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Mindfulness, part 2

My squash coach, Barb Cooper, recently shed new light on the concept of mindfulness. She told me that on the court, it’s more important to be mindless, rather than mindful. Of course, she’s right, and this led me to refine my understanding of the two concepts:

1. There are different levels of mindfulness. Depending on the task at hand, too much mindfulness can be detrimental. For example, on the squash court, we need to mindful of the flow of the game, not tonight’s supper. However, in the midst of a point, being mindful of every little detail (stroke, breathing, posture, foot position) can lead to a lousy game. So we need to add a certain amount of mindlessness, or “no-mind”, which is described in Japanese as mushin, or loosely in Chinese as wu-wei (non-doing).

2. We do need to be mindful when training, or when programming new habits. In a coaching, training, or practice session, we can be mindful of a detail on which we are working, such as proper foot position. In a tai chi context, we could choose to be mindful (gently!) of our breath while practicing. Or, if we wanted to create a new walking habit, we would be mindful of walking with our feet slightly closer together to avoid moving from side to side when we walk. Once these habits are ingrained, we don’t need to be mindful of them.

3. I think the general idea is to be mindful of what you are doing at the time. Given that while walking to work, we may be seeing, listening, walking, breathing, holding a coffee, anticipating traffic and so on, we might want to define what it is we’re doing. If “walking to work” is the task at hand (not “thinking about lunch”), then we can choose to be mindful of the group of tasks which come under “walking to work”. This would mean that we would assign different levels of mindfulness to the individual tasks within that group, choosing one as a priority: presumably we can walk pretty well, so being mindful of the direction and surroundings might be assigned the higher level of mindfulness.

The challenge comes whenever we want to change a habit. All of a sudden, we are asking ourselves to focus on something that we haven’t given much thought over the years — such as walking. Recently I realized I needed to change a few things about the way I walked, and wasn’t looking forward to it. I have to change the way I walk? Many people would balk at this, but I thought I’d give it a shot. It takes more work to apply some attention to something habitual, but it’s paying off.

4. As I mentioned, mindlessness is also important. That’s where an action has been programmed into our subconscious to the point where it has become quite natural or reflexive. When we catch a ball, do we think about every detail of how each joint of our arm moves, or how each finger opens then closes? No, we catch the ball. Does a jungle cat think about the details of catching its prey, worrying about proper form? No, it probably thinks “prey there, go now”.

5. One key to aim for  a state of “no-mind” regarding a task is to imagine that you’ve already mastered it and relax. Of course, if you really want to master it, you need to be mindful of it on occasion, but if a detail is distracting you from the task at hand, imagine you’ve mastered that detail for now.

– train mindfully, execute with no-mind. Refine and Repeat.
– be mindful when changing a habit, eventually to perform in a state of no-mind.
– determine the key task at hand, be mindful of it, and enjoy the fruits of it.
– try imagining you’ve mastered a detail (for the time being) if it’s distracting you from the task at hand.

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