Mindfulness – Radically Different from Distraction or Flow

Mindfulness – Radically Different from Distraction or Flow

A participant in my Building Resilience in Challenging Times webinar last week asked how mindfulness was different from distraction or dissociation.  Good question, so here goes…

Mindfulness is the practice of being aware of what’s happening in the moment while it’s happening (and aware of our reactions to what’s happening) so that we can see clearly and choose our responses wisely.

Mindfulness is never a bypass from what’s really real (or how we’re interpreting or filtering what we believe is really real). Mindfulness is being aware, allowing, and accepting of whatever is happening, exactly as it is.

Mindfulness is the opposite being distracted, and we often distract ourselves from what’s happening in the moment (or how we feel about what’s happening in the moment) because what is happening in the moment is uncomfortable or even distressing.

Kristin Neff, co-developer of the Mindful Self-Compassion protocol, points out that skillful distraction can be a skillful adjunct to mindfulness when what we’re mindful of and coping with starts to overwhelm our capacities to be with and stay with the experience of the moment. Doing something else – playing with a puppy, enjoying a cup of tea, talking with a friend – can help us return to the sense of ease needed to be mindful again of what’s making us uneasy.

Mindfulness is an antidote to denial, too.  Mindfulness allows us to be aware of, and allow, and accept what is, exactly as it is, to be with whatever is happening, exactly as it is, and to bring compassion to ourselves as the experiencer of what is, so that we can see exactly what is clearly and then decide wisely what to do about it.   [See the ABC model of working with any difficulty]

Mindfulness is also not flow, according to Dr. Dan Siegel of the Mindful Awareness Research Institute at UCLA, that emergence of exquisite movement and effortless creativity that some people experience as the zone. Flow feels wonderful as the sense of self and most everything else in the world falls away; no worries, only concentration and usually great productivity.  But that’s not the same as presence with everything that is, including everything that is not in good flow. 

Mindfulness is a very different process in the brain (focused attention) from the wandering and meandering of the default network of the brain, which can be delightful and creative in the forms of daydreams, reveries, epiphanies, but which can be bothersome in the form of rumination, where the mind is churning through worry after worry after worry in an endless loop. Mindfulness, focused attention on what is, is the true antidote to attention run amok in rumination.

And definitely not dissociation.  When reality becomes too threatening to face directly, we can cope by dissociating and “checking out.”  Not present, not connected. Dissociation is one of the most effective protective mechanisms the psyche has to survive trauma and abuse, and can become a go-to habit of the brain when reality once again seems threatening.  

Mindfulness, focused attention on what we’re experiencing in the moment, and knowing that we know, keeps us present and engaged with the experience of the moment. Mindfulness is one of the most powerful agents of brain change known to science, and when steady and deepening, is a practice foundational to our resilience and well-being.

Here’s an exercise that I taught in that same Building Resilience in Challenging Times webinar sponsored by SDS Seminars in East Sussex, England. This exercise sounds simple – it’s a workout!


An essential first step in mindfulness practice is to notice when we are present and aware, and when we are not.  Human beings go in and out of steady awareness all the time. That’s not “wrong.”  That’s how the human brain works.  When you’re not deliberately guiding the focus of your attention, your mind will wander; (default mode of processing), the brain is doing what it’s supposed to do.

You can strengthen the circuits of your brain’s attention by noticing when you’re paying attention to present moment experience and noticing when you’re not.  

1.  Focus your awareness on your breathing, breath flowing in, breath flowing out.

2.  Count each inhalation-exhalation as one breath.  Count ten breaths.  When you complete ten breaths without losing focus, start over at one.  Count another ten breaths.

3.  When you notice your mind has wandered, at breath #5 or #7, re-focus your attention on your breathing and start over at one.  Sounds simple.  Truth be told, it’s hard to get past three breaths at the beginning; our minds wander all the time.  No shame-blame, no judgment or evaluation.  Simply start over and continue the practice.

What this exercise can do:  The content of this exercise – becoming an expert breath counter, is not what’s important.  The process – tracking attention and steadying awareness – is what’s invaluable. The practice strengthens the anterior cingulate cortex, the structure of the brain we use to focus attention, detect errors, and regulate emotions.   You are steadily steadying your awareness to face harder and harder life challenges.

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