As appeared on www.mindfullifeskills.com in March 2021
I had my teeth professionally cleaned yesterday morning, after having skipped a session last year due to the pandemic.
As the dental hygienist started pointing towards areas of my teeth that I clean less well, she made reference to how we tend to dream off or even wander off (on foot) while we brush our teeth, and don’t pay much attention to the act of brushing itself. So, I saw myself nodding in acknowledgment and smirking on the inside, telling myself that ‘I should really know better!’.
So, I felt like sharing two relevant things about this experience: the first being, the dreaming & wandering-off experience. In mindfulness jargon, we refer to this as the ‘autopilot’. Research shows that our minds wander off, away from an object of attention, for 47% of the time. This is quite a bit, I find!
One of the first practices we encourage in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses is practicing to pay attention to the direct experience of an everyday activity, such as brushing teeth, washing dishes or chopping vegetables. We do this by tuning into experiences picked-up by our senses. So in the teeth-brushing example, this would involve: feeling the pressure of the tooth-brush against the teeth, feeling the hand & arm movement while brushing, sensing the taste of the toothpaste in the mouth, etc.
A key part of the practice is to notice when the mind wanders away from our direct experience and goes into autopilot, in which the ‘narrative network’ gets activated: the dreaming, remembering, planning, worrying, judging.
You may ask yourself, so what is the whole point of this? Well, since we are habituated to go into autopilot, mindfulness trains our awareness to pick-up and act upon the real experience happening in the present moment, rather than being influenced by thoughts from the past or about the future, which may not give us the true picture.
Translated to everyday life, by breaking this autopilot, we start distinguishing what is real experience vs. our own thoughts or judgements, and can start navigating our daily lives with a fresh, open and less reactive attitude. Getting less caught-up in unhelpful thought or emotional patterns, allows us to control the stress level in our lives, so we experience an improved sense of well-being.
The second thing that I wanted to share about my experience is how judgemental we can be towards ourselves. Telling myself ‘I should have known better’ is a subtle act of self-criticism; another habit which we practice unconsciously. It stems from an evolutionary negativity bias that is ingrained in our DNA.
While tuning towards the negative or threatening, can clearly support us in dangerous situations, e.g. when we are crossing a busy road, it is a habit, that is more often than not, unhelpful. The same applies to our tendency to judge situations or other people negatively.
When we practice mindfulness, we become more aware of these judging tendencies, and can learn to meet these with a more compassionate tone. At the same time, we learn to let go of them more quickly and move on. This is especially helpful when we have moments where we experience shame, failure or other negative sentiment.
So, going back to my morning at the dental practice …
As we proceeded with the cleaning session, the dental hygienist must have noticed my slight discomfort at having her special tools poking at my teeth, so she started guiding me to breathe in and out through the belly.
I had to smirk yet again, as many mindfulness practices that we train, involve noticing the rising and falling of the belly wall, as we breathe. This process anchors us back in our bodies, allowing us to distance ourselves from any lingering thoughts or feelings that are not supportive in the moment.
By following the recommended breathing technique, it did help me drop into my body, relax and not engage in the anxiety of being hurt by those ominous tools, that may have been simmering in the background.
I enjoyed reversing trainer roles that morning… what enriching mindfulness lessons I was able to draw!
Rima Saad Hochreiter is a VFN member and a certified mindfulness trainer focused on helping people take control of their own well-being as a means to realize their full potential. She is an accredited teacher of the widely researched MBSR curriculum, having obtained her MBSR teacher certification from the Institute of Mindfulness-Based Approaches (Germany). Rima is also certified to teach the school-based Mindfulness-In-Schools-Project curriculum (UK) for elementary school children. Learn more at www.mindfullifeskills.com