Mindfulness Part 2: The Nature of Attention
The natural world rejuvenates my mind and spirit, helps me be present.
A slow walk on a lovely rustic path improves my mental and spiritual health. Living in Tennessee, I have access to many outdoor havens including Cheekwood Gardens, Warner Parks, and my pretty little yard. Absorbing the benefits of God’s creation, like taking a forest bath, helps me unplug from technology and ground myself in a bigger picture. It can help me be present in the moment. A little de-stress and lots of re-connect.
Sometimes, though, I stay lost in thought even when I’m taking a break outside. My mind doesn’t know how to relax and let the here and now be here and now. Lately, I’ve realized I need to learn to be present.
But how do I take a slow mental stroll unencumbered with the habitual internal noise? No agenda to drive me, no lists to measure my productivity, can I let the mossy gray matter between my ears take a cogitation vacation?
Attention’s Deficit: What have you noticed?
Daily life requires our minds to focus, concentrate on the work at hand. Whether writing a coherent email or driving a congested road, we must attend to the the task at hand. However, the digital age has made concentration and staying present difficult. Myriad devices, tabs, and apps compete for our attention, sending notifications and silent signals to draw attention to themselves. This constant barrage depletes even the strongest of minds. Thus, the importance of paying attention and noticing what we notice.
It follows that our first step in learning mindfulness, learning to be present, is the development of concentration.
In “Mindfulness Part 1, Becoming Aware,” I pointed out how our minds have minds of their own. They wander off when we’re not looking, taking time and energy away from what we’re learning, creating, or attempting to recall. Noticing the nature of what goes on inside our heads can be a welcome step back from our headlong dash into the day. With mindfulness, I am honing my ability to notice what I notice .
It’s like leaving your front-row seat in the movie theatre to watch the show from the wall at the back. You see the drama and the audience at the same time. In other words, you become aware that there’s a show going on rather than being caught up in it.
For starters, when we focus on our breathing or sounds around us, we harness our mind’s power to concentrate, to be present. The habit of seeing our focus drift then bringing it back is the practice of awareness. It goes like this:
Concentrate for as long as you can on an object. Notice you focus has diverted from that object. Bring your focus back to the object.
In so doing, we notice the distinction between finding focus and becoming lost in thought. The practice is the placing of attention back on the object again and again. The noticing shows we’re making progress in mindfulness and the practice makes the progress.
Get a Glimpse: What is here now?
What is here now when there is no problem to solve?
Sometimes our practice of awareness is deliberate. Sometimes, though, mindfulness is effortless. We need not meditate for long stretches or retreat for weeks at a time. We can find ourselves in the present moment in any moment if we remember to get a glimpse.
Meditation teacher, Loch Kelly, calls this a micro-meditation or a glimpse: What is here now if there is no problem to solve? It is a question to settle the problem-solving mind.
When I’m outside, taking a break in nature but still mentally preoccupied with things on the inside, this question helps identify the distractions tugging me from being present:
“I should be getting to work.”
“Do I need to go to the store today?”
“I hope this headache goes away soon.”
When I let all the problem-solving drop for a moment, I suddenly see the trees, hear the birds, notice the beauty surrounding me. My mind and body are no longer disconnected from each other and from my environment. I can remember to hear the hum of bugs and bees, smell the damp, pungent earth, see the crystal stream, feel the spongy moss beneath my feet. When my mind won’t let me be present, only mindfulness can return me to direct experience. Sometimes a glimpse is all I need.
Be Present: Can you call it what it is?
After noticing the difference between mental drifting and present awareness, the next step is what some call, “noting.” It’s recognizing an arising sensation, thought, or emotion, and calling it what it is: feeling, thinking, hearing, seeing.
This “noting” works best in a deliberate time of mindfulness. With eyes closed, we’re awake to the sounds around us and the movements of the mind itself. Learning to notice, we can silently “note” what is actually happening.
Here’s a simple mindfulness practice that adds “noting” to the mix:
- Sit with eyes closed and focus on your breath, what it feels like
- When your mind drifts to thinking, smile and focus again on your breath
- When you notice your mind has drifted again, smile and return to your breathing
- Now let go of that object of attention and notice what else appears in awareness
- If you become aware of a sound, silently say: hearing, hearing. If a body sensation comes to the forefront, whisper to yourself: feeling, feeling. When you notice you’re thinking, then note: thinking, thinking
- Engage in this practice every day for a week
Mindfulness: Will you trust the process?
Mindfulness is not difficult but it does take time. And, just ten minutes a day of focused practice is a lot more than ZERO. Imagine if your mind could learn to relax more! And the accrued benefits of mindful meditation and attention—well, that’s what we’ll talk about in “Mindfulness Part 3.”
Obviously, this is a small introduction to a big topic. I encourage you to reread Mindfulness Part 1. And set aside some time to try the exercises. Also, one resource many people enjoy is called Headspace, a practical application of these ideas.
Thanks for engaging and please leave a comment about your own mindful—or mindless—experiences.