Sometimes it’s hard to be mindful. Today’s human brains are flying at least 250 miles a minute. The average Asperger’s/autistic brain is hauling along even faster, juggling our thoughts and praying to some Supreme Being that we don’t drop one, lest it disappear into the big Black Hole of Forgotten Thoughts, AKA butterflies, never to be seen again.
It can also be hard because of Tunnel Vision and Tunnel Thoughts.
It’s also relatively tricky at times for those of us on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum for a lesser-known and more surprising reason: by our very nature, many of us are already mindful–much more so than we might realize.
Consider the “average” NT mind: it tends to accept certain aspects automatically as givens. Contrast that with the “average” (if there is a such thing) Asperger’s/autism spectrum brain, which often views and perceives the world very deliberately. What is unconscious and autopilot to the average non-autistic person is conscious to–and more consciously evaluated by–someone on the spectrum.
NTs generally have to sit still and make a conscious attempt to process the world in a different way, a way they’re not accustomed to, a way that is foreign to them. A way that is actually more like ours. We can’t help but be aware of everything around us, unless of course, we’re zeroed in on something with our tunnel vision. Then all bets are off, of course. It usually takes extra work for them to focus as intensely as we do. Often, that level of focus is actually our default mode, as long as we have no other outside interference. They have to work to achieve what many of us already have.
So maybe that’s why they often have such a tough time with meditation and mindfulness; they can’t train their brains to be like ours. It’s in the wiring and that usually can’t change.
This might also explain why we often have a tougher time with mindfulness and/or meditation, too – without realizing it, many of us are already there. I remember expressing much frustration when I would try to meditate; I couldn’t focus any deeper! I was already doing the best I could.
It turns out that my resting state has a lot of similarities with meditation and mindfulness already; attempting to go deeper or focus any more powerfully might not even be possible.
Is it possible that our ability to hyperfocus, which is so often a thorn in the sides of those around us who frequently fruitlessly attempt to get our attention and is so pretentiously pathologized in the DSM criteria, actually serve us as an asset?
I think the answer is: yes, it could. (Of course, it’s also possible that the answer could be no, especially if we have a hard time filtering out our extraneous environment.) The ability to focus more intensely might actually predispose us toward greater mindfulness and perhaps even an easier, more natural ability to meditate. If I reflect back, I begin to realize that I’ve actually partaken in mental activities that might be considered meditation by the non-autistic population.
One example is when driving for long stretches of time, often aided by the backdrop of certain music on the iPod that is hooked into the stereo system in my truck. Interstate highway driving is perfect for this, given that there are no traffic jams, for the speeds are constant and there are no red lights or stop signs to stop for. Outside the cities, the scenery is vast and rural and open, and if the vehicles are spaced far enough apart, one can begin to relax and be mesmerized by the road and the surrounding landscape.
Taking a bath is another perfect example. Back when we had our house with the bigger bathtub, I loved to take bubble baths. I would gather some soapy water and create rainbow films by forming closed rings with my hands, much like the way one would make a heart-shape. I would watch the colors swirl and transform, undergoing metamorphosis. Of course, I observed all aspects of this color-utopia, from the more-pastel colors at the base, to the richer colors in the middle, and the older, fading colors near the top, dominated by golds, blues, and even hints of gray.
Playing Solitaire, the famous one-player card came, on the computer is another perfect meditation opportunity. Once the rules of the game are familiar, they become rote, and the activity becomes mindless–and mindful at the same time. The mindlessness frees one’s mind from mundane life, allowing it to wander to the corners of philosophy, history, science, interconnectedness, and other topics of thought. Songs play in my head, whether they’re existing songs written by others, or songs my brain conjures up on its own.
Simply staring, whether I’m playing with my hair and looking for its split-ends or not, can count as meditation. I don’t mean to stare, of course; that’s not the primary goal. It’s simply the inevitable result of sitting still and deeply contemplating whatever it is that has gripped my attention so forcefully. Usually, my brain and its trains of thought very closely resemble the pastime of surfing the internet; one thought leads to the next, which leads to the next, literally like riding waves, catching the next one from the top of the current one, never touching the ground. I sometimes call it thought-cloud-hopping. Each node or individual cloud in the aggregate thought-cloud is spring-loaded, built to propel me toward the next destination, wherever I want to go in my brain.
“Fair enough,” some say. “That’s meditation, but what about mindfulness?”
Mindfulness can be defined as:
“the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to the internal and external experiences occurring in the present moment, which can be developed through the practice of meditation and other training.”
As we have seen, many of us are already pre-geared toward more efficient meditation. It comes so naturally to many of us that we don’t even realize we’re doing it, and then we often lament that we can’t meditate. Or maybe we don’t lament at all, because we’ve long since given up on trying, assuming that we have failed.
Given the definition above, it could be said that meditation is a proposed prerequisite to mindfulness. It could also be said that mindfulness is the opposite of meditation. Both are a focusing of the mind, but it could be argued that meditation is a focus inward, whereas mindfulness could be seen as a focus outward. Meditation is letting your mind wander towards a self-directed, un-forced focus, while mindfulness seems to me to be more of an attention paid to the world immediately surrounding us. Meditation filters that out; mindfulness gives it top priority.
So in a way, one could perceive meditation and mindfulness as parallel, yet opposite.
As touched on early on in this post, mindfulness itself could indeed come easier to those of us on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum as well. Since we already perceive the world with a greater perception of and attention to details, the leap toward mindfulness might be a mere baby-step. By consciously taking in every aspect and being more aware of these aspects, we’re already most of the way down the path of mindfulness.
I don’t have any sources to back this up, but I think the difference between being aware of one’s surroundings (often involuntarily, if our awareness is simply the product of an inability to filter out certain unimportant aspects of one’s environment) and being mindful might be the effect that this awareness has on our psyches and systems. If it has an overwhelming, excessive, unwanted effect, it’s a filtration problem; if it has a calming, grounding, peace-inducing effect, it’s mindfulness.
The good news is, some of the negative overwhelming excess might possibly be transformed into the positive calming and grounding effect. It might simply be a matter of training our brains to interpret our surroundings differently. The environmental sensory stimuli don’t change, but how we perceive and interpret them “might could” be. (The quotes contain a Texanism, for which I couldn’t think of a better word choice – sorry 🙂 )
Of course, this probably won’t work for all stimuli. Sudden, loud noises that startle and annoy are probably not good candidates for this. But perhaps kids playing, dogs barking, birds chirping, fans blowing, refrigerators humming, even power lines buzzing, a lawn mower running, etc, might be able to be consciously altered and converted to a more pleasant effect, if we can convince ourselves that rather than being intrusive and annoying, they’re actually OK.
It’s also likely that this deliberate, conscious conversion of stimuli might only be sustainable for a short time, especially at first. Early on, we might not be able to tolerate certain environmental sounds for very long. That’s OK; there’s always room to grow. We may find that our tolerance for certain sounds may grow with time.
Mindfulness and meditation are learned skills, for which different people have different aptitudes. Using the definitions/contexts of both as I’ve framed them in this post, what serves to facilitate the activity of one might pose a hurdle for the other. For example, on days when I find it challenging to block out the surrounding world and focus inward, meditation might not occur so easily.
Truthfully, I do find that I’m much better at meditation than I am mindfulness. However, I’m learning to exercise my mindfulness muscles and strengthen those abilities, too. As with most undertakings, it’s a process.
But both are definitely worth a try (or many more than one). We’ve always got the present; we can make an attempt sometime today. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always tomorrow. 🙂
(Image Credit: Tim Parker)