FLEX Psychology Presents:
Clients have increasingly found me through mindfulness circles over the last few years. I first began engaging with a combined secular and non-secular mindfulness community in 2012. Prior to this, I had some exposure to mindfulness through conferences and readings, but the first time I attempted any formal meditation practice was a year earlier in a Tai Chi class that I had impulsively signed my wife and I up for through a Groupon-like coupon site.
Prior to this, I had enjoyed watching a local group of retirees practice Tai Chi each morning on the way to work. I am not sure what exactly drew me to Tai Chi. Undoubtedly, how focused and at peace these practitioners appeared was part of the allure. This was certainly not something I generally experienced in my go-go-go lifestyle. Admittedly, my thoughts were not entirely about peace and serenity. I also got a kick out of the idea of looking like a slow-motion ninja.
Prior to Tai Chi, my exposure to mindfulness meditation was restricted to what I had been exposed to in the media. For years, the media had been highlighting a mindfulness wave that was framed as the solution to improved health and wellness, productivity, and learning. Based on my admittedly superficial review of the material, the media appeared to be claiming that a focused preiod of daily breathing was the answer to most of life's problems. I was fairly certain that I had been breathing for quite a few years by this point in my life, and I certainly did not have the perfectly balanced life they were promoting. So, to be frank, I was skeptical.
At that point in my career, I had seen many therapy "waves" come and go. These approaches often began as a narrow, but fruitful opportunity for growth or recovery. Over time, however, it was not unusual for these approaches to be framed as an avenue of improving all aspects of one's life. This is generally when these approaches fumble and become a therapy fad, often losing the benefits that their narrower application had initially provided. The last five minutes of my first Tai Chi class, however, would change my mind about one's potential for expansive and holistic change.
While it was only five minutes of focused breathing, I noticed something right away: My mind was BUSY. I mean really really really busy. Initially it would only take a breath or two before I disengaged from focusing on my breathing and my mind wandered to something that was not important and certainly in no relevant to the moment that I was currently in. At the minutes passed, I began to notice this loss of focus more quickly and was provided the opportunity to again focus on my breathing. Undoubtedly, this cycle happened again and again.
I was a bit embarrassed at first by how challenging it was to stay focused for only five minutes. The important part, I would come to learn, was that I was "noticing" it. Where, in the past, my mind could have taken me on a journey that took some time to come back from.
As the weeks progressed, my ability to notice when I was distracted began to extend outside of that Tai Chi class or my weekly meditation homework. I started to notice when I was being drawn away from my intended points of focus while driving, while conversing with my wife, while at work, while eating, while in the shower, and, during basically every single activity I was attempting to do.
It was quite apparent that mindfulness was not improving my ability to sustain my focus. What it was doing, however, was increasing my awareness of the present moment. That awareness was quite powerful, in that it provided me the opportunity to recognize when I was no longer focused on my intended activity.
With my clients I refer to these concepts as "attention" and "intention".
It is a common misconception that attention is reflective of one's ability to sustain their focus over an extended period of time. You can ponder the future (or the past), but you cannot be attentive to the future (or the past) because you are not there right now. Right now, try to pay attention to exactly what is going to happen five minutes from now outside of the Novo Medical Centre in Port Vila, Vanuantu. Remember, not what you imagine is happening, but what is actually happening exactly five minutes from now. Struggling? Of course, because even if you were standing there, you do not know what is going to happen in five minutes. So, let us try to stop mastering the manipulation of time and space and pay attention to the here and now in this present moment.
Attention reflects one's ability to be aware of what is happening to them in the here in now. It is that attention, that allows one to foster intention.
Intention refers to what one is attempting to engage in right now. At this very moment, for instance, I am intending to write an article. Over the last two paragraphs, I have noticed (attention!) my mind pulling towards the fact that the music I was listening to has stopped, that I have to get ready to leave for a meeting in 19 minutes, and that I am feeling quite exhausted by a lingering chest cold that I have been dealing with for a few days. That is a lot of distraction over what, without typing out these distractions themselves, would have been only 4 sentences of text.
While these are legitimate distractions that I was unable to avoid, my "attention" to them allowed med to disengage from these transient mental experiences. In other words, I did not need to act on them. Instead, I have simply let go of each of these thoughts and returned to my intended action, writing this article.
In the absence of being attuned to my moment to moment experience, I may have found myself hooked to these thoughts and spent some time adjusting the playlist on my phone, getting ready earlier than I need to, or ruminating in the suffering of my cold. Instead, I noticed these fleeting thoughts, let them pass, and continued on with my intended action.
As a result, I am now mere sentences away from completing this entry. Simply typing that has caused a fleeting thought: "Now you can get to those other things!". My intention, however, was to write and publish this post, not just write it, leave it, and forget about it until later. So, I let that thought pass and continue to write.
Bringing this back to my mindful breathing practice:
When meditating, my intention is to focus on my breathing. A mental distraction emerges, my attention notices that distraction and that I have been pulled away from my intention. I, then, have an opportunity to intentionally return to that point of focus.
This practice mirrors what I have experienced here:
I sat at my computer with the intention of writing this article. My attention noticed dozens of fleeting distractions that risked pulling me away from my intended action. That awareness, then, provided me the opportunity to disengage from these distractions and continue with my intended action.
Prior to introducing a mindfulness practice, I have no doubt that this scenario would have played out quite differently:
I sat at my computer with the intention of writing an article. My music stopped playing and I picked up my phone to build a new playlist. While there, a friend texted me a hilarious video of cats being scared of cucumbers (this is a thing, but take this opportunity to make an intention to look this up at another time) and I began a deep dive into the irrational fears of cats. I briefly think about writing an article about fear, but instead head to bed to lie down for a bit because I have a cold and am feeling a bit tired. Besides, lying in bed is a far more comfortable way to watch cat videos. My eyes briefly notice the time and I freak out, realizing I am going to be late for an appointment downtown. I run around and get ready in a sense of rushed panic. I then drive more quickly than I had intended to the city and am probably not as focused on driving as I need to be. We will leave the alternative history there, as I would rather not consider the potential consequences of that last one.
Now, though, I do notice the time again and realize I am cutting it close for being able to comfortably make it to my meeting. While the article is done and edited, I intended to finish and publish the article this morning. That intention, however, now conflicts with another intention, so I now choose to adjust my intention and return to this final step later. Due to my increased self-awareness, I am aware of the risk of forgetting that intended action, so I set a reminder to pop up on my return home. For now, it's time to move on to my next intention and to bring that same attention to the next moment in my day.
Photo used under Creative Commons license. Source here.
Photo: time to meditate Author: Betty Nudler. See the side panel for additional copyright information.
Michael Decaire is an Ontario-based psychologist and psychotherapist. He writes on topics of wellness, mental health advocacy, and professional practice.
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