Awareness and Attention
What are the first words that come to mind when you are asked to define mindfulness? Chances are good that awareness and attention are up there on the list. When you go to see a doctor the first thing you are asked is: “what’s going on?” Your answer may refer to context: “my job is stressful;” body: “a pain in my leg;” or psychological: “I worry a lot.” “What’s going on?” is the core question of mindfulness, and awareness and attention is how you answer it. By turning attention to what’s going on, whether it is thoughts and ideas, emotions, bodily sensations, perceptions or anything else, you cultivate mindfulness.
You can appreciate the value of awareness and attention by considering the alternative – what it looks like in its absence. We’ve all experienced interacting with someone who isn’t there – perhaps a call center helper where the conversation goes nowhere because they are not paying attention. Or when you drive past your exit on the highway.
For most of us this happens because we are on automatic pilot, or lost in thought. Like surfing on the web, the mind’s stream of consciousness entices one to get absorbed and follow it to wherever it is going. Stream of consciousness, daydreaming, and reactivity can use up the bulk of one’s mental bandwidth, somewhat akin to spending the day in front of the TV.
Awareness interrupts the automatic pilot quality of being lost in thought. Awareness also helps loosen the grip when reactivity is strong and automatic. Suppose you or someone you know tends to complain a lot. The habit of focusing on the negative of a situation and feeling resentful about it is automatic, and may dominate a person’s day. Awareness calls upon a person to recognize when that reaction kicks in, and thereby loosen that entrenched habit of mind.
Closely connected to awareness is acceptance, or awareness which is not judgmental. Nonjudgmental awareness is a form of radical acceptance.
Everyone has patterns of reactivity which are formed over years of living. We become conditioned to patterns of thinking and feeling, including judgments, attitudes, self-criticism, views about what is acceptable, or what is not. This conditioning is literally hard-wired into our brain and it is often extremely difficult to think or feel otherwise than the way we do. Accepting this reality is part of the process of increasing awareness and mindfulness. The therapeutic relationship plays a key part in the cultivation of this acceptance, so that an individual may become increasingly free in their capacity to explore their own mind and inner world in a more spontaneous and open way.
Mindfulness and psychotherapy are both processes whose original intent was to address human mental suffering. Without compassion neither therapy nor mindfulness would be meaningful or effective. People often suffer because they find their own experience too painful to bear, and come for help to get away from it, to repel it, or reject it. In reality the key ingredient of healing is compassion, the ability to be with suffering with kindness and care. Thus both processes deliberately seek to cultivate a person’s capacity for compassion and empathy.
Awareness, acceptance, compassion and non-judgment are not abstract concepts, but highly charged, highly sophisticated activities of the human mind.
They are not really ideas to be intellectualized in the past or in the future, but processes that can only occur in the present moment. Both meditation and psychotherapy are a form of being in the present, a kind of pledge to oneself to arrive into the present, an investment of time and effort, a belief that it is important enough to do — and finally an actual experience of being. It is not meant to be pleasurable or uncomfortable – it could easily be either or anything in between – but simply whatever it is. When people do experience the present moment, their minds neither distracted, nor projecting into the future nor ruminating over the past, they often find the experience deeply healing and satisfying. Indeed brain research has demonstrated that a different part of the brain is activated when one is present and mindful, and that happiness and peace is activated. Read more about present moment awareness on this page.
Openness and Curiosity
Curiosity is a high form of intelligence, and paired with authentic presence and nonjudgmental awareness, extraordinarily powerful. Curious awareness is also a mental activity valued and encouraged in psychodynamic therapies and is closely tied to tolerance or equanimity. It implies that what is to be seen or experienced within oneself need not be feared or rejected, but may have value in ways that can’t be forseen. It is the openness to explore, unconditioned by the need to repel, close down, or manage what is being investigated.
Emotion Regulation / Reactivity / Nonreactivity
A key aspect of mindfulness practice is to turn not away from, but toward, the undesirable and feared experience, such as pain.
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has been extraordinarily successful in expanding traditional medicine’s utilization of mind-body approaches to traditional disease conditions such as chronic pain. In fact, upon close examination it has become obvious that the muscular and nervous tension generated by the expectation of discomfort can not only aggravate the original problem but compound the problem by making the condition worse and adding new disease conditions on top of it (such as hypertension and other psychoneuroimmune-mediated conditions, such as inflammation). It is the reactivity itself that can turn a medical or emotional problem into an even bigger one.
By investing energy in avoiding difficult mental states, the capacity to be loose is compromised. In contrast, the work of mindfulness on emotional regulation might be likened to an athlete whose tight muscles are restricting their talent. Stretching or expanding tolerance of new or difficult emotions should not happen forcefully or be “powered through.” Rather the desired state of suppleness and flexibility is achieved bit by bit. Mindfulness helps emotional regulation by developing the capacity to meet what arises not with rejection and tension, but with openness, and even, eventually, friendly welcome.