In my previous post, “What is Mindfulness? (Part I)”, I offered an exercise in paying attention to the symbol + , in order to introduce the idea of Mindfulness. In this article I would like to consider this Mindfulness process further to hopefully provide further clarification as to what it is, and what it is not.
All animals. even newborn infants, can “pay attention”. In addition to constant scanning of their environment, sudden noises or certain movements will reactively generate curiosity or alert responses such that the animal’s or infant’s attention is immediately drawn to such events. Typically the animal or infant only “notices” such events for a very brief period of time before their attention re-directs somewhere else. This type of response is automatic and essentially “hard wired” into the organism.
A more complex process than briefly noticing occurs when attention is sustained for an extended period of time, perhaps for many minutes rather than seconds, and typically happens in us humans only as our brains mature and develop.
The capacity to engage in intentional focussing or concentration is an even more complex attentional task. I am not talking here about the more limited type of attentional demand required to watch television or read a book. Rather I am referring specifically to the type of sustained attentional activity required, for example, in maintaining awareness on the symbol +.
Such a task is more complex because in order to accomplish it successfully, one has to be able to do two very unique things. First, in order to actually maintain focus on the symbol, one has to also be able to “notice” other experiences described as “intrusions”, so as to exclude them. These “intrusions” refer not only to external events such as sounds for example, but also to those types of experiences we would describe as internally generated states such as one’s heartbeat, or perhaps physical discomforts.
But internal experiences would also includes those events we would normally describe as being created by one’s own mind, such as thoughts, memories, and even emotional states. In other words, in order to focus on the symbol as an “object” of awareness, one also has to have a well developed capacity to be aware of one’s subjective experiences.
The second attentional complexity involved in this task is that one has to not only notice these various types of “intrusions”, but then, in order to refocus back onto the symbol, one has to override the almost unconscious tendency to get distracted by these intrusions.
For those who can easily notice these various “distractions”, and then not get carried away by them, these complexities may seem rather simple. But many people struggle with such a task, for a variety of reasons, making it almost impossible for them to complete the focussing exercise properly.
But, you may ask quite sensibly, since this all sounds like fairly standard requirements for the practice of meditation, what does it have to do with Mindfulness? And why is any of this important anyway?
My answer to the first question first requires an unfairly brief description of meditation. Clearly there are many different kinds of meditation practices: some are designed to help us relax while others are meant to produce altered states of consciousness. But one feature common to many meditation techniques is that just as with the symbol exercise, you are explicitly requested to maintain awareness on a particular “object” of attention (often your breathing), notice the arrival of the “intrusions”, and then “let them go” and return to your breathing.
But this direction to notice and then exclude or “let go” of those experiences identified as “distractions”, or “hindrances” completely bypasses the one critical step, which in my opinion, one absolutely must take in order to properly utilize the practice of Mindfulness. And I would describe that step by saying that one of the core and defining features of Mindfulness is that it serves as a vehicle by which we come to learn about and more deeply understand the nature of our subjective experiences, typically the very experiences being excluded in meditation.
Mindfulness, as I describe it, offers a way of learning about “mind”; a vehicle by which we use all of our experiences to learn about the nature of our self, and about our relationships with others and the world in which we live.
By my definition, if you learned nothing about yourself in the process of focussing on the symbol, (or in your practice of meditation) it means you were unable to profit from the process of being Mindful. This distinction may seem confusing or perhaps trivial. But in my experience it is precisely this failure to see or understand this difference that explains why it is that most people cannot see this doorway in order to to go through it.
So in the symbol exercise, or in a meditation practice where you were able to notice the “intrusions”, and were able to return your focus to the symbol, then good for you. But you weren’t being Mindful, at least not yet.
As for the second question, “why is this important”, it is because Mindfulness, as I practice and teach it, offers a particular way of “knowing” that is completely different from our traditional way of knowing and learning things. It is because it is so different, that it is also so hard to grasp without practice. I will discuss this particular way of Knowing in an upcoming article called, “Mindfulness, A Way Of Knowing”.