Mindful Attention and Mindful Intention

In our study group on mindfulness and psychotherapy last Friday, we had an interesting discussion about the qualities of mindful attention. We were exploring the difference between concentration practices and mindfulness, and I'd like to continue that investigation here. Please feel free to add your own comments at the end of this post.

Concentration on a single subject is a practice that typically results in calming, or the stabilization of attention. This is a necessary condition of mindfulness, because without stability, our minds will engage in their default activity of generating and exploring myriad associations, and it will be very easy to be distracted or preoccupied. When we temporarily narrow the scope of attention to our breathing and our posture, we also cease following distracting thoughts and experiences. The mind stabilizes, just as a glass of cloudy water will clear if we just set it down and refrain from agitating it. When we are stable, we become less reactive, and we experience that state as emotional calmness and mental clarity.

We might draw distinctions between stabilizing practices, which usually involve narrowing attention, and mindfulness practices, which might encompass a much broader field. But I think it is misleading to carry this too far. It's more accurate to say that in mindfulness, attention acquires a degree of flexibility, as well as stability. Mindfulness is better defined by the intention to be welcoming toward any experience than by the broadness or narrowness of the attentional scope at any given moment.

Our mindfulness may lead us to inspect a certain phenomenon quite intensely (we might mindfully study a flower, for example) without ignoring other phenomena arising in the present moment. Thus, our encounter with the flower might also evoke an awareness of the sun, rain, and soil that have nourished this flower, its place in the web of life, and even the stretch we feel in our back muscles as we bend over to smell it. We cultivate an openness to all these thoughts and experiences, even though they go beyond what we normally think of as "flower." In many mindful activities, attention might be given to both the universal and the particular, enriching our experience of ourselves in the world. Because we have the intention to welcome our experience, our awareness is multifaceted and our insight is deepened; because we have stability, we are not instantly carried away into distracting and irrelevant thoughts.

What happens if, in the middle of our flower mindfulness, we think of an "irrelevant" thing? What if we notice we are hungry? Without stability, we might reflexively and automatically start walking to the kitchen, thinking of what we will make for lunch, and of the tasks that we will have to accomplish when we finish our meal. We might imagine the person we expect to see at one o'clock, generate images of what he might say to us, and start thinking of what we will say in return. In that process, we might well fail to notice the warmth of the sun on our skin, or the coolness of the breeze. I think we could all agree that, somewhere along the line, our mindfulness was lost.

Alternatively, with stability, when we notice our hunger we might consciously decide to go to the kitchen for lunch, notice the slight feeling of regret we have in putting aside our flower meditation, recognize the food we will eat for lunch depended on the very same earth, rain, sun, and air we noticed as we reflected on the flower, feel our feet contacting the earth as we walk, an notice our own connectedness with the web of being. We might be grateful that we have a nice garden to walk in, and we might notice a desire to take care of it, and to share the experience with others.

Clearly, in this example, mindfulness has continued, evolving with our changing experience. I think it's useful to characterize the mindfulness process as one of both stability and flexibility. Both of these qualities depend on the intention to be mindful. Later in the study group, we will turn to the question of how we nourish that intention, in ourselves and our clients.

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Anonymous said...

Great post! I've found that hypnosis is that focused concentration where 'nothing matters' except the one things I'm attending to...while in mindfulness there is a necessary stilling and short-term focus on one thing, then a gradual expansion to any and all things that come to pass - but none of these things become dominant. It's definitely flexible and open rather than focused for me. And at the same time it's intensely calming yet energising. When it goes 'well' that is, when I'm too jumpy, or too in need of focus, it doesn't work so well and I end up feeling calmer, yes, but not that wonderful sense of expansion...

Anonymous said...

I think this is a really nice blog. I attended the mindful eating course some time ago and found it very helpful. Mindfulness in everyday like is very important, and I only wish I had found it sooner.

Roger Thomson, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, Michelle! I'm looking forward to following your blog when it is up and running. We all need more support for our daily (actually, moment-by-moment) mindfulness practices. Thanks for adding your encouragement.