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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.

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  • Storyteller

    Thank you for this article.

  • Pamela Moore

    Thanks to everyone who has responded so positively and with such warmth. Your comments have really encouraged me and strengthened my resolve to keep practising my version of mindfulness.

  • Anjali M

    Pamela, this is a beautiful piece of writing that I found really touching. In fact, it is one that I have been thinking about quite some time after first reading it, so perhaps in my own way I was being mindful when reading it. Whether it is through art or nature or anything else, being so absorbed in the beauty, grandeur, intricacy, splendour of that which is around us that the usual chatter of our minds is quietened, can be an experience which lifts us to a greater height both in the present and, as you explain, at times when you recall the experience. Thank you for writing such an uplifting piece.

  • Giusotto

    This reminds me of something I stumbled on many years ago when learning to meditate. Around that time, I was also studying art and had come across Betty Edwards’ book ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’. In that book, she applied early neuroscience findings to the teaching of drawing skills to beginners. Although the science is probably much oversimplified and maybe not even correct these days, the broad principle (that I believe still applies) is that drawing (and other artistic pursuits) are essentially ‘right brain’ visual activities, the success of which are directly proportional to a person’s ability to suppress the verbal ‘left’ hemisphere.
    In learning meditation, the instruction to ‘focus on the breath’ initially became for me a cue to ‘visualise’ my breathing – specifically in my case, to visualise air moving through my nasal passages. This seemed to work I guess by distracting me from the verbal activity and eventually evolved into trying to ‘see’ what was there behind my closed eyelids! Sounds a bit weird I know, but by focusing on the ‘blackness’ you get some low-level visual activity – light/dark, vague, moving abstract shapes etc that also seems to shut down (or displace?) the verbal side of things. I’ve heard of this (Buddhist?) ‘third eye’ technique that sounds a bit similar. Anyway, this is my more-prosaic take on it and in all likelihood, there are numerous ‘artistic’ ways to distract the verbal chatter.

  • Jeanene MacLean

    Thank you – this is awesome.

  • Steve Belleguelle

    Pamela, thank you so much for sharing. I regularly practise a ‘traditional’ mindfulness meditation technique but often find it hard to still my mind, no sooner moving one thought out than another jumps in. What you have described sounds a great alternative that I will certainly give a try.

  • Connie Thiessen

    Thank you so much for this article Pamela. It applies both to me and my Dad. I can identify with you about having thoughts constantly race through my mind and your insight gives me a tool that I can use to practice mindfulness in a new way. My Dad also has dementia and the last time I went to visit him he was sitting in his chair with his eyes closed when I arrived. I asked him what he had been thinking about and he said he was replaying scenes of working with his brother on the farm when they were young. They were pleasant memories for him. I am thankful that he has these memories to go back to and enjoy.

  • Denise

    This was truly beautiful…. brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing.

  • Manini

    This is very nice article ! Mindfulness! I loved the term, can’t believe I haven’t heard it used in a positive way before. Thank you.

  • Janice Mauk Enzone

    What a true treasure this beautifully written article is. Thank you for sharing your technique & insights Pamela. I think Eckhart Tolle would love to read your words.

  • Mary Jane Oliveri

    Thank you so much for putting into words what I’ve been experiencing in my life….seeing…learning how to see art, life, everything and now I see/understand it as mindfulness, and as a spiritual practice! Love it!

  • Thank you for this. I relate so well to your opening paragraphs about the fast and furious thought traffic and your despair over not being able to silence it. I wish I had a “nothing” box like my husband does 🙂 but my mind is always racing. It’s full of so much “busy-ness”; as a result, I’m very easily distracted and often cannot recall details. I’ve never been able to do the “pay attention to your breath” thing, but your essay gives me reason to try mindfulness in a different way.

  • KJK

    Wow! Lovely reflection! Thanks you for taking the time and energy to give us all this wonder!

  • Connie Tolman

    As a Transcendental Meditation beginner in the 70s, I never thought that meditation would become mainstream. Because our lives have become so overwhelming, it has become a necessity not a luxury to practice mindfulness.

  • sageflower

    So beautifully written and expressed. I know these things to be true. Thank you so much for contributing your new awareness to our group. Blessings . . .