Mental Time Travel

I love books. Not ebooks… proper, physical books that you can curl up with and pages that you can turn. My favourites are the Harry Potters – JK Rowling’s Wizarding World is a place my imagination loves venturing into. I also love my old copies of Jane Austen novels – the smell of those old pages combined with Jane’s Regency writing allows me to escape into a world gone by where life seemed so much more simple.

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading. Jane Austen

Having said that, there are some books I’m not so enthusiastic about: self-help books. I’ve read several over the last few of years. The ones I read weren’t completely unhelpful, but I’m generally quite wary of self-help books, especially those which claim to be a ‘life-changing bestseller’. I’ve thought them to be another ploy to make money out of our consumer-obsessed society. After all, how can a book (written by a complete stranger to me) know what I’m thinking and feeling and know how to help me? And even if it could help me, I’m not sure I’d have the time or inclination to engage with it properly; in the short term, I know I’d much prefer to go to Hogwarts for a chapter or two, or get lost in the pages of an Austen for some escapism, rather than think more about issues which I know I already over-think.

However, recently, my sceptical view of self-help books has been challenged by a book called Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Mark Williams and Danny Penman. 

About a month ago I finally started some brilliant counselling sessions. I’d been waiting ages for these sessions to start, but thankfully I can say it was worth waiting for them. At the end of my first session, the lovely lady that I’m seeing – Kathy – recommend that I buy this Mindfulness book and work through the eight-week Mindful-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) programme which it talks you through. I thanked her for the recommendation, but quietly decided that I probably wasn’t going to buy the book – the whole concept of ‘mindfulness’ seemed frivolous to me.

During my second session, Kathy asked if I’d started to look through the book. “No, not yet,” I said, “but I’m sure I’ll get round to getting a copy eventually.” She didn’t force me to do anything, but her gentle nudging played on my mind and the following day, I searched for the book on Amazon. It sat in my virtual basket for a while. The purchase seemed like a big commitment. ‘If I buy this book,’ I told myself, ‘I should make sure sure I find time to work through it properly.’ Eventually, I clicked ‘PAY NOW’ and the transaction was done.

Two days later, the book arrived. The timing of its arrival was perfect. It dropped through the letterbox at a time when I had the house pretty much to myself for a couple of days. Generally, I much prefer it when other people are around at home, but in this case, the quiet and lack of distraction was just what I needed for getting stuck into this book.

I turned to Chapter One which was titled ‘Chasing Your Tail’. The chapter opened with a question: ‘Can you remember the last time you lay in bed wrestling with your thoughts?’ ‘Ha!’ I thought to myself, ‘Yes, last night.’ I read on. The more I read, the more impressed I was by the book’s relevance and insight into my state of mind. The book said it would reveal ‘a set of simple yet powerful mindful practices that you can incorporate into daily life to help break the cycle of anxiety, stress, unhappiness and exhaustion’. It promised it would ‘help promote a genuine joie de vivre’.

By now, I was starting to feel hopeful and excited. I was willing to give this book my full attention.

To start the programme right away, we suggest you turn to Chapter Four. If you’d like to know more about the new scientific discoveries that reveal how and why we trap ourselves in negative ways of thinking and behaving – and how mindfulness meditation frees you – Chapters Two and Three will help you with this.’

As much as I wanted to jump straight into the course, I was intrigued by what Chapters Two and Three had to say. Chapter Two – Why Do We Attack Ourselves – explored how and why one little negative thought can trigger a vicious cycle of negative emotion. Chapter Three – Walking Up to the Life You Have – taught that although our brain’s ‘Doing’ mode automatically kicks in to solve the ‘problem’ of our vicious cycles of negative emotion, it is not actually something which can be problem-solved. There is an alternative way of relating to ourselves and the world; a better way of dealing with negativity. We also have a ‘Being’ mode.

In the ‘Doing’ mode our mind is busy (over) thinking. But our minds can do more than just think. In the ‘Being’ mode our mind is aware that it is thinking. This form of awareness is better than thinking as it allows you to be fully present and to experience the world directly.

Mental time travel versus remaining in the present moment

Our mind’s ‘Doing’ mode is, obviously, very important. It’s the mode which get things done. It’s also the mode which processes past memories and plans for future events – all very necessary things for the smooth running of our daily lives. However, when we are stressed, tired, anxious, [insert any other negative emotion here] these thoughts become distorted by negativity. We struggle to fucnction. We find it hard to recall good memories and instead focus in on everything bad that’s happened to us. Meanwhile, our sense of hopelessness makes it hard to look to the future with any optimism. In the ‘Doing’ mode, our conscious mind gets overwhelmed by these negative feelings and is no longer aware that they are merely memories of the past or plans for the future. We’ve become lost in mental time travel. We end up re-living the past and re-feeling its pain, and pre-living future disasters and therefore pre-feeling their impact.

But if we’re able to shift into the ‘Being’ mode, we can clearly see these thoughts, memories and plans for what they are and they can be kept in their temporal places. That’s not to say we shouldn’t think, remember and plan, but by being fully present – living in our lives rather than in our heads – we can avoid getting caught up in the emotional pain of mental time travel. While actual time travel (with the Doctor in the TARDIS!) may be exciting, mental time travel is exhausting.

When we get stuck living in our heads, we become slaves to our habitual thoughts and behaviours and end up missing out on so much of life. For example, if you’re 30 years old, with a life expectancy of around 80, you have 50 years left to live. But if you’re living in your head for most of that time and only fully engaging with life for around 2 hours in a 16-hour day (which is what ends up happening for most of us!), you’ve only got another 6 years and 3 months of ‘fully engaged’ life left. I don’t know about you, but I find that shocking.

Time is relative

One of the most revolutionary concepts of the 20th century was Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. It states that time is relative. Our lives are governed by the same seconds, minutes, hours, days, and weeks, however the rate at which it passes depends entirely on your speed and acceleration at any given moment. I’m no physicist so there’s no way I can explain the science behind this, but it’s a fact that the rate at which time passes actually slows down the more you’re moving. However, we also have the ability to affect our perception of time…

Have you ever commented on how fast the year seems to be going? This isn’t just because times seems to fly by the older we get. Recent scientific research suggests that our perception of time is actually speeding up, thanks to our obsessive use of smartphones and the over-abundance of technology in our lives. A psychologist has found evidence that our constant use of technology is making our brains more efficient at processing information, and as a result is tricking us into thinking time is passing faster than it really is.

It’s almost as though we’re trying to emulate the technology and be speedier and more efficient. It seems like there’s something about technology itself that primes us to increase that pacemaker inside of us that measures the passing of time. Aoife McLoughlin, James Cook University Singapore

Research into Mindful-Based Cognitive Therapy suggests that the more you learn to fully live in the moment (not starring endless at a smartphone screen), a profound thing happens: life will seem to slow down. If ‘Being’ and ‘Doing’ are two different states of mind – let’s call them mental dimensions – perhaps time is relative to those dimensions…

The best things is, when life slows down, you’ll feel happier for it. Both your quality and quantity of life will improve because we are human beings, not human doings.

Mindfulnessis simply the gear shift from the ‘Doing’ to the ‘Being’ mode. From living in your head, to living in the world. From living in the past/future to living in the present. Just like you have to practise changing gears when you’re learning to drive, this mindful gear shift also needs to be practised – and that’s what Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World  is all about. (Flicking ahead, I’ve seen that there’s even a section called ‘The Chocolate Meditation’… I’m looking forward to trying that one!).

I almost didn’t give this book a chance because I didn’t think I’d have the time or inclination to engage with it properly. But in challenging myself to fully engage I’ve found that I’ve got so much more time and inclination – not just for the book’s MBCT programme, but for so many other areas of my life.

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