Want to know what happened last week when I tried to re-engage my concentration abilities? A migraine, that’s what happened. Well, not immediately – I think that (the nastiest of all ‘minor ailments’) was more of an offshoot of a series of other things, but I did wonder whether my ability to consciously use my senses and free my mind of tweets, status updates and skim reading had suffered so much that it actually caused me physical pain to reconnect the pathways of my brain!
All went well at first. I walked along the almost silent streets between the Thames and Borough Market, gadget free for a change, and hit London Bridge where things continued relatively well. I listened to (and heard) trains squealing along rails, cars whooshing past, the slap-slap-click-click of feet on concrete – you know, the usual city sounds. But something changed between leaving the bridge and walking up towards Liverpool Street. I don’t know whether it was that on the river, sound sort of evaporates – it gets sucked away along with the tide – whereas in built up areas, it seems to echo and bounce off glass-clad exteriors to hit you full force in the head.
At that point, I started to struggle and desperately fought off the urge to pull out the iPod and block off the insane and overwhelming level and mixture of noise. Instead I swapped sense focus, and decided to look more closely at things – rather than try to take in the people rushing at me full steam ahead towards their tube/bus/taxi home, I gazed upwards and was rewarded by actually noticing architectural details, colours and graphics that I’d never really taken in around here before; a huge weather vane in the shape of a galloping horse, weaving circles over Whitechapel in the breeze; the almost jaundiced tint of greying skin as people dashed by in the dusk; the newly painted turquoise hoarding gleaming in the hot pink lights, reminding me of a fashion trend page I’d read earlier that day. But I realised that making these links was going a step too far – the aim was to notice, absorb, but keep a clear mind, not to start comparing and contrasting, creating metaphors and similes from city scenes. By the time I got home, I was bursting with potential tweet-like sentences and totally drained. I can’t understand how the Flâneur, that 19th-century Man of the Crowd, could get so excited about the tide of people flowing through tightly jammed streets. It made me want to scuttle away like a little soot-covered mouse disappearing into an unseen nook out of the path of an oncoming tube train.
In contrast, a walk up on Brighton racecourse in the ice-cold whistling wind at the weekend freaked me out for a totally different reason – the silence (well, near silence, because you can’t actually hear silence, can you?! It’s a paradox). Once you’ve become used to falling asleep to the sound of traffic growling at you from beyond your window in a manner similar to those bedtime monsters that kids believe are hiding under the bed, that absolute lack of noise becomes strangely eerie. By the time my steps hit the open ground that arches out above the coast, I’d had an aching brain/ cranium for two days (and just thinking about all this is making my head hurt all over again) so I kind of gave up on the mindfulness when I actually needed it most (to shut up my racing, but overtired travel-thought-filled consciousness). Instead, I went home and got locked into my pre-move paperwork clearout, driving myself closer to distraction with the monotonous grind of the ever-hungry paper shredder which was feasting on the remains of my patience… I mean, receipts.
So what’s the verdict on our, or my, chances of rediscovering mindfulness? I think I went too far with the idea too quickly – you need a slow build up. Five minutes here, ten there – gradually extending the frame of time as you become reacquainted with your (at risk of sounding like a hippy) inner peace. There’s definitely something in it. I’ve always been aware of things around me, but now I’m now far more conscious of the effect that trying to do a million things at once – work, tweet, plan,talk, read etc – has had on that overall. So rather than try to fill the gaps that don’t need filling, I’m going to do the opposite. And now, I will allow you to do the same, I’m off to do the two minute challenge again. It’s so easy when you love the sound of the sea anyway… all I need now is a beach to do nothing on. Roll on Sydney!