Have you ever noticed that arguments with people you know well tend to feel a lot like a well rehearsed play? The topics might differ, but the performance is always the same: when things get hot, we follow the same pattern of attack/defense reactions. We’ve done it so many times, that it became mechanical and no matter who seems to win the fight, the loss is on both sides.
So it happened that one day I broke the routine and magic happened right before my eyes. With a switch of attention* I managed to transform a fight into an actual conversation. How did I get there? It has to do with washing the dishes. Well, sort of.
For many years I used to hate washing the dishes. Each time I was faced with this obnoxiously irritating task I tried to get the job done as fast as possible, all the while experiencing varying degrees of frustration. As a result, instead of just doing what I had to do, I would waste a lot of energy and time on negative thinking and negative emotions, amplifying the discomfort and prolonging the suffering. All this went on until one day when, thanks to an experiment someone had suggested to me, I finally broke the chain.
The goal was to take a daily routine and go through it in a mindful way and observe what happenes. This meant to do what I had to do with attention and at the same time to be aware of the sensations of the body to the best of my ability.
I picked up dish washing because it was a frequent activity and every day for a week I did my best to be present in the act. I didn’t always remember to do it, but when I did, I observed each part of the washing process and noticed all the different sensations that rose in my hands. Slowly, the negative thoughts and the irritation vanished and at times the washing even became relaxing. When the week ended it felt like I had achieved a small, but important victory.
So when the argument I mentioned above happened, I decided to apply the same method. As the other person began her usual fighting routine I listened to what they had to say and at the same time I tried to also pay attention to the sensations in my body. This helped me to remain calm and prevented me from starting to build counter arguments or defenses inside my head and from speaking over them as I usually did. Faced with this unexpected turn of events the other person was taken by surprise and I could see the confusion making way on her face. Eventually, she had no other option but to stop fighting and we finally began talking to each other not at each other.
Another victory which taught me the same important lesson: reality changes in significant ways with intentional attention and self awareness.
Which brings me to the present days.
With the ongoing isolation caused by the pandemic, for most of us it feels like we’re living in Groundhog Day. Having to spend all of my time inside a flat, my life revolves around a small number of routines, most of which take place on autopilot and by the time I go to bed I don’t even know when the day has passed.
So in an attempt to live with more awareness, I decided to continue working on my attention and take on another experiment. I set myself the task to try and be mindful of everything I did, each day for a week. The results? Well, it’s fair to say the success rate was low, but among the many failures I’ve had a few revealing wins.
The sad part is that life lived on autopilot doesn’t just happen during the isolation. This is how we live day after day, the isolation only makes it more obvious.
Being present is extremely hard because we forget ourselves all the time and we don’t even realise it. We live the majority of our life inside our heads, chasing relentlessly thought after thought. Our attention runs all over the place, controlled by everything and everyone except by us. Those familiar with meditation know this well, as even ten minutes of attempting to be aware of the breath or the body sensations prove to be challenging and show how easily the attention drifts away.
But in the short moments when we do manage to be mindful and more embodied, a new way of living reveals itself. Getting there means we have to make continuous efforts, and as we begin to see how much we lose by letting the autopilot to be in charge of our life, we understand how vital it is to put in the work.
But don’t just take my word for it, see it for yourself.
*To be noted that this can only happen before we get overwhelmed by negative emotions. Once they arise we are completely under their control and there’s not much left to do, so it’s better to prepare for this in moments of calm.