It is easy skiing in the mountains to focus all your attention on the sport itself. But what I am inspired to do by the beauty around is to open my awareness to the landscape in which I am skiing.
Skiing itself requires open awareness, as well as focused attention. How you have to feel the snow and shape of the slope with the soles of your feet when you can’t see because of poor visibility.
The sound of the ski on ice alerts you, the sound of the ski crunching through fresh snow thrills you. It is not just resonating with the panoramic views on a clear day, it is noticing the small things. How silence enfolds you like a blanket as the snow starts to fall.
And when you return home, it is not to despise the different landscape, but to see with new eyes the beauty of the apparently ordinary. Perhaps if you lived in the mountains all the time you would stop seeing them, returning to living in our heads and not our bodies.
I have learnt a lot about mindfulness from skiing. One of our most human habits is experiential or emotional avoidance. We try to avoid painful thoughts, feelings and sensations. Fear keeps our attention away from facing the reality of this inner turmoil.
When you stand at the top of a mountain for the first time with your skis on, experiential avoidance only gets you into trouble! You have to face your fears, notice them, but bring your attention back to the task of heading down the slope without your normal levels of control.
Often we put in limits to what we do, these self-limits can keep us in a little box. Skiing can help us move beyond our self-limits. It makes us aware of our negative self-talk that is usually automatic and out of our awareness…’I can’t do this’…and yet we find we can and much more.
As well as helping us become aware of our inner narratives, our narrative sense of self where we focus much of our attention, often out of our conscious control – skiing invites us to dwell in our senses – what psychologists call our experiential sense of self.
The touch of sun and wind on our faces, the smell of clean air, the taste of snow-flakes in our mouth, the sound of silence or skis on snow, the dazzling wilderness of the mountains lift our eyes.
But we have other senses according to Daniel Siegel, an interpersonal neurobiologist. Our sixth sense is being able to be aware of what is going on in our bodies. We become very aware of our bodies as we ski. The ache of muscles, the rush of exhilaration, the thrill of the body to the sensation of speed. We become acutely aware in our seventh sense of what we are thinking and feeling – perhaps even moving beyond thoughts and feelings into pure awareness.
If we are with other people we can tune in to their thoughts and feelings, our eighth sense. I also believe we have a ninth sense where we can sense the presence of God. Mountains make it possible for us to attune to our spiritual sense, our realisation of our interconnectedness with the created world around us.
When we begin we often lean back up the slope hoping this will slow us down, and of course it just makes our skis go away from us. Counter-intuitively we must lean down the slope, towards the danger. We face the slope in the same way we should turn towards our symptoms of pain, stress and anxiety.
What I found when I had skied for a week was much of my stress had left. I always wondered why. What I realise now is that when we shift out of narrative self into our experiential self, much of the stress we feel dissolves. This is what mindfulness does. This is why skiing is a mindful awareness practice. In it we get to exercise our muscle of attention, as well as all our other muscles. In it we learn how to focus our torch of attention. In it we can find a place of open awareness where we are filled with ecstasy.
Why am I writing this now? I am about to go back to the mountains for a week of community with Gold Hill Skiing and about 60 other people. Skiing is not just an individual pursuit, it is a communal one.
Our capacity for attention is sometimes spoken of as a torch. But what can this torch do, and who or what controls it? Let’s assume it is on all the time whether we know it or not.
The best short summary of what attention is and does is by Professor Paul Gilbert in his book Mindful Compassion, co-authored by Choden. (Paul Gilbert & Choden, Mindful Compassion (London: Robinson, 2013)
The first point they make is that attention, like a torch, can be moved, it is not fixed. I can move it intentionally to focus on my big toe but it can ‘also be taken over unintentionally by the threat and drive systems.’ (p.191) The threat and drive systems are two of our three main internal systems. So they can shine the torch where they want. In the drive and resource-seeking system we are ‘wanting, pursuing, achieving, consuming.’(p.56) In the threat-focused system (fight and flight) we are ‘threat-focused, protection and safety-seeking.’ (p.56)
So it can be moved intentionally and it can be taken over, this torch of attention.
The second ‘m’ to remember for attention is that it can magnify, ‘Attention acts like a zoom lens making some things bigger in our minds and blocking out other thoughts and feelings.’ (p.191) I can zoom in on my big toe and my torch of attention magnifies it so that it is the focus of my attention. I also have another process of open awareness that can run alongside this focused attention but that is another story.
The third ‘m’ to remember for attention is its ability to focus on our memories. What that means is that ‘Attention can have very powerful physiological effects: bringing to mind happy memories can arouse pleasant feelings and sensations, whilst dwelling on unhappy things can arouse unpleasant feelings and sensations.’(p.191) This can be done intentionally or automatically, unintentionally, out of our awareness.
Our attention can be ‘captured by our emotions without us even realising it.’(p.191)
Mindfulness practices help us to train our minds so that we can intentionally work with the torch of attention. We can notice when our attention has unintentionally switched to negative ruminative patterns. We notice those patterns and let them go. We do not avoid them or fuse with them.
Attention – it is a very important torch!