The Life-Changing Magic of Knowing What Your Mind is Full Of

The Life-Changing Magic of Knowing What Your Mind is Full Of

Photo by  ilagany

Photo by ilagany


It’s a bit of a buzz word these days. On one hand, it seems like you can’t open a magazine without seeing articles touting the miraculous benefits of mindfulness for almost any condition or ailment. On the other hand, there are articles with click-bait titles such as, “Does Mindfulness Have a Dark Side?”

It’s no secret that I am a fan of mindfulness, although I acknowledge that there can be risks associated with its practice. I’ll write about the issue of benefits vs risks another time, but for today, I want to offer a bit of a What Mindfulness Is and Isn’t 2.0. I have written before about what mindfulness is and isn’t and how mindfulness works, but my thinking on these subjects has evolved over the last few years, so it seems like time for an update. (But those posts are still worth a read!)

it’s not (necessarily) about stress relief. or emptying the mind.

Mindfulness is often promoted as a tool for stress relief and I want to be clear from the get-go that I don’t approach it that way. Sure, some people find that practicing mindfulness leads to a reduction in stress, but my feeling is that this is often a side-effect of a process that isn’t so direct.

Many people also have the idea that mindfulness is about emptying the mind or getting rid of thoughts. Again, when people practice mindfulness for a while, they often experience reduced interference from thoughts…but that doesn’t mean that the thoughts have necessarily gone away.

In the case of both stress and thoughts, it not so much that mindfulness helps eradicate them, but that it helps change our relationship to them. Mindfulness helps us see that we can have an experience without being that experience.

the radical act of noticing what your mind is full of

I recently listened to an awesome podcast interview on the Ezra Klein Show with productivity expert Chris Bailey. I’m not generally a proponent of the whole productivity scene. I question the underlying premise that there is something inherently valuable about being productive. However, Bailey has a unique take on this subject, one that relies on mindfulness and intentionality. He offers a definition of mindfulness that I love (and that I stole for the title of this post):

This is what mindfulness is: Noticing what your mind is full of.

So simple! But I think a lot of people who are new to mindfulness practice — and maybe some who are not so new — find this to be a profoundly un-sexy definition. And not just un-sexy — unhelpful, too. What could possibly be the benefit of knowing what your mind is full of?

To me, it comes down to choice — having the space and awareness to choose our responses to situations, rather than being driven by habit. Through mindfulness, we can develop the capacity to sense where our attention is and, eventually, to direct it where we choose.

Is this life-changing magic? I think so. Perhaps you’ve heard this parable, from a commencement address given by the late American writer, David Foster Wallace:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

Developing a mindfulness practice is kind of like learning to see the water we’re swimming in. Even more than that, it involves the discipline of assuming there is almost always more going on than we can see from deep inside our habitual mental and perceptual grooves. But I’m not going to lie: It ain’t always pretty. To those embarking on a mindfulness journey in the hopes that stress and anxiety will magically melt away I say: buyer beware! Seeing what your mind is full of can be a bit sobering at first. But it’s interesting what happens when just you keep looking. Instead of being tangled in reactivity, we begin to see: Oh, this is frustration…or anger, or worry, or judgment… Seeing that we are having a reaction — and not simply reacting, out of habit — gives us an opportunity to choose a response that is in line with our values and goals.

This is all extremely helpful in the practice room. Consider the above in reference to security blanket practicing which I talked about last week. In security blanket practicing — that mindlessly repetitive practice we sometimes do in response to feelings of anxiety, frustration, or boredom — it seems, even to ourselves, that our minds are full of our playing. After all, we’re there in the practice room, playing something over and over. But if we look closely, we often see that what our minds are really full of is our feelings about our playing, or about ourselves as musicians. Close inspection reveals that we’re actually taking in very little information about the sounds we’re making and how we could make better ones. When we’re able to see the proverbial water that we’re swimming in — the stew of sensations, thoughts, and emotions that is driving our behaviour — our experience becomes more spacious. You’ve probably heard this one, from Viktor Frankl:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

He really nailed it there. But, I think the difficulty is that many of us don’t actually experience that there is a space between stimulus and response. Mindfulness can help with his.

mindfulness, the felt sense, and the window of tolerance

If you have read the last few posts (if not, start here), you might notice that this is exactly what I have been talking about in terms of learning to tune in to our internal sensations so that we start getting a clearer sense of how we really are — as opposed to how we think we should be or how we wish we were — in any given moment. Whether we’re dealing with the mind or the body or, more likely, the intersection between the two, the process is essentially the same. Over time, the practice of noticing our internal state, our thoughts, our emotions — the whole big ocean of experience that surrounds us — without immediately moving to change that experience, helps us to expand our window of tolerance so we are not knocked off balance so easily.

I have been thinking of this series of posts as a Mind/Body Tools Series, but maybe I should rename it the Super-Power Series, because all of these things — self-compassion, tuning in to the felt sense, understanding our nervous system and the window of tolerance, and noticing what our minds are full of — kind of feel like super-powers. Maybe a little less dramatic than, say, x-ray vision or invisibility…but still pretty super.

Coming soon: Some ideas and instructions for beginning a mindfulness meditation practice as well as some practical ideas for how to take this stuff into the practice room and onstage.

go deeper

I loved this episode of the Ezra Klein show with Chris Bailey that I mentioned above. In it, Bailey and Klein talk about the link between attention and intention, productivity, mind-wandering, and more.

You can also check out my very own podcast! This interview with Travis Baird, and this one with Frank Diaz are both fun and thought-provoking.

Read David Foster Wallace’s complete address (or listen to an audio version) here.

And, hey — let’s not throw mind-wandering under the bus. The episode of the Ezra Klein Show offers some interesting insights about the importance of allowing the mind to roam freely. This article on How to Waste Time Properly is also interesting.

The Art of Celebrating Small Victories (Or: How Not to Fail in Advance)

The Art of Celebrating Small Victories (Or: How Not to Fail in Advance)

The Window of Tolerance in Practice and Performance

The Window of Tolerance in Practice and Performance