There’s a buzz around mindfulness. The search term has increased by seven times in the last ten years. Here’s a quick tour to help you get the most out of both the buzz and the substance.
Mindfulness covers a number of concepts and techniques for meditation and coping. I have respect for the mindfulness movement, not only for its solid Buddhist roots, but also for its scientifically proven benefits for mental and emotional health. Like any evolving field of study and practice, mindfulness has several definitions and branches, which can be confusing.
You’ll get the most out of anything you read or practice about mindfulness if you understand it as a way to increase the quality of your most valuable resource, your attention. You’ll be able to distinguish casual and poorly defined uses of the word “mindfulness” and also avoid the four most common mistakes people make when attempting to practice mindfulness.
If you already read my page Automatic Automation then you understand how your mind works to automate anything with a repeated pattern, so that you can keep your most precious resource, attention, free to respond effectively. This automation also applies to how we allocate our attention. Think of your attention being “pulled” by your habits.
For example, if you have a routine in which you come home from work and turn on the TV, then your attention will naturally run in that groove. If you want to change that routine, you must apply conscious will and attention to develop an alternate routine, until that new routine becomes the new groove.
Mindfulness practice, both sitting meditation and daily moment-by-moment practices, strengthen your conscious control and understanding of attention: your power of placement, plus noticing your habits of attention. Building this “muscle” of awareness of attention is one of the “meta-skills of attention” I highly recommend. (I’m planning a blog in the next few weeks to list and describe these crucial skills.)
Positive Powers of Mindfulness
- You take a peek “behind the curtain” of your mind and begin to notice the mechanisms of your mind/brain that control your attention.
- You begin to gain the power of choice over those mechanisms, and thus start to have the power to “re-groove” your attention at any moment.
- You strengthen the size and quality of your field of “free attention”, which maintains your fluid capacity to respond lovingly and intelligently to any real-time circumstance.
- You gain insight into the actual contents of your attention: your true actions, motives, nearly unconscious reasoning and assumptions — and thereby gain self-understanding.
- You begin to choose your relationship to experience: curious, open, responsive, intelligent, rather than being ruled by your “hidden script” of pre-practiced unconscious meanings and reactions.
When well applied, especially with the help of an expert, mindfulness practice harnesses several powerful principles of the value of attention and neuroplasticity: self-observation, top-down allocation of attention, “priming” positive values, and exercise of the “muscle” of focus.
Four Most Common Mindfulness Traps
- Dissociation: “mindfulness” can be taken to mean that one should cultivate a certain “spiritual mood” of serene unruffledness. There is a danger that mindfulness can become a kind of dissociative shield against life and feeling. You can recognize it when your friends and coworkers start complaining about your distant, calm demeanor.
- Slow response and lack of spontaneity: your practice of mindfulness tilts you toward being “rigged for curiosity”, which is one particular, and fairly slow, mode of attention. It could slow your responses to others, like a computer with a virus. Inside, you might be so committed to an attitude of curiosity and acceptance that you lose your edge in a situation that calls for decisive judgment and swift action. There’s also a danger that you quash any “instant reaction” you notice in yourself as a possible “reaction” rather than “response”. The net effect risks having you appear overly controlled and a bit hazy. Allow yourself to respond naturally to your life and its demands.
- Distraction: this mistake is a complement to #2. Your practice of mindfulness might just be like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach. Mindfulness is supposed to increase presence of mind, not impair it. Let yourself lighten up.
- Superior air: this one is a complement to #1. Practicing mindfulness, you might be tempted to assume a superior attitude — after all, you are applying a spiritual skill to your life which generates inner peace, while the poor mortals are mired in their stress…if mindfulness is making you snooty and distant, you’re missing the point. Real mindfulness practice, over time, will make most people around you notice you have become a better person, not worse.
The Power of Mindfulness and Conscious Attention
Most of my life, I’ve experienced dizzy spells when standing up suddenly, especially after heavy exercise. I attributed it to a slow blood pressure response (standing up requires increased blood pressure to the head). But a few years ago, one of my spiritual teachers indicated to me that my dizzy spells were a conscious choice, and furthermore that they were under my control.
This made zero sense to me at the time, because I knew for certain that my experience was simply a function of physics and blood pressure. However, I trusted this teacher, so I began intense observation.
I noticed that I kind of liked the dizzy spells. They didn’t last long, and there was a cool “head trip” feel to them, with tunnel vision, a swimmy feeling, and sometimes sparkly lights swirling around. I thought if I didn’t have this experience, I might miss it. That gave me a clue that I might be encouraging the experience on some unconscious level.
So, the next time I stood up and got dizzy, I made a different choice. Instead of going along with “this is a cool experience”, I exercised my will, and chose to put my attention on the thought, “no, not now, I’m not going to do dizzy”. The feeling was a kind of no-nonsense, cut-through-the-bull, don’t-bother-me-now feeling. To my surprise, the dizzy feeling subsided immediately.
I want to be clear, I’m not talking about taking physical action, like holding my breath to force blood to my head, or crouching down to minimize the blood pressure differential from standing up. I am speaking of only a direct and forceful use of attention, moving from a slightly unconscious sense of “oh, I’m getting dizzy, but it’s kind of cool” to a very conscious, “no, I’m not doing this now.”
I confirmed in my own experience that the dizzy spells were, indeed, a choice, and were completely under my conscious control. I still experience them, but I generally choose to cut the experience short. For me, gaining conscious control over what I thought was an involuntary physiological experience proved the power and value of mindful use of attention.
Take-away: mindfulness is good; if you are intrigued then find out more.