Mindfulness: Developing The Faculty of Attention | In Practise

Mindfulness: Developing The Faculty of Attention

Mindfulness Teacher and Author of Into The Heart of Mindfulness

Learning outcomes

  • Defining mindfulness: knowing what's happening and acting on that learning
  • The difference between judgment and discernment, the relationship between judgment and self-criticism
  • Being present: how becoming aware of our senses and bodies can offer the possibility of meeting our immediate experience more skillfully
  • Developing an awareness of our thought patterns: how developing a mindfulness practice can help us respond less automatically to habitual thought patterns
  • Common misconceptions about the practice of mindfulness
  • How mindfulness practice can help us take a step back from intense situations and cultivate a sense of equanimity
  • Developing the skill of attention: the difficulties that tend to arise in the practice of guided and unguided meditation
  • The Relationship Between Mindfulness Practice and Self-Mastery
  • Noticing and disarming unproductive automatic responses to difficulty
  • Dealing With Failure: cultivating a mindset where we take interest in failure as a chance to learn
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Executive Bio

Ed Halliwell

Mindfulness Teacher and Author of Into The Heart of Mindfulness

Ed is a UK-based mindfulness teacher. He has written three books: Into The Heart of Mindfulness, Mindfulness: How To Live Well By Paying Attention (published in a new edition as Mindfulness Made Easy) and (as co-author) The Mindful Manifesto. He is an associate of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and Sussex Mindfulness Centre, and regularly speaks on mindfulness-related topics, in the media and at conferences, festivals and other events. He leads public mindfulness courses, workshops and retreats in London, Surrey and Sussex, and has introduced and taught mindfulness in workplaces such as Accenture, UNICEF UK, Imperial College Business School, and the Houses of Parliament. Read more

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Ed, a warm welcome. If we could begin with your definition of mindfulness?

The simplest definition that I like to use is, knowing what’s happening and learning from it and acting on that learning. Mindfulness, really, is a way of paying attention to our lived experience. That’s the knowing what’s happening part. The trickiness of that is that, much of the time, we are not trained to pay attention to what’s going on. Our minds are elsewhere; our minds may be wandering into habitual places. Those habitual places are often thought-based. We spend a lot of our time up in our heads and trying to achieve goals, meet standards; trying to get what’s good and avoid what’s bad. That’s a perfectly reasonable way to live our lives and that mode of mind, I would call a driven doing mode of mind, because much of the way that it operates is automatic. We are evolved to try to get what’s good and avoid what’s bad.

As I said, it’s a very sensible way of living our lives. If, for example, we have a tiger coming to try to eat us, from a survival perspective, that mode of mind is very skillful. However, there are situations, particularly in our modern world, where we can’t simply just get what we want and we can’t simply just avoid what we don’t want. In those situations, understanding how we operate as human beings is very useful because it can help us see the ways that we act on habit-driven autopilot. It can give us the understanding, or at least a window, into ways of responding to these kind of situations differently.

There you have the second part of the definition, which is learning from our lived experience, that we are now paying attention to it, not on automatic pilot, in order to meet the moments of our lives in a skillful way.

Where does judgment come into this, for you? Judgment and non-judgment?

Judgment is a difficult term, because there are times where judgments are helpful. I would prefer to call that kind of judgment "discernment". In order to be able to discern how to respond to a situation, we need to be able to understand it and to have the skills to be able to act on that discernment, to act wisely.

In that sense, a skillful judgment. Often where judgment is used in mindfulness training is to describe the kind of judgment that comes from setting standards for ourselves and, indeed, for others, which maybe, aren’t helpful. To be continually looking at, where am I trying to get to, which takes me back to, what do I want, the next meal, for example, and what am I trying to avoid, to get away from. We make judgments about what we imagine to be good for us and bad for us. It turns out that, in some situations, what those standard-setting judgments do, is they create, in our minds, a discrepancy between what’s happening and what we want to be happening. That discrepancy, if it can’t be resolved by an action, will often lead to stress, because we’re stuck in a middle place of, I can’t fix this, I can’t avoid this, but I’m still experiencing it and it’s not what I want.

This often turns up as self-criticism. Judgments such as, I’m not good enough, I wish I were better at X, Y or Z, I wish this wasn’t happening, so judgments of a situation. Criticisms of others, as well. When judgments are in service of taking skillful action, which we can sometimes do, then they can be helpful. Discernment.

But when they actually trap us into being in this middle place between reality – what’s actually happening – and what we would like to be happening, we get stuck in the gap and that’s a stressful place to be.

If I could ask you to tell us a bit about non-judgment and how it fits into the picture?

Non-judgment is a phrase that is often used in mindfulness training. There is a slightly longer definition of mindfulness, which is paying attention, on purpose, with full presence and non-judgmentally. Sometimes, there is a critique that comes up that says, “If I pay attention, non-judgmentally, I’ll never make any decisions.” What this is pointing to, rather, is to meet our experience with a quality of friendliness, with a quality of interest and, if you like, of not being the judge or not being judgmental. When we say, being judgmental, that perhaps, gets us closer to what these phrases of judgment and non-judgment mean, in mindfulness training.

Judgmental implies a bringing of old perspective, old habits, harshness, criticism in an unhelpful way. By paying attention on purpose, which means deliberately, so we can really see what’s going on, fully present and non-judgmentally, meaning with an attitude, a particular way of meeting our experience, of friendliness, warm-heartedness. Of not being the harsh critic that we often are, because we are in that doing driven mode, which is a sort of survival mode, rather than a mode which leads to our well-being.

What you hear often, in speaking to people about this, is that people will say that self-criticism actually helps me improve. How would you look at a statement or view like that?

Well, I would agree that self-reflection can help us to improve or it can help us to understand ourselves and make wise choices. The part that doesn’t seem to be helpful is the hardness and the harshness that comes in from self-criticism. There’s a difference between acknowledging the reality of a situation and then placing an attitude of, in some ways, an attitude of violence, towards ourselves. An attitude of, you’re not good enough. It’s a flagellating quality that seems to get added to the self-reflection.

Actually, I would argue that that driven part is not very helpful for us to flourish and develop and be the best people we can be, because it’s exhausting. If you imagine you’re flagellating, hitting yourself with a whip, every time that we buy into a harsh opinion of ourselves, that’s an addition to what’s happening. There is what’s happening and what is actually going on. Then there’s all of the stuff that we add onto it, which is not actually necessary. If you’re beating someone up the whole time, then the chances are, they’re not in a good state to be the best person they can be. They’re going to be exhausted; they’re going to be hurt. You’re injuring someone and then saying, “Go out and be the best person you can be.” It’s not likely to happen.

So the self-reflection part of the process, which is very much there in mindfulness, paying attention to what’s going on, with full presence, that’s there and is a reflection of the situation and learning from that. But if we add, and judgmentally, harshly, unforgivingly, then we’re adding something that becomes unskillful.

What does it mean to be fully present?

There’s a line, in one of James Joyce’s books, in Dubliners, and he speaks about a character called Mr Duffy, and he says, “Mr Duffy lived a few feet from his body,” which is a lovely, succinct description of how many of us live, much of the time, when we are on automatic. We don’t tend to inhabit our bodies. Of course, we are inhabiting our bodies; we carry them around all the time and they are us. But the way that we are trained and the way that we are evolved, is for our attention to move up into thinking. Much of our education system is based on this; learn to be a thinker.

When I went to university, I remember clearly, my director of studies told us that the process we were about to undergo was going to turn us into intellectuals and, in some sense, I’ve been trying to undo that process, ever since. That’s not to say that intellect is problematic, but it does become problematic when it’s automatic. Because, actually, that’s not real intelligence; that’s just following the dictates of our mind, as they have been trained and we’re not fully present when that is happening. We’re living more like robots, if we’re just following the tyranny of our thoughts, as I’ve heard the phrase used. We’re just going with whatever our thoughts tell us, which may not actually be the truth of things.

It may be part of the truth of things, but there’s a whole other dimension to our lived experience, which happens not up here, but down here, in our bodies. Those are the realms of body sensation, actually feeling of what’s going on, moment by moment. It’s the realm of emotion and, as it turns out, and this is now understood more clearly, I believe, at least in some fields that, actually, what happens in our bodies, really affects what’s going on up here [in our minds]. If we can become present, [...] to actually be aware of our thoughts, rather than just in our thinking and if we can be present to this domain of being, if I may call it that, this domain of embodied experience, then we’ve got more of the picture. There’s also environment, of course, what’s going on around us, which also affects what’s happening within us.

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Mindfulness: Developing The Faculty of Attention

February 26, 2020

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