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Mindfulness and Memory

Quiet Revolutionary Pamela Moore’s Story

The traffic never seems to stop. Even when I wake up in the middle of the night, it’s still going fast and furious, racing towards the next destination. I want to bury my head under a pillow, but it would take a lot more than that to drown out the traffic. Occasionally there’s a collision, causing panic and confusion, but most of the time it’s a low level unremitting drone. I’ve become so accustomed to it that the sound of silence is now almost inconceivable.

I expect you’re wondering why I don’t relocate somewhere quieter. Somewhere away from heavy traffic, a little bolthole in the countryside perhaps. That wouldn’t make the slightest jot of difference because it’s not road traffic I’m describing. It’s thought traffic. That incessant stream of consciousness which, regardless of my will, so often propels me on emotionally fuelled journeys to places I don’t want to go. Backwards to past pains, fast forward to future fears. Anywhere, any place, any time, except the here and now.

When I first heard about mindfulness, I thought there might be hope on the horizon. But my attempts at practicing it  were woefully disappointing. Sitting still and trying to concentrate on my breath unnerved me no end. It didn’t root me in the present moment at all. It made me even more introspective. Far from being able to step back, observe, and accept, I would find myself distracted by a voice which drew my attention ever inwards to scrutinise every physical sensation it could flag up. Instead of my worries ebbing away gently, waves of anxiety would flood over me as I silently obsessed about the rate of my breathing, a tingling in my foot, the ringing in my ears. After several attempts, I concluded that mindfulness just wasn’t for me because I couldn’t see any way of silencing that wretched internal chatterbox.

Until last year–when it dawned on me that focussing on my breath was merely a means to an end, and that engaging my senses outwards offered another way to be fully present in the moment. Hand-in-hand with this insight came an even more powerful realisation, the discovery that even in the absence of mental silence, I could still practise mindfulness. The key was to play my chatterbox at its own game by distracting it with a different dialogue of my choosing. This dialogue concentrated more on the external environment and less on what was happening inside my body.

These nuggets of wisdom fell like manna from heaven whilst I was participating in a session at The National Gallery in London. The advertising literature had promised to help participants use mindfulness techniques to “reignite a childlike sense of wonder in art.” As someone who yearns to appreciate art but finds it hard to muster sufficient concentration, I couldn’t resist finding out more.

Sitting quietly in a part of the gallery reserved for our exclusive use, we were invited to explore an eighteenth century Dutch still life painting. To stop our attention from wandering off, the facilitator guided our thoughts by asking us to consider certain aspects of the work. To my delight, the strategy worked, forcing my pesky chatterbox to engage fully with my senses and sit up and take notice of what my eyes could see. And what a lot they could see!

By some quirk of fate, only days before I had been standing in front of several similar paintings by the same artist at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, but I’d have been hard pressed to have described them in any detail. I’d been left with a vague, blurry image of some brightly coloured blooms in a vase. Suddenly I found myself looking intently so that the profusion of indistinct flowers gradually separated into individual species. I noticed a tulip, slightly bowed by the weight of its swept back pink variegated petals, ruffled peony heads, pert narcissi, and, almost centre stage, a single blue iris. Adjusting my focus, I became aware of the way in which the shapes, textures, and colours of these flowers and their foliage, ranging from spiky to rounded, rough to frilly, cool to hot, blended together to create a harmonious whole. Concentrating further on the details of the painting, I picked out a bee and a tiny ant, as well as three butterflies and an improbably placed nest.

Being able to bring to mind this level of detail and share it with you so long after I last saw Flowers in a Terracotta Vase has made me realise that as well as deepening appreciation, mindfulness also has the potential to prolong that sense of appreciation over time. It’s like a dye that embosses experience deep within the memory rendering an experience prominent through the passage of weeks and months – years even – so that it’s possible to recapture a sense of wonder and joy long after the original event has receded into the far distant past.

The value of being able to rekindle memories in this way was extremely powerful earlier this year when I visited my elderly father in hospital. I had asked him whether he would like me to bring him a magazine or even a small radio so that he could keep abreast of world events, but he refused. Concerned that his mental capacity might fade without some form of external stimulus, I asked him how he occupied the long hours and, without hesitation, he replied that he went on walks. For a second I felt a shot of panic race through my body fearing that, in addition to all of his other health problems, he’d now developed dementia. I need not have worried because he proceeded to explain that he was referring to his recollection of the all countryside walks he’d enjoyed over the 14 years of his retirement. He cheerfully told me that he’d been to Cumbria earlier that day. This speaks volumes about his mindful way of walking, and about the wholesome discipline he exercises over his mind so that he walks, and indeed lives, in the moment, collecting fragments of memory which he will revisit at some later date.

This, I think, a lesson for us all. You will be storing up riches for the future if you are able to corral rogue thoughts and free your mind to use all your senses to absorb that which is good and beautiful and unique in the present moment. When a rainy day comes, you will be able to unfold each of those moments, as if they were treasures wrapped tenderly in tissue paper, and savour afresh the delight of days long past. Indeed, the heart-wrenching poignancy of witnessing my father, at that time bent double and rendered almost immobile by Parkinson’s Disease, in his mind’s eye still striding tall and straight and strong through hill and dale, has made me understand that mindfulness is a discipline well worth mastering because the legacy it offers to each and everyone of us is that of the most profound and long-lasting enrichment.