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Taking a moment

04 June 2019, at 9:30am

It can be beneficial to pause and take pleasure from the fact that a day-to-day task is running to plan.

In the July 2018 issue of Veterinary Practice magazine, my column on meditation for beginners described a method for mindful living whereby we pay close and focused attention to a task or everyday event which we usually just run through on autopilot. It’s an alternative (or ideally an adjunct) to mindful meditations. And it’s stunningly effective at calming and clarifying the mind.

Being acutely aware of a few simple things, such as mindful tasting, mindful toothbrushing and even mindful beer drinking, can become part of everyday life: a minute’s “breather” where we step off the hamster wheel of our daily life for a moment of peace.

Our brains are designed to stop us paying too much attention. This is well demonstrated by the optical illusion called Troxler fading (named after the 19th-century Swiss physician who discovered the effect). If presented with a steady image in the area of our peripheral vision, we actually stop seeing it after a while. This phenomenon – the general neuroscientific term is habituation – probably points to an efficient way in which the brain operates. Neurons stop firing once they have sufficient information about an unchanging stimulus. But this does not mean that habituating is always our friend.

We can consider the effort not just to think differently, but also to see differently, as a way of countering our built-in tendency to habituate – to sink into the familiar way of seeing and experiencing. By running on autopilot, we are in danger of missing out on the sheer unadulterated pleasure we can get from the fact that a seemingly mundane, boring thing is actually running to plan. It’s all too easy to divert our attention to the events with problems or malfunctions and miss out on the times when everything is actually, and beautifully, OK. The great French mathematician Blaise Pascal said: “Small minds are concerned with the extraordinary, great minds with the ordinary.”

The story of Velcro is well known. A Swiss engineer, George de Mestral, decided to look more closely at the burrs (seeds from plants) he found clinging to his clothes during a mindful walk in the woods. He took out his microscope and saw that nature had designed hooks on the burrs, which had then attached themselves to looped fibres in his clothing. The famous hook-and-loop alternative to the zipper, under the name Velcro, was born. How many of us would have been checking Facebook during our dog walk? Or more likely, how many of us would have simply not been engaged with the fine detail of our surroundings in all their wonder and beauty?

Very often, we go for a walk or run to clear our minds, re-energise and calm down. That effect can be magnified a thousand-fold by making sure we are totally and utterly present with the miniscule details of our surroundings.

John Kabat Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention to the present moment on purpose, non-judgmentally, as if your life depended on it”. In the book Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder, Marsha Linehan describes one such way of bringing yourself to the present moment by using the mindfulness skill called “observe”. Observe is about merely noticing what is happening right now. It is just noticing; nothing more. Often it can be more powerful to just notice the present rather than think about the present. Seeing with fresh eyes in a non-judgemental way like a child can be liberating and another breath of fresh air.

We can do it anywhere, anytime. On the tube, walking to work, driving – just observing the tiny details around us brings us to the present moment without much effort. That alone can be enough of a “breather” for our mind to stay upbeat and focused for the next part of our manic day.

Laura Woodward Counselling

Laura Woodward has been the surgeon at Village Vet Hampstead for over 10 years. Laura is also a qualified therapeutic counsellor and is affiliated with the ACPNL and the ISPC. She runs Laurawoodward.co.uk – a counselling service for vets and nurses.

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