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Mind Your Mind: Your Guide to Mindfulness

In this article we discuss what mindfulness practice is and how it can help you mind your mind.

Though mindfulness and meditation are all the rage, multiplying and proliferating through apps, books, groups and social media, they still carry a mystical, ethereal meaning for many people.

This mystery is only fueled by blown-up claims about their efficacy, along with our modern worldview, which tends to dismiss Eastern practices as hogwash and witchcraft.

When mindfulness is watered down and reduced to a cultural trend or ammo for marketing cannons, we’re apt to avoid seriously engaging with it. Unable to separate the real and powerful from the exaggerated and diluted, we’re tempted away from immersing ourselves fully in it and contacting its transformative power. Its precious essence is obscured.

And not only that, we forget that it’s ultimately a practice. It’s not a special state. It’s not about feeling a certain way. Rather, it’s a commitment to optimally processing whatever we experience, and this eventually spills over into daily life. one that

So what is mindfulness practice, and how do we know we’re doing it right?

Mind Your Mind with Full Attention

What is mindfulness practice?

When we strip mindfulness back to its underlying principles, we see that it’s really about attention. It’s a special kind of attention: a deliberate attempt to pour our focus on to what we’re experiencing at this very moment and fully savour it. So every moment, every experience we have, is a vehicle for our mindfulness practice.

Notice that we say mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is a form of training – it’s hard. That’s because our tendency is to experience life with 10% attention, like constantly driving around with less than a quarter of a tank. We can’t expect to be happy, have poise and control, fully appreciate our experiences, or know ourselves to any great depth when operating at 10% capacity.

Mind Your Mind

This is why you ought to mind your mind. If you pay attention to yourself throughout the day, you’ll realise that most of the time you’re caught up in thinking: remembering, planning, ruminating, fantasising, and so on. You’re not in control, and you don’t realise it. You forget to mind your mind, and this is why you’re operating at 10%.

The word mindfulness is rendered in other languages as “full attention”.  Maintaining focus isn’t the full story, but it’s a crucial ingredient in mindful awareness. Mindfulness meditation trains specific attention skills. We’re about to learn the three key attention skills we cultivate in mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.

John Kabat-Zinn

The Foundation

Know that whether you’re meditating or not in any given moment has to do with your effort, the quality of your attention, and how you direct your attention. It’s less to do with specific states and content – like calm, peace, relaxation – regardless of how much these states are advertised and marketed. This is especially true for mindfulness meditation.

In mindfulness, we work with our present-moment experience, which includes our physical senses and our internal world of thought and emotion. We’re feeling, sensing, living it. We’re not trying to generate states like peace and relaxation. Those states may or may not come as a side-effect.

In fact, our progress with mindfulness is made plain in those daily moments when we feel the exact opposite of peace and relaxation – namely, anger, anxiety, sadness, frustration, and other negative emotions. Can we maintain our contact with the present in these moments? Can we bring clarity into the chaos? Will we mind our mind?

As Rumi wrote:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Mind Your Mind: The Journey

I like to say that mindfulness is simple but not easy. That is, the basic instructions are accessible even for young children, but their simplicity is remarkably deceptive. Mindfulness is hard work.

You see, when you first sit down to meditate, you’ll become aware of a daunting reality: how little attention you pay to your moment-to-moment experience, and how difficult it is to do so.

There is a universal obstacle to maintaining this attention: our thoughts. It’s now a fact of neuroscience that when our attention isn’t occupied, the Default Mode Network activates. We experience the DMN as a cascade of random thoughts that drag us into the past, have us worry and speculate about the future, and contains much of our sense of identity. As I said, if you mind your mind, you’ll realise this is what it does.

Photo by Hal Gatewood on Unsplash

What’s more, we’ve been getting lost in the mind for decades. So much so that we have no idea we’re immersed in an imaginary world that distorts our perception and drives our actions. Sure, every living human being has forever been alive and breathing. But few of us really live moment, to moment, to moment, to moment. Mind your mind, and you’ll live more in the present.

In the first months and years of meditation, you might try to wrestle with the mind and overcome it by force. But at some point, you’ll realise that the mind is too strong. Besides, conquering it by force isn’t the way.

Really, the way to overcome the mind’s power involves a mixture of diverting attention from it, enveloping it with attention, and paying exquisite attention to your moment-to-moment experience of it.

With time, you slowly upgrade your attention capacities. You become ever more present to what’s happening in and around you. And eventually, mindfulness spills over into your everyday life. What was once a separate part of your day is now your default mode for the day.

Eventually, a delicious figure-ground reversal takes place. In the beginning, meditation is something that happens within your day. Eventually, the day becomes something that happens within your meditation.

Shinzen Young

Mind Your Mind: Quick Attention Exercise

How strong is your concentration skill?

Here’s a simple exercise which will help you get a tiny taste of the concentration aspect of mindfulness. Pick an object in the room and look at it. Try to keep your sight fixed on it for two minutes. You can blink – no need to keep your eyes open. As you attempt to keep your focus on it, track your attention and your level of awakeness.

How did that go? Did you notice what happened? If you’re like most people, your attention wandered. Even if you maintained your focus, you’ll have felt the force of distraction pulling on you.

The lesson? During meditation, you’ll get lost in thought. I’ve read a lot of manuals written by meditation greats, and every single one talks about the wandering mind. It’s par for the course. In fact, you’ll likely get lost in thought tens of thousands of times on your meditation journey. Sometimes you’ll be so overcome by thinking that two minutes will vanish.

This is just a natural part of the practice. Your job is just to gently return your attention to the exercise. You’re not to resist your wandering mind. You can even do the exercise knowing your mind is active and be able to maintain focus.

With time, your attention skills get stronger. This naturally leads to insights about yourself, about your life, and ultimately, about the nature of reality. This is the esoteric secret in all religions.

Mind Your Mind: The Three Core Skills

In answering the question “what is mindfulness practice?”, it’s useful to identify the fundamental skills involved. There are three of them. Big thanks to Shinzen Young for identifying them! They are:

  1. Concentration: the ability to maintain moment-to-moment focus on what we deem important;
  2. Sensory Clarity: the ability to detect the qualities of what we’re experiencing;
  3. Equanimity: the ability to let our moment-to-moment experience come and go without push and pull.

Notice I repeatedly say “moment to moment”. This is deliberate: we’re working from present moment to present moment to present moment. So when I say “focus”, I don’t mean the ability to diligently work on a project for months on end, to focus our creative energies on it. It’s more like the focus that sportspeople experience when they’re performing at their peak. You’re deeply in the moment, attending to what’s coming and going within and without.

So whether you’re meditating or not in any given moment depends on your effort, the quality of your attention, and how you direct your attention. It’s less to do with specific states and content.

It seems so stupidly simple. And it is! But practiced diligently over years and decades, it’s incredibly powerful. Contemplative spiritual traditions east and west have known the power of this for centuries and millennia, and now gold-standard scientific research is confirming it.

Taken to its ultimate conclusion, mindfulness leads to deep transformation that most of us can barely fathom.

Start your meditation journey with my collection of free guided meditations, or sign up for my online training below

Before we wrap up, let’s look at the bigger picture of meditation.

What About Meditation?

You might be wondering: what is mindfulness practice, and how does it relate to meditation?

Up to now, I’ve been using the words “mindfulness” and “meditation” interchangeably. But really, mindfulness is a type of meditation. Meditation is like saying “sports” or “exercise” – there are many forms, and they all criss-cross and interrelate.

Meditation dates back to early human civilisation. It’s present in some form in all major religions, especially in their esoteric, contemplative form, the kind that monks and dedicated laypeople engage in. 

It’s been a “technology for consciousness transformation”, as Wilber calls it, for thousands of years, across the globe, in radically different societies and cultures. Think of it as a universal system for transformation.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Each kind of meditation takes you toward different outcomes. It’s interesting to explore several kinds and see how they interrelate. To name just a few: mindfulness, lovingkindness, Vipassana meditation and Transcendental Meditation (popularised by the Maharishi and The Beatles). Add to that the endless forms of Hindu, Jewish, Christian and Buddhist meditation.

Mindfulness also dates back millennia and derives from Buddhist practices.

The Stages of Practice

The most well-known aspects of a field or discipline are typically the most basic ones, simply because these are the aspects to which the most people have been exposed. So if we think of maths, we think of times tables, multiplying, dividing, subtracting, and adding. Of course, maths goes way, way beyond that.

The same goes for meditation. The meditation most people know is quite watered-down and simplified. The practices tends to be more like relaxation exercises than procedures for deep transformation. If you only use such resources and follow the common view of what meditation is, you simply won’t connect with its power.

So let’s take a glimpse of the bigger picture. Richard Davidson and Daniel Goleman identified five stages that underlie the Concentration aspect. Bear in mind that all meditation uses an object of focus, be it the breath, sounds, thoughts, a mantra, or awareness itself.

Stages of Concentration

  1. struggle to maintain full focus; mind is wild.
  2. concentration strengthens and thoughts subside, flowing like a river; 
  3. the mind becomes still like a lake; attention remains on object; feelings of delight and calm. 
  4. total absorption: all distracting thoughts cease; mind fills with rapture and bliss; unbroken concentration.
  5. neither perception nor non-perception.

Think of these as trends in your meditation practice. If you mostly experience mind-wandering during meditation, you might have moments of Stage 3, but they’ll be fleeting. With time, your concentration muscle strengthens to the point where you hold unshakeable focus.

Start your meditation journey with my collection of free guided meditations, or sign up for my online training below.

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