In programs like Be Well Plan, Mindfulness for Academic Success and Studyology we teach students how to use mindfulness to improve wellbeing, improve academic performance and tackle procrastination.
We do this on the basis of a growing literature suggesting mindfulness as a helpful strategy across a range of psychological outcomes and with benefits specifically to students.
Often when I am teaching mindfulness I tend to focus on the present moment component. This is typically done by bringing one’s attention to experiences in the ‘right now’ – the senses, the breath, the flow of thought, the feelings and sensations in the body.
The idea is to give a person the experience of being able to remove themselves from being lost in experience, to being the observer of one’s experience. That shift can then be used as the foundation for a range of different meditative actions and benefits: increased compassion, increased self-understanding, increased relaxation, improved emotional regulation, focus on the task at hand and more.
An aspect of mindfulness that I have generally neglected though is that when we bring our attention to the present moment, we can bring with it a specific attitude. The standard instruction is to bring a non-judgemental attitude. To not admonish oneself for the thoughts, feelings, memories, sensations that arise in the process. To judge or evaluate what arises is to be lost in it and that is something we are trying to counter.
But it is possible to bring other attitudes to mindfulness activities. Common ones include compassion (caring and kindness), curiousity (I wonder what will show up next), calm (unreactive, grounded).
I’ve got more interested in this notion of the ‘attitude we bring to the present moment’ as a result of delving a little bit into stoic philosophy. I apologise for not being able to recall where I heard this idea, but it has stuck.
The idea is that in moments of stress or setback or difficulty, we can make a conscious decision to bring a certain attitude and approach to the moment. This is an antidote to the automatic, reflexive response we might bring.
For example, left to my own automatic responses, I will typically bring attitudes of anger and righteousness to the experience of driving (it’s why people who know me, don’t like to drive with me). That leads me to notice infractions of others, to be critical of people’s driving choices, to get angry and resentful for bad driving behaviour. Basically to be an asshole.
But I can make a decision, as I back out of the driveway to bring another attitude to the driving experience. I can bring curiosity (take note of my surroundings), kindness (recognise that everyone is just going on their way, doing their best) or calm (listen to nice music and enjoy the sunshine through the window). I can be deliberate about bringing another Gareth to the driving experience.
We can do this with other stressful moments in our life. We can stop, notice the swelling stress or anxiety (as we interpret the situation as stressful) and invite ourselves to bring another version of us to the situation. A calmer version, a kinder version. A less self-critical version. A problem-solving/industrious version.
Now that doesn’t mean those other feelings won’t arise or we still won’t find ourselves lost in the experience again, with all our automatic negative responses in tow. But it does remind us that we have the capacity to bring a different ‘self’ to those difficult moments and that maybe there is value in doing this regularly enough until it starts to unseat our automatic responses.
As we head into the exam period and things heat up (academically and weather speaking), notice what version of you shows up automatically to stressful moments (e.g. exam revision) and then consider what other versions of you could show up. Practice the art of bringing a different you to situations where automatic you might be holding you back.