How Mindfulness Keeps the Surprise Alive


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The element of surprise

A friend of mine who lives about 20 miles away recently told me about a great vegan restaurant near me where we could meet for lunch. I hadn’t heard of it, so I asked her for the location, and, as she described the landmarks, it dawned on me that it was just a hop, skip, and a jump from my house. How could I have never noticed it? I thought. But then, excitement flooded my body as the surprise “new” restaurant came into full view.

It wasn’t the mother of all surprises, but it was still one of those small moments in life that remind you that no matter how well we might think we know someone—or somewhere—there’s always more to learn.

The element of surprise: isn’t that what we’re all chasing in life? The new relationship, the out-of-the-blue job opportunity, the “small world” moments, even the unexpected refund in the mail—these are the things that make life so delightful. The anticipation of surprise is what we love most about meeting new people, traveling, or trying out a new recipe. It’s possible we love horror movies or thrillers because we can be sure that, if not in our own lives, we’ll be surprised by living vicariously in someone else’s. Surprise is also good for us. Surprise triggers the release of dopamine, a feel-good chemical in our brain. Also, surprise improves our mental health and helps us focus our attention.

They say familiarity breeds contempt. Sometimes, it just breeds boredom. Once boredom sets in, the relationship probably doesn’t have much longer to live.

Especially in long-term relationships, it’s hard to keep the surprise alive. Author of the book “Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected”, Tania Luna says:

“While a sense of safety and comfort is important to release oxytocin (the cuddle chemical) and build trust, too much predictability is a romance killer. Surprise, mystery, and anticipation boost our dopamine levels, which triggers attraction and excitement.”

It’s one thing to get to know someone so well that you know just what they might say, or what they might be reading next, or how they’re spending some free time — most of us fall into certain patterns of our likes and dislikes. But, over time, like falling out of love (and, sometimes, exactly like falling out of love), the shiny veneer of “newness” wears off, and we lose interest in this person. Repetition and routine can be the nail in the coffin of a relationship when there’s never any deviation from routine— when they’ll never try a new restaurant, read a different genre, attempt a new language, or strike up a conversation with someone completely different from them. They say familiarity breeds contempt. Sometimes, it just breeds boredom. Once boredom sets in, the relationship probably doesn’t have much longer to live.

A lack of consciousness

Studies show that we humans are not nearly as conscious as we like to think we are. Habits and routines create grooves in our thought patterns that have us going in traffic circles of our own making.

According to this study, surprise is “an emotion arising from a mismatch between and expectation and what is actually observed or experienced.” To experience more surprise, then, we need to break up repetition and routine, and go into places where the unexpected might happen. To do this, we need to wake up and live a more conscious life, one in which the opportunity for surprise is always around the corner.

Sounds easy, right? But—are we living conscious, awake lives?

Human beings like to separate themselves from other sentient beings such as animals, trees, or plants by pointing to our ability to be flexible in our thinking and discerning in our decision-making. We like to believe that we are giving clever, thoughtful responses to the stimuli of our lives, and that “every day is a new day.”

Outside of those tiny pulses of time, we’re living our lives by routine had habit, driven by patterns ingrained so deeply within us they may as well be called ‘programs’.

But according to a study by Matthew Killingsworth and David T. Gilbert, we are living an auto-pilot nearly half of the time. Or consider this quote from the book, “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity” by David Graeber and David Wengrow:

“…neuroscientists…tell us we spend the overwhelming majority of our time effectively on auto-pilot, working out habitual forms of behaviour without any sort of conscious reflection. When we are capable of self-awareness, it’s usually for very brief periods of time: the “window of consciousness,” during which we can hold a thought or work out a problem, tends to be open an average for roughly seven seconds.”

Seven seconds is the window of consciousness for most of us! That’s it! Outside of those tiny pulses of time, we’re living our lives by routine had habit, driven by patterns ingrained so deeply within us they may as well be called ‘programs’. Maybe we’re not as different from animals and plants as we like to think we are.

There are all kinds of negative implications of living a largely unconscious and unsurprising life; for example, less happiness in our lives, and less ability to change our minds due to confirmation bias. If we’re leading a largely unconscious life, there can’t be many surprises in it, can there? And if we’re not surprising ourselves, do we really think we’re surprising others? Or, are we as predictable as a tree stump?

“No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

This famous quote by Robert Frost is shared amongst writing circles, but perhaps it should be more widely shared as a motto for living for all of us. Meaning that if we wish to be inspiring and create that element of surprise for others, first, we have to surprise ourselves.

Look back at the last three or six months of your life and ask, “In what ways did I surprise myself?” “In what situation(s) did I try a different approach than I normally would?” If nothing comes to mind, you can be sure you’ve not surprised anyone else, either.

At first glance, it might seem counterintuitive that sitting down for a quiet moment to watch our minds is the key to ushering surprise back into your life. But it can and it does.

Here’s how:

Above all, mindfulness is a practice of self-reflection. As we focus our single-pointed attention on a moment, or even just the breath flowing in and out of our lungs, we can’t help but notice details about ourselves, our thoughts, and our bodily reactions. These are things we might have been unaware of before but become quite evident under the light of attention. As my first yoga teacher used to say after a few minutes of guided deep breathing, “Now you know more about your breath than you did when you walked into the room.”

“Until you take the journey of self-reflection, it is almost impossible to grow or learn in life.”

~ Iyanla Vanzant.

If, as the practice of mindfulness asks, we don’t run away from what we notice and learn, the possibility of change arises. We know that we can’t change what we don’t recognize. Mindfulness ensures recognition.

As you practice self-reflection, you’ll become less reflexive and more become more reflective. Through reflection, you can take inventory of the thoughts in your mind, clear out the clutter, and dig yourself out of the trenches of your own beliefs.

Paramahansa Yogananda, author of “Autobiography of a Yogi”, said, “In the spiritual life, one becomes just like a little child, without resentment, without attachment, full of life and joy.” One of these childlike qualities is the ability to surprise and be surprised. Continued spiritual growth is dependent on not allowing ourselves to stagnate. Mindfulness naturally leads us to ask why about everything from our social paradigms to our political systems to our own personal quirks. When we’re in a mindset of curiosity, we are also more receptive to surprise.

“Curiosity is mindfulness in action. Allow the playful attentiveness of curiosity to bring meaning into your life. Let it sway you in the direction of your dreams, toward beautiful books, new friends, wild adventures, nourishing self-care, and ways to discover more about yourself and the world.”

~Kris Franken

So many unsurprising moments in our lives—perhaps falling for the same kind of person, the same promises, or repeating the same mistakes—are characterized by an inability to call up previous life lessons or grasp the later consequences of our actions. Mindfulness is the antidote to knee-jerk actions, as it is a practice that stretches out time and space so you can better see a situation from all different angles. In this space, you can recall past events that can help inform the current moment. As well, you can project our potential actions into the future and forecast what might happen. Then, Rather than defaulting to knee-jerk, unconscious human reactions, we have the ability to choose, consciously, what our next words and actions will or won’t be.

If we’re going to be repetitive in any area of our lives, let it be with mindfulness practice. The more mindful we are, the more we break up ingrained habits and routines, making us more conscious, aware, and surprising.

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