself into your favorite seat in the house, ideally somewhere you spend a lot of time and are very familiar with. Now, as though you’re experiencing the space for the first time, take a look around and notice what you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.
For example, try listening out for any sounds which normally pass unnoticed like the hum of a heating pump, the creak of the floorboards, the rattling of a window, or the whirring of an electrical appliance.
Experiment #2: Listening to your favorite song
Try listening really attentively to one of your favorite songs and see if you can hear anything you’ve not noticed before. For example, how many different instruments are played during the track? Are there any backing singers and, if so, how many different voices can you hear?
Experiment #3: In the supermarket
Large supermarkets are designed using a whole field of psychology devoted to providing us with the complete shopping experience. These places provide a total sensory overload, as almost everything in them is vying for our attention, so our brains block the majority of it out.
Try going for a walk around your local store to actually take it all in, from the brightly colored packaging and the piped music to the smells of the bakery counter and the coffee shop.
It’s amazing just how much of what’s going on around us we don’t notice. I hope you enjoy doing the experiments and are as surprised as I was by the results you find.
Do you live on autopilot? What strategies do you have for being more mindful and bringing back your awareness?