Mindfulness is a concept that can be hard to grasp.
I mean, sure, we know it is about “being in the moment,” “paying attention,” “non-judgment,” and so on. But do you know what actually happens with your cognitive processing when you are “being mindful”?
I think that calling the cognitive events by their names can be helpful for anyone who practices formal meditation or “casual” mindfulness. Until recently, however, I didn’t have the language to elaborate on that. When defining mindfulness in conversations, I simply referred to it as “present moment awareness.”
When I came across a book called The Mind Illuminated by John Yates, I was amazed by how he could explain the cognitive events that mindfulness consists of in a plain, straightforward language. What you will read below is largely based on this book — however, the very terms I will be using may not exactly correspond.
I hope this will help you understand what actually happens in the mind when you are “being mindful.”
Mindfulness arises from a certain balance. It is a balance between two main cognitive functions that operate within our consciousness. Let’s call the first one “focused attention.” The other is “background awareness.”
To understand each of them — as well as the relationship between the two — imagine yourself in a situation when you are very concentrated on doing one thing. Let’s say you are in a library, studying, and you have just found this one passage that is totally changing your way of thinking about the subject. As a result, you are fully engaged in the text in front of your eyes.
The cognitive capacity you are using for this is focused attention. The most important thing to know about it is that attention can only be focused on one thing at a time. You may think of it as a laser beam which can only be pointed in one direction at a time.
If you want to shed the light of the laser on a different object, you need to redirect it away from the book you are reading — and towards something else. It cannot be in two places at the same time.
Your attention works exactly the same way. That’s what Buddhist monks have known for thousands of years, and what Western scientists are confirming nowadays. That’s why we know that the idea of multitasking is, in essence, an illusion.
As much as you may have an impression that you are paying attention to two (or more) things at the same time — what actually happens is that you are shifting your attention very fast between these things. As a result, you waste your “cognitive stamina” (more on that in a second) on constantly changing the object of your focus.
As you have your attention fixed on the fascinating book, your background awareness keeps you continuously informed about the context you are in. Even though all you consciously think of is the content of the passage you are reading, this whole time you also know that you are in a library, it is morning or evening and that there is silence around you.
This knowledge may be at the verge of your consciousness — but it is very important.
Your background awareness scans the surroundings for stimuli that may at some point become more important than the book you are focused on. That’s why, when your peripheral vision notes a rapid movement, you automatically raise your head from the book — just to see that someone tripped over their computer cable. This cognitive function is an evolutionary important trait for detecting potential threats and other changes to your environment that may demand your attention.
The characteristic of background awareness is that, unlike your attention, it doesn’t rest on a single object. Its role is to scan your environment — both external and internal — for potentially significant stimuli.
When comes to the “internal” environment, awareness sometimes plays tricks on you. For example, when you try to meditate and focus on your breath, it may pull your attention away from this intention by grasping thoughts and problems that appear as “more important.” This is why, sometimes, instead of following the breath, you catch yourself trying to find a solution to a work issue or a conflict with your spouse.
Both focused attention and background awareness are important cognitive abilities — and they function best when paired up together. That’s what I meant when I said earlier that mindfulness is a certain kind of balance.
It is the balance between laser-pointed attention and open-field awareness that we are trying to achieve.
The problem that many of us have with maintaining it, is that both attention and awareness are fuelled from the same source. I call it “cognitive stamina” — something I also mentioned earlier. What is important to understand about cognitive stamina is that it is a limited resource that gets depleted and needs restoration.
Because it is limited, many people don’t have enough of it to fuel both focused attention and background awareness in equal proportions. What happens to most of us, is that we abuse mental stamina by spending it on one or the other — and, therefore, creating an imbalance between attention and awareness.
If we use most of the stamina for focused attention, we may lose the basic awareness of what is happening around us. A great example is a person walking down the street, texting on their smartphone — and bumping into a street light as a result.
On the other hand, when all your mental stamina goes into examining your surroundings, your capacity to focus may suffer. That’s what sometimes manifests as the feeling of your mind being “all over the place” as you hopelessly try to concentrate on your work.
In this light, mindfulness meditation is a specific kind of mental training aimed at restoring the balance between focused attention and background awareness. The point is to be able to keep your attention where you intend it to be — without losing the awareness of your context.
In order to achieve this, the meditator works on increasing their cognitive stamina. The logic of this training is the same as any muscle workout. The more you exercise, the more inherent power the muscle has to do the work you intend it to do. Similarly, the more you train your cognitive stamina, the better it can fuel attention and awareness at the same time.
The second important part of mindfulness training is learning to work with intention. Before you learn to do that, your attention switches between objects unconsciously, driven not by your will, but by instinctual mechanisms programmed into your unconscious mind. The point of meditation is to discover how to keep your attention where you intend it to be. This allows you to make conscious choices even when unexpected stimuli enter your background awareness.
Mindfulness arises as balanced cooperation between the “attention” and “awareness” aspects of cognition. I hope that this explanation will help you to see it as less of an esoteric concept — and rather, as a well-defined state of mind that serves your well-being.