As outlined in the previous post, it can be tricky to fully know what the mind is up to, moment to moment, as life unfolds in its typically novel, mundane, stimulating and ambiguous ways.
Investigating this process through mindfulness reveals intriguing truths about the behaviour of the mind. Many mental responses, such as reactivity to perceived threats, are hardwired. Learned habits and tendencies can seem equally fixed. Through practising awareness, we come to realise that we routinely operate in automatic ways.
Automaticity is not a bad thing. It confers advantages through allowing mental attention to dexterously flit to phenomena unrelated to the task-in-hand. Hence we can walk down a street and fiddle on our phones and make plans for next week because the act of walking down a street is not something we need to figure out or perfect anymore.
Here We Are Now, Entertain Us
The downside to automaticity is that we fail to show up for the occasion of our own lives and so rob ourselves of its innate vividness and some of its joys. You probably know the experience (retrospectively at least) of becoming so distracted that you lose all sense of what happens next, only to ‘come to’ sometime later.
The potential for profound disconnection from present moment experience is all the greater in this age of the internet and social media. With powerful technologies at our fingertips, we are encouraged and seduced into consuming information speedily and superficially. How our minds love to skim vast directories of language and inexhaustible banks of imagery in their quest for instant gratification.
Even when we are relatively undistracted and alive to our sensory experience, it is easy for our minds to unconsciously react to a flutter of boredom, a pang of desire or an unpleasant sensation and, before we know it, our fingers are swiping screens and our eyes or ears are glued to some arbitrary object in a virtual world. Before smartphones came along, the possibilities for such mental hijacking weren’t quite so endless.
When we get distracted, we act without awareness of acting, that is, we do not see and comprehend what is happening as it is happening. Often it goes something like this: a subtle feeling arises, either pleasant or unpleasant (e.g. sensual desire, boredom, restlessness); the mind reacts either by seeking to maintain or build up the feeling, if it’s pleasant, or to flee from or get rid of the feeling, if it’s unpleasant; this impulse leads to action, such as the physical act of reaching for a phone or the mental act of going into thought and fantasy.
By contrast, when there is an awareness of the initial feeling, this chain reaction does not happen in the same way. The mind does not run off. It stays with the felt experience. Blind reactivity abates. Actions arise out of clear intentions. There is a sense of stability and agency.
This is mindfulness: the ability to stay with experience for a prolonged time, and to really investigate it in detail. It is the opposite of distractedness. One of the classical characterisations of mindfulness (from the Abhidhamma, an early collection of teachings in the Buddhist tradition) is ‘non-superficiality’. Mindfulness does not skim over the surface or ascertain in a shallow way. It sinks into an object and facilitates a deeper knowing of it.
When you are mindful, experience deepens. This is a natural capacity you have, which is cultivated through practice. It is a lot more likely to happen when your phone is switched off.
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