Full text of mindfulness trainer Daron Larson’s talk: Don’t Try To Be Mindful at TEDxColumbus conference. In this talk, he explains that just as regular exercise can improve your physical well-being, that training your attention can transform the way you navigate the challenges of everyday life.
Daron Larson – Mindful Awareness Trainer
So, mindfulness is a way to train your attention using your ordinary senses and perceptions. Maybe you’ve heard about it.
There’s this explosion of research that’s validating its many benefits: the way it helps people manage stress; reduce their anxiety; and even sleep better.
I was skeptical about these claims, because I have kind of a natural talent for stress.
One time, I was stressed out on vacation after a massage at a hot springs spa resort. And I kept thinking how I wanted to take a picture of this place, because it would help me relax when I got back to the job I was dreading returning to.
So, that gives you an idea of what I was up against, but I decided I’m going to give this mindfulness a try. So I’ve been practicing every day for 13 years.
And I noticed that it started to quietly transform the way I was living my life when I stopped trying to get the outcomes I was hoping for and instead put my attention on doing the exercises required to get there.
It reminded me what I already knew about physical fitness. If you take the stairs and you notice your heart starts to beat faster, maybe your legs start to burn, you don’t say to yourself, “Oh, I must be taking the stairs wrong.” Right?
You say, “This is what taking the stairs feels like.”
And if we always take the elevator in order to save time and avoid discomfort, we just miss opportunities for developing our physical health. And it’s the same thing. It works the same way.
So many people try mindfulness and they’re convinced they’re doing it wrong, so they give up. And they miss an opportunity to change their relationship with discomfort.
And if you expect your everyday life to be free of discomfort and confusion, you’re going to spend all your energy worrying, trying not to feel what you feel, and saying, “This messy life is not my real life.”
So what keeps us holding out for these perfect, comfortable lives that we imagine? And how can training your attention help address these habits?
There’s an underlying story problem built into the way we relate to our lives. It feels like I’m a character navigating all these challenges in order to get somewhere. And this narrative structure is incredibly useful. It helps me decide what’s important. It makes it possible to work towards and achieve goals.
But there’s a problem. My obstacles don’t seem to be part of what I consider my actual life. They feel like temporary annoyances that I have to push through in order to get to what’s on the other side.
But very often, it turns out what’s on the other side of my obstacles ends up not being the relief I’m hoping for. Am I the only one? It ends up being another obstacle.
And I have a spoiler alert here. This pattern keeps repeating and repeating, and we end up waiting for, habitually waiting for whatever’s happening to pass.
And this dilemma scales all the way down to the moment-by-moment experience. All these little looping stories of waking up on time and trying to get to work and going to a meeting and dealing with difficult people, deciding what to eat.
And maybe the best we can do is sometimes comfort ourselves with the idea of evenings and weekends and vacations. Right?
But it’s at this moment-by-moment scale where the work of mindfulness occurs — all these little places where we distract ourselves and go onto auto pilot.
But mindfulness isn’t a solution to your story problem. So don’t cancel your therapy appointment. It’s not a narrative solution at all. It’s actually a solution for the problem of living within these narrative constraints.
And any time that you habitually check out starts to become an opportunity for checking in. So let me give you a little exercise that you can use in any situation.
All you have to do is pause to notice some sensory detail of your current experience. Let’s give this a quick spin. For just a few seconds, what’s it like to see? That’s right: it’s easy.
What’s it like to hear? What’s it like to notice some sensation in your body? So that’s probably the shortest exercise workout I’ve ever led.
But what I’m hoping to — what I’m hoping you’ll do is compare it to what you already know about physical fitness. One push-up’s not very impressive. It seems kind of trivial.
But we know that if we make a habit and we do several push-ups a day, over weeks we’re going to start noticing more strength in our upper body.
So instead of trying to be mindful, what if you tried to notice what’s happening. Every time you stop and pay close attention to what’s happening, you disrupt that narrative, that narrative of your life, from inside your story.
Instead of trying to live in the moment, what if you just started to sneak this kind of noticing into your routine? When you take a shower, what would it be like to actually feel the water hitting your body or smell the shampoo?
What would it be like to taste your coffee? What if you notice what it looks like to see the screen in your hand and, once in a while, look up and see what’s right in front of you? Right?
Any activity that doesn’t require much thinking will work for this. And it turns out, there’s a lot more of them than you realize once you start looking. And nobody needs to know that you’re doing this.
In fact, I recommend you kind of keep it to yourself. I’ve kind of learned from experience that nobody wants to hear about the relaxation you’re savoring in your legs during a meeting.
And the details you notice don’t need to be pleasant. What’s it like to run late? What’s it like to be standing in the slowest line in the grocery store?
What’s it like to watch your windshield wipers as you’re waiting for the light to turn green? Your strategy for living in the present will go a lot better when you accept how frequently the present sucks.
So I’ve been describing a way to pay attention in the midst of ordinary life. But there’s also a formal version of the practice you might be familiar, where you pick something to notice over and over again for a set amount of time.
So maybe 10 or 15 minutes, you notice what it feels like to breathe. You might notice what it’s like to hear sounds around you. And whenever you realize that you’ve completely lost contact with that, you just gently bring your attention back.
This timed practice is what everybody thinks is the only thing that counts, and I want to challenge this assumption. The timed practice is intended — it’s like going to the gym. It supports your ability to be attentive throughout the rest of the day.
So you might notice relaxation during your timed practice and then check in throughout the day to see if there’s something restful at all that you can detect and savor.
So one time I was teaching a class, and it wasn’t a mindfulness class, but it was the first night. I get a phone call, and I had the start time wrong. So I was late, and I didn’t realize it.