We practice steadying our awareness so we can perceive that the events of our lives, and our responses to them, are ever-flowing and ever-changing.
The knowledge that “this, too, shall pass” is a form of response flexibility built into life itself. It applies even to the self. You shift, change, grow, and evolve all of your life. Grasping the truth of Buckminster Fuller’s observation that “I seem to be a verb” allows you to completely reinvent yourself if necessary to respond to life’s challenges.
By strengthening the pathways that stabilize and steady the brain’s attention, you can learn to simply be with what is and consciously reflect on the truth of the experience before choosing to change it or to shift your responses to it.
1. Focus on the breath, flowing in, flowing out. Focus on sounds, coming into awareness, fading away. Focus on an ache in the knee, now sensing it, now not sensing it.
2. Train your attention and steady your awareness by mindfully attending to simple activities of daily living. When you wash the dishes, pay attention to your experience moment by moment: your hands moving through soapy water, the weight of the plates as you move them from sink to drainer. Notice when your attention wanders off into planning the next meal. You’re observing the dance between your brain’s focused and defocused modes of attention. When you notice that your attention has wandered, strengthen your brain’s capacity for focused attention by refocusing it on the experience of doing the dishes. You can train the brain in the same way by paying attention to your experience of taking a shower, combing your hair, opening or closing windows, getting dressed or undressed.
3. Notice the awareness that is allowing you to notice your experience. Know that you are tying your shoelaces and know that you know. (This awareness of awareness becomes a refuge when the experience you are paying attention to is something difficult or distressing.)
4. Notice any opinions or judgments that come into your mind about how well you are doing this exercise. That mental content becomes an object of your awareness, too, and you can let it go and continue to focus your attention on tying your shoes.
The object of your awareness — the breath, the dishes, the getting dressed — is in the foreground. The awareness that knows you are doing what you are doing is in the background, but you can learn to make that awareness itself part of the foreground. This is essential when what you meet and pay attention to is difficult or distressing.
Noticing Going Into and Out of Awareness
Human beings go into and out of steady awareness all the time. That’s not “wrong:” it’s how the human brain works. When you’re not deliberately focusing your attention on something, your mind will naturally wander into the default network mode of processing.
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. This exercise sounds simple, but it’s a workout! Research shows that this kind of practice brings measurable results: longtime meditators have increased the volume of brain cells in the structures of the brain that are used to pay attention.
1. Focus your awareness on your breathing, breath flowing in, breath flowing out.
2. Count each inhalation-exhalation cycle 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, refocus your attention on your breathing and start over at one. The first time you try this, it’s hard to get past three breaths: our minds wander all the time. There’s no shame or blame, no judgment or evaluation attached to this wandering. Simply start over and continue the practice.
In this exercise, becoming an expert breath counter is not what’s important. It’s the process — tracking attention and steadying awareness – that’s invaluable in strengthening our ability to stay grounded in the face of harder and harder life challenges.
[You will find many exercises for steadying mindful awareness in The Resilience Toolkit, forthcoming in September 2018.]