Paying attention vs. becoming aware
Interestingly, when I give talks or workshops about the neuroscience of mindfulness, I sometimes conduct an ‘experiential experiment’ by using different wording for the same instruction: in one case I ask people to ‘pay attention to the sensations of the feet touching the floor’, whilst the second variant for the same instruction is to ‘become aware of the sensations of the feet touching the floor’. For most people the difference is palpable and they are able to articulate it: ‘paying attention’ comes from the head, as we habitually, through our schooling and other contexts, associate attention with ‘heady’ effort. Whereas when asked to simply become aware, people report ‘dropping’ into their bodies as it were, making them feel more spacious, at ease, calm, and content.
This attitude of non-striving, effortlessness, non-doing when we simply become aware that we are aware, and what is there to be aware of, is the whole mark of mindfulness as formulated in the secular context of mindfulness-based interventions. We don’t need to turn it into yet another competition with ourselves requiring effort, diligence, and discipline. We have plenty of such demands upon us already! And it’s exhausting. Instead, mindfulness practice, whether through a formal meditation session or mindful movement, such as gentle yoga or walking, should be thought of as time to allow ourselves to just be, unwind, and reconnect with ourselves. The attitude of kindness is the key that unlocks the door of mindfulness awareness, and the more we rest in its space, the more we are able to connect with the sense of well-being, clarity, and ease that are our birth right.
Mindfulness and Kindfulness together
We can help to encourage the opening of the heart with loving-kindness practice, which is also now widely taught, alongside mindfulness practices. However, it is best to practice the two in conjunction. If we haven’t understood and experienced non-judgemental awareness, then we can get all judgemental about how kind we are when practicing loving-kindness! I have also observed that when people experience loving-kindness arising spontaneously as a happy and natural ‘side-effect’ of resting in mindful awareness, they tend to feel it as more authentic, which facilitates their realisation that when we are truly able to let go of our judgements, worries, anxieties, identifications as a ‘certain type of person’, then underneath all that is the natural sense of benevolence, calm, peace, and physical energy waiting to be reconnected with. This can be a powerful insight that ‘convinces’ us of the benefits of the practice, ensuring that we draw on it more consistently, and particularly at the time of need such as the times we are living through now.
Kindfulness to oneself and others will ensure we get through this time of the COVID-19 pandemic with our shared humanity and that we use the crisis as an opportunity to create a world that is kinder towards ourselves, our planet, and all its inhabitants. True wisdom and compassion are inseparable. Mindfulness practice allows both to arise in our being.
If you would like to try mindfulness practice or pick it up where you left it off, you could start with the free online materials offered by Mindfulness.com, Headspace, Calm, or InsightTimer. Or you could join free weekly online mindfulness sessions offered for the Oxford Mindfulness Centre to support people at this challenging time. Group support can be particularly beneficial to normalise our experiences, provide social interaction when we feel isolated, and connect us in our shared humanity.
Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health Awareness Week takes place from 18-24 May 2020. The theme is kindness.
Elena Antonova is Visiting Researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London. Elena lectures on the neuroscience and clinical applications of mindfulness. Her research focuses on the effects of long-term mindfulness practice using neuroimaging and psychophysiology methods, with the application to the prevention and management of psychopathologies. Elena is an experienced mindfulness instructor (MBCT) trained in line with the Good Practice Guidelines. She has co-facilitated and led MBCT groups for South London & Maudsley NHS clinical staff, clinical psychology trainees, undergraduate psychology students, as well as delivered a number of workshops on mindfulness research and practice for lay public.