Mindfulness (Sept/Oct 2007)

Friday, 01 April 2011 18:02

Openmind Sept/Oct 2007

Just Looking

When I was a child my mother made it clear to me that she regarded me as a peculiar child with odd habits. One of these habits was that I'd stand at the back door of our house, gaze across to the distant blue hills, and watch the sun set. Or I'd cross the road and disappear into the bush, re-appearing some time later with spray of gum nuts or a bunch of wildflowers. When I went to the beach I'd spend as much time peering into rock pools and watching the waves break as I'd spend swimming. Despite my mother's disapproval, I persisted because I enjoyed just looking, and it gave me a respite from the boredom and misery of home and school. I was very pleased when I discovered that the poet William Henry Davies agreed with me. He had written,

A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

Many years later I realised that I was using an ability with which we're born but which can so easily be taken from us by our upbringing. It's the ability to look at the world around us disinterestedly and dispassionately. We look without any personal or selfish interest, and without any emotion or bias. Babies spend much of their time looking at the world in this way. Toddlers are endlessly curious about whatever they encounter. They find the world interesting simply because it exists. However, adults often interrupt this looking. Babies find their view blocked by the face of an adult who is trying to get their attention. A baby needs to have conversations with his mother in order to build up his bond with her, and then be able to generalise this bond to other people, but sometimes the mother's need for her baby's attention greater than the baby's need for hers. A baby may discover that not paying attention to his mother is something that incurs her displeasure. Many toddlers find that they are punished for being curious. Their mother's constant injunction, 'Don't touch!' becomes so painful that the toddlers find life easier if they give up being curious. Often toddlers are expected to find television much more interesting than playing in a garden or exploring the possibilities of sand and water. Older children may discover that their family assumes that joining in family conversations, however vacuous and repetitive, is infinitely more important than spending time on your own, when you can wander and look, daydream and think.

All of this is part of how the child learns to be good. Babies and toddlers know that they are dependent on the adults who care for them, and that not being good in the way the caring adults define 'good' puts them at risk of being unloved. Learning to be good isn't easy, even when the adults define 'good' in quite undemanding ways. The toddler may become so focussed on trying to be good and avoiding being bad that the child decides to forego the pleasure of disinterested and dispassionate looking at the world. Instead, everything has to be categorised in terms of 'being good' and 'being bad'.


Disinterested and dispassionate looking is all about being in the present. It concerns what is now. Being good is all about the past and the future - what you have done and whether the future holds rewards or punishments. Good people, that is, people who always feel that they aren't good enough, can lose altogether their ability to live in the present. They worry about the future and feel anxious about the past. Yet the present is where we all actually live. The past and the future don't exist. They're just ideas in our minds. Thus many good people lose touch with that innate ability to live in the present and be mindful of what is going on.


The Buddha advised his followers to be mindful of what was happening around them. In recent years many psychologists have taken up the concept of mindfulness and written books about it. One excellent book is The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal and Jon Kabat-Zinn (Routledge). If depression or chronic unhappiness isn't your problem you might wonder why such a substantial book, which describes and explains common everyday experiences, which sets out regular exercises and the recording of such exercises, and which has an accompanying CD, is necessary for a person to rediscover an innate skill. However, if you've been taught since earliest childhood that mindfulness is bad, you'll think that you'll have to see mindfulness as good. Thus you'll still be trapped in the prison of seeing everything as either good or bad. Mindfulness is neither good nor bad but simply is.