Action Follows Attention, Part 4: Mindfulness of Experience
So far, I’ve asked you to notice how you pay attention to things that are externally observable: your body, your relationships, your organizational systems, structures and process. This time, I invite you to notice how you pay attention to your own internal experience. This may sound like I am asking you to do the obvious. But, even though you are always physically in the present:
How often are you in mentally in the past? How does this affect you and the way you engage with others?
How often are you mentally in the future? How does this affect you and the way you engage with others?
How often is what you experience filtered through judgements which you may or may not be aware of? How does this affect you and the way you engage with others?
How often do you find yourself in the present moment of your experience? How does that affect you and the way you engage with others?
Experiment right here, right now: What difference does it make? And why does it matter?
I invite you to try an experiment right now: As you read these words on the screen, what are you experiencing right now?
What thoughts do you find yourself having? (For example: About the past? About what you really should be doing right now? About what you need to do next? Opinions about what you are doing? Other judgement?)
What emotions do you notice yourself experiencing? How do you know this? What is it in your thoughts and/or body that lets you know that emotion is present?
What sensations are present in your body? Where?
How easy or difficult is this for you to pay attention in this way?
How does paying attention in this way affect you?
What difference does paying attention to your experience this way make? And, why should it matter to someone like you?
Well, when you are not mindful of what’s actually happening in your own experience, (what this way of paying attention is commonly called), your ability to face your circumstances, make quality decisions, and take effective action can be inhibited. When you are not mindful of your experience, you are more likely to default to habitual modes of thinking, relating and acting. That’s often fine. But creativity, innovation and freshness are more likely when you are thinking and acting freshly in response to your circumstances rather unawarely through habitual patterns, beliefs, judgements or assumptions. And, being mindful of your experience in the moment will allow you see when you are really being present with others, and when you are being with them through your assumptions or opinions – Just recognizing this, observing this vs. judging yourself one way or another for it! This affects the quality of your relationships, and therefore, your ability to work effectively with others. (Think of the numerous times we form an opinion of someone, and then interact with them through this opinion vs. really being with them. It’s so frustrating when we are on the receiving end of this, isn’t it?)
What I’m talking about here is nothing new, really. In fact, mindfulness is a centuries old tradition.
Let’s examine this through something very ordinary, something we do each day. Think about eating, for example. In the course of everyday life, how much do you pay attention to your actual experience of eating – both what you are eating and the actual internal experience of eating. Often, at least in the U.S., we are likely to be multi-tasking, eating at our desk, eating in the car (think of the huge "drive-thru" industry!), all this in addition to the actual activity of eating and actually paying attention to our experience of what we are eating! Or, what about taking a shower. How often to we pay attention to the experience of the feel of the water on our skin, the texture of the soap? Or, in the domain of relationship, what if we encountered someone we know well and didn’t anticipate the way they were going to be?
What I am pointing toward here is the ability to both observe what you are experiencing in a particular moment (your thoughts, images, emotions, body sensations) and being able to just witness it, without judgement. Generally, this tends to create some breathing space.
Being aware of your experience in the present moment may seem small and obvious, but, in its simplicity, can be liberating. It allows something new to emerge, something other than extension of what came before. I find that for myself and for my clients, the more we are able to bring awareness to what we are experiencing in the moment, the more able we are to respond appropriately and creatively to their circumstances in the moment. We are we less constrained by our habitual patterns of thought, emotion and action. We see these patterns,learn to observe them without judgement, and are less caught in them. This kind of mindfulness begins to generate moments of choice, where we can be more purposeful in our actions.
Counter to what some would have us believe, you don’t have control over the thoughts, emotions and sensations that pass through your awareness. But, you can learn to relate to them in a new way – a mindful way. As the opening quote to this post says, "You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf." Like surfing, mindfulness is something that can be cultivated through practice. And the more you practice, the more adept you can become at riding more the more challenging waves!
What you can do: Learning to surf
If you’ve never consciously worked with being mindful of your experience, or are familiar with it and would like to improve or hone your ability, I invite you to take on the following experiment:
To start, pick one aspect of your everyday experience – preferably something mundane and simple. For example, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, washing the dishes, making or eating breakfast, getting dressed, walking to your car, public transportation, your office. Have this activity be the focus of your mindfulness experiment.
For whatever simple activity you pick, pay attention not just to the action (say, the fact that you are in the show) pay attention to your moment to moment experience of what you are doing. What is happening in your experience each moment? What thoughts are you noticing? Any images that occur to you? Memories that arise? What emotions? What body sensations? How are these changing moment to moment? How are you being affected you in the moment?
Do this for 2-3 minutes.
So, for example, if you selected being mindful while taking a shower: What is your state of mind as you enter the shower? Feel the water on your skin. Stay with that for a few moments. What sensations do you experience? What thoughts? What emotions? Images? Memories? What is your pace: Do you notice your moving quickly to get done with your shower? Do you notice yourself lingering? To what extent do you find yourself staying present to the experience of being in the shower? To what extent do you find yourself thinking ahead or feeling pulled ahead to what you will be doing during the day? Reviewing or evaluating the previous day? Do you find yourself feeling silly paying attention to the details of your experience in the shower? Just notice this, without judging it, as best you can. All that’s valid. All part of “your experience”! The point is to stay present to that whatever it is, not to control what is moving through your experience at any particular moment.
You can lengthen the amount of time for this experiment, if you’d like. But, I suggest you start with both a simple activity and a time duration that are do-able for you.
3. When you are complete with the period of experimenting with being mindful of your
experience, reflect for a moment:
- What was that experiment like for you?
- How easy or difficult was that for you?
- What parts of your experience did you find you moved toward? What parts did you find that you moved away from?
- How did bringing awareness to your experience affect you?
- What did you learn? What are the implications of what you learned for you more generally?
- What action might you take based on what you learned?
- What do you experience right now as you consider all this? What thoughts do you find yourself having? What does it feel like inside? What is your mood? What does it feel like in your body?
4. If you want to cultivate greater capacity for mindful awareness, this exercise is
something you can engage in as a practice. Something you do repeatedly over time.
Do it every day for a couple of weeks. See what happens.
5. There are many practices you can engage in to cultivate this quality of mindfulness.
For example: the tradition of sitting meditation practice, if you are a runner, bringing
awareness to your experience when running, or even lifting weights, yoga (when done
mindfully, attending to experience of being in the various postures vs. just doing it for
exercise). The key to whatever activity you choose is consistency and repetition.
- Mindsight, Daniel Siegel (Bantam Books, 2010)
- Mindsight Institute website (articles, video, audio, online courses) http://drdansiegel.com/
- Your Brain at Work, David Rock (HarperCollins Publishers, 2009)