Imagine for a moment that you’re standing in a stream with a busy flow of water rushing past your legs. Then imagine that it’s not water that’s flowing but thoughts, feelings, images, sounds, physical sensations, impulses, and behaviours. This is your stream of experience, a dynamic flow coming at you in many different modes, from outside as well as inside, in each flowing moment. You may have come across the “Stream of consciousness” in writing, where writers like James Joyce uses his characters’ internal dialogue in an unpunctuated flow of ideas, impressions, impulses, and imaginings, to Illustrate what seems to happen in our experience.
Consider how much stuff comes your way during a typical workday. If you work in an office environment there are typically 50 to 100 emails and other messages, conversations with around 15 people, and 30 separate tasks and activities to progress. You may experience changing situations, from travelling, meeting people, listening, talking, problem-solving, planning, and deciding. On this scale, there must be boundless billions of things entering our experience over a lifetime.
Our experience includes memories and feelings from the past, what’s happening in the present as well as what we anticipate and plan for in the future. There are moments of high attention, focus and awareness as well as times when our attention drifts and our mind wanders.
Everything that comes into our experience goes through the same cycle of arising, playing out, and then dissolving back to where it came from. For instance, it’s quiet; we hear an aircraft approaching; flying overhead, then the sky returns to silence. We walk past a concert poster and have the thought, “Remember to buy tickets”, which then passes away. Or we hear about some injustice in the news and feel momentary anger towards the people who were responsible and compassion for those who were affected and move on.
Mindfulness can be defined as working skilfully with present-moment experience. Adapting a quote from Aldous Huxley, “Experience is not what happens to you; it’s how skilfully you work with what happens to you.” How we work with our experience also depends on how tired we are and our background level of agitation, stress, anxiety, or low mood.
Obviously, we don’t process everything; our brain filters out a lot of sensory experience and many of our thoughts and emotions arise below conscious awareness. But when so much is automatically filtered out of our awareness, how would we know if we missed something important? Apart from the fact that we’re always physically embodied at the centre of our experience, it’s the quality of our attention, awareness, and attitude towards our experience that makes the difference.
We like to think that we are masters of our own attention, but a simple exercise like focusing on the breath for a few minutes soon demonstrates that our attention is often automatically directed for us to whatever happens to be most prominent in our experience at the time.
Like water flowing over rocks, if our stream of experience is turbulent with stress and agitation, we’re more likely to react automatically and fall into past habits and patterns of behaviour that are unlikely to serve us and other people. With stable attention and open awareness, we are able to access choices and options in how we can respond more skilfully.
By recognising that there’s only this flowing moment of experience, we can bring acceptance, patience, openness, kindness, and non-judging, which can make a real difference. By cultivating mindfulness, we create the space to respond skilfully, rather than react automatically. We’re also more likely to notice when we resist or avoid what we’ve judged as an unpleasant or unwanted experience.
In this way, we change the nature of our relationship with experience. The benefits include finding greater ease, avoiding unnecessary suffering, and feeling a rich sense of aliveness and connection with our lived experience.
Suggested weekly practice
- Try a sitting meditation where, using curiosity, openness and kindness, you simply notice and observe and mentally note where your attention lands. For instance, breathing, tingling, voices, distant train noise, planning, worrying, etc.
- Explore different modalities from sensory, sensations, feelings, thoughts, perceptions, etc. in your stream of experience.
- See if you can notice things as they come and go; arising, playing out and releasing back to where they came from, within a peaceful, open and aware space.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore the different modes of experience and then observe the natural flow of experience as it arises in awareness.