Exploring the Beam of Awareness
Mindfulness is all about paying attention. This attention can take different forms. From as small as an itchy nose to being aware of our breathing and ‘the feet on the floor’ (see Week 5). We notice sounds and smells around us. We feel the breeze against our skin, and we see whatever comes into our vision. Busy lifestyles and buzzing mobile phones have caused us to lose this habit of focusing. Distraction has now become our default way of being. Through meditation we let go of distractions and focus on our attention. This week allows us to experiment with our attention. Attention is described as a beam of light you direct wherever you like. You can widen or tighten the beam depending on what and how much you want to focus on.
Some questions this exercise allows you to ask yourself :
How wide can you spread your attention and still be aware of the sensations of breathing? How focused can you be? What do you notice in either mode?
Operating on ‘Default’
We’ve all experienced a state of ‘auto-pilot’ or ‘default mode’. It demands little energy and allows us to zone out from stressful situations like the crowded lunch room or boring conversations.
Auto-pilot can be very helpful in completing everyday tasks such as driving to work or getting to work on time when you have missed your alarm. However, functioning on auto-pilot also has its downfalls.
Happiness comes from feeling good about life. Life is filled with experiences. If we are not present or aware during these experiences we miss out on the positive effect they have on us. By zoning out of negative experiences we can also zone out of the positive. These experiences might include the smell of the freshly cut grass, the sound of the birds singing in the trees and so on. Naturally the mind has a bias towards negative experiences. This is a result of evolution and general survival. By zoning out of positive experiences we create a very bleak picture of life. It leads us to zone out of every experience, including feelings, emotions, thoughts, sensations. This can result in feeling empty and dead inside. Not a nice feeling!
Have you ever sat there in a meeting or lecture completely zoned out and when you zone back in you’ve missed a complete topic and have no clue what the person presenting is talking about. Or a friend asks you what you were thinking of and you say ‘Oh nothing’ because you genuinely thought of absolutely nothing and were only there in body. I was always described as a ‘day dreamer’ in school and one who lost attention quickly. Since then I have held my title. My friends would say I have the attention span of a fish and often refer to me as ‘Dory’ from ‘Finding Nemo’. I find it very hard to hold concentration for long periods especially if I have no interest in the story or topic the person is speaking about. My sister would describe this as ‘selfish’ and I would describe her as simply ‘boring’.
Humans operate automatically, therefore when we are on auto-pilot, our emotions are more likely to be hijacked when our buttons are pressed, and we will be in react, rather than response, mode. When we react impulsively we often regret it and wish we had behaved differently. This can then lead to overthinking, regret and rumination. The suffering is never ending!
The opposite of zoning out is called tuning in. We deliberately pay attention to our experience in a non-judgmental way. This is mindfulness.
You often hear people say they prefer to zone out when they experience unpleasant things as it makes it easier. For example a child might zone out when they hear their parents arguing. This could also lead to the question of ‘Why would we want to pay attention to negative things?’. The choice is up to you. I often like being aware of a negative experience as I can learn a lot about myself, my reactions, my thoughts, emotions and feelings whilst it happens. It teaches me how I can avoid this in the future or how I can try change my reactions to it. The present moment is the only moment we have any control or influence over. We cannot control the past or future. If you go through each day, month and year without being present or fully aware, are you really living? Or are you simply existing?
Which would you prefer?