Mindfulness and the Power of Detection

Pat’s article Mindfulness and the Power of Detection appeared in the January 2014 issue of First Draft, the publication of the Sisters in Crime Guppies chapter. You can also download the article as a PDF.

Irene Adler: Why are you always so suspicious?

Sherlock Holmes: Should I answer chronologically or alphabetically?

Ortega y Gasset: “Tell me to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are.”

Deep in the great minds of homicide detectives and mystery writers are characteristics that enhance the creative powers of detection. I believe one of the most important characteristics, that helps answer the who, why, where, and how questions, is mindfulness.

There is a big difference between seeing and observing. Holmes often points out his “powers of observation” and what others merely “see.” He asked Watson how many steps in his house, and Watson, who had traveled them countless times, didn’t know. Watson had seen them, but made no observations about them.

In Psychology (Philosophy and Spirtualism), this kind of observation is called mindfulness. What is Mindfulness? Mindfulness is, according to Jon Kabit-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program in Massachusetts:
“Maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.” No daydreaming or fantasies allowed. No obsessing over what should have been done, or what to do.

My friend once called me, annoyed. She had told herself to go to the liquor store to get wine for our dinner. She even wrote herself a note during work. But what did she do? Drove right by the store, to her home, into her garage, and then cursed herself out loud for driving right passed the store—then asked me to pick up a bottle up on my way to her house. (Yes, I remembered!) So this is not an example of mindfulness, but it is an example of what most of us do everyday, probably more than we would like to admit. We give in to the routine we have established, without even a thought.

However, while waiting in my car for a light, I observed a man going into a store, and as he spoke to the retail person, his hands flew into the air, the retailer stepped back, another female retailer came over to the man who continued to point to something on what I thought must be the counter. I said to myself, “God, he must be really pissed off.” I had to move on, with the traffic, from that observation. Once I stepped back and reflected on the situation, still in observation mode (and another characteristic of a good detectives), I asked myself (and I bet you know what I’m going to say): “Hey, can I create a mystery short story around this?”

Part of the road blocks to minfulness in this “day and age” is the use of computers, iPhones, and digital media. It decreases mindfulness, and also decreases the use of attention on the whole. How often do you notice anything about you and the environment as you multi-task? It steals much of our creative powers. We don’t notice our own thoughts and thought patterns anymore. But don’t get me started on how our minds are deteriorating. Thank goodness for that extra sensitivity we have to mindfulness and the the true powers of observation.