You Don’t Understand Mindfulness Until You Understand This One Thing

Until you understand this key distinction, you won’t be getting the full benefit of mindfulness, or understanding its very real limitations.

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Not Just Attention

Mindfulness is usually defined in terms of paying attention (e.g. “paying attention to the present moment”) but this leads to confusion and inconsistencies.

For one thing, it is impossible to pay attention to “the present moment”, which consists of an impossibly vast amount of data from our senses, only a tiny percentage of which we are able to pay attention to at any one time.

So, is it that there are certain things that one must pay attention to to be mindful?

Again, no – any experience is fair game for mindfulness (even thoughts about the past and future).

It is not what one is paying attention to, but rather the meta-awareness of how one is using attention, that determines whether one is being mindful or not.

One of the problems people have faced in trying to understand and define mindfulness is that English does not quite have a precise enough technical vocabulary to clearly differentiate attention from any other way of being conscious of experience.

Yet there is indeed a mode of consciousness other than attention, and the word ‘awareness’ probably suggests this difference the best. The difference between attention and awareness is obvious subjectively, and backed up neurologically. (Another blog to help understand this difference coming soon).

Consider the fact that even when you are not paying attention to the conversations around you at a party, you will still hear somebody say your name. This is awareness, and as this example demonstrates, it is more attuned to highlight some types of experience than others on the basis of training or past experience. 

AttentionAwareness
Can only process a very small amount of information at once, but can process it very deeply (e.g. following one thread of conversation at a party)

Single-track process; can only do one thing at a time, can only have one object of attention at a time (shares some similarities with System 2 – the slow system – from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow)

Conceptual

Narrow spotlight
Can process huge quantities of information at once, but only to a very shallow degree (e.g. a vague sense of how many people are around you at the party, what they’re doing, the emotional tone/volume of their conversations, how fast they’re moving, etc.)

Holistic process; relational, intuitive; can hold many objects at once (shares some similarities with System 1 – the fast system – from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow)

Sensory

Wide floodlight
Some differences between attention and awareness as modes of consciousness.

Another example: learner drivers will be much less aware of road signs, vehicles around them, etc. than experienced drivers, even though they will be working much harder to pay attention to those things. This is not because their attention isn’t trained, but because their awareness isn’t trained.

The awareness of experienced drivers highlights relevant things from peripheral awareness to attention: “I know you’re paying attention to turning a sharp corner, but it looks like there’s a speed sign over here in your peripheral vision and I know you need to pay attention to those“.

Since it is awareness, not attention, that permits this more meta-cognitive noticing of how one is using attention, the definition of mindfulness is most cohesive if given in terms of that awareness.

So mindfulness is awareness. One can be mindful of anything, because one can train one’s awareness to be more sensitive to anything.

The doctor who glances at a stranger on the train and spots some tell-tale sign of illness, like an enlarged thyroid gland, is not simply exhausting themselves by intentionally and surreptitiously inspecting the throat of every human being who enters their line of sight – they simply have an awareness which has been trained to be sensitive to such things. An experienced doctor, in other words, is mindful of signs of illness.

Mindful of What?

Strictly speaking, then, when mindfulness is considered in this way, it no longer makes sense to say that somebody is “being mindful” without specifying something that they have trained – or are training – to become mindful of.

Of course, there are some objects that it is much more appropriate to become mindful of than others, given the goals of Dharma practice – and mindfulness of these things are naturally what people generally mean when they say “being mindful”.

What are they? In general, patterns of thought, intention, and attention that are unwholesome (tending to condition suffering for yourself and others) and patterns of thought, intention, and attention that are wholesome (tending to condition well-being for yourself and others). Once you develop awareness of these, you can reduce and prevent the unwholesome, and encourage and sustain the wholesome.

Wisdom is Imperative

It is deeply important that mindfulness be informed by wisdom; that is, by an understanding of what will tend to condition well-being and what will tend to condition dukkha. You could say that it needs to be informed by a wise set of values.

For example, if you taught a Spartan warrior, or a Klingon, to become more mindful of his states of mind, it’s likely that they would simply become more skilled at provoking rage and aggression, since they have learned from their culture to value and reinforce these above peace, kindness, or contentment.*

Furthermore, there is nothing in the description of mindfulness itself to suggest that compassion, for example, is important to cultivate, nor to suggest even the possibility of insight, nor any means for cultivating these things.

So although mindfulness is an essential foundation for these practices to take effect, it could take many lifetimes to figure out this kind of wisdom and the strategies to actualise it just by trying to be mindful of wholesome and unwholesome states of mind that would be arising anyway.

Mindfulness, then, is like a compass which gives you the ability to notice that your mental habits are taking you in a certain direction. But for this to be valuable, one must also have a kind of “map of wisdom” to give you a sense of the territory; to allow you to correct course if you get onto the wrong path, and affirm your progress when you are on the right one. This map takes the form of an understanding of what is wholesome and what is unwholesome; the peaks and troughs of potential human flourishing. One must have both. If you have a map but no compass, you will be able to describe the peaks quite eloquently as you wander in circles around the foothills. If you have a compass but no map, you will be free to head very precisely in the wrong direction.

This is why the Buddha included in the Satipatthana sutra – the classic text on how to practice mindfulness – tips on which factors of mind to overcome and which to cultivate, as well as practices for insight into non-self and the four noble truths.

To these excellent suggestions by the Buddha, we can add the entire modern field of positive psychology.

*As an aside, It’s of course possible that they would eventually notice that these mind-states were not actually as valuable as advertised, and experience a paradigm shift in their worldview, but it would be only an especially rare and insightful individual who would notice this without any outside direction, and even then it would probably take a very long time.

Author: RationalShinkai

Ollie lives in England. He likes meditation, peanut butter, and Oxford commas.

One thought on “You Don’t Understand Mindfulness Until You Understand This One Thing”

  1. Mindfulness in the Dhammapada is moral prudence, i e. remembering what is right or wrong and not doing the wrong. The whole “mindfulness” fad of making it about “being present” is a demonic denial of the moral meaning of the term which is the only properly Buddhist meaning.

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