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January 21st, 2020
One aspect of mindfulness meditation, or Vipassan?, as it’s referred to in the original Pali, is developing the ability to notice what your attention is focused on and realize when this focus changes.
This might at first sound a little odd. Doesn’t this require two sources of attention? First there’s the attention that’s focused on say, our breathing, but does it not require another perspective to notice when that focus has wandered off to thoughts about lunch?
Or are we simply ricocheting very quickly between breath, lunch and the realization that thoughts of lunch interrupted focus on the breath . . .
. . . which was in turn interrupted by the realization that thoughts of lunch were interrupted by the realization that a switch had taken place.
It’s bizarrely recursive, just to try and describe it.
But two examples come to mind in order to dig into this conundrum. First there’s watching a movie. Often times we can get so engrossed in the movie that we totally forget where are, and we can even forget the fact that we’re watching a movie. And yet, with other movies, perhaps less compelling movies, we can pay attention to what’s going on in the story while still being very aware of what’s going on around us. Perhaps this is a single attention bouncing between the movie and the larger situation quickly enough so that both threads of attention appear seamless.
Another example involves young kids, or even animals. As we watch them, perhaps to make sure they don’t hurt themselves, we have the ability to realize what the child or the animal is focusing on. Perhaps a toy a few feet away that the child is crawling towards. It’s this ability to imagine the child’s source of attention that allows us to look ahead, see that a potentially hazardous paperclip is near the toy and that we should remove it. We might call this awareness of the situation. Again, perhaps it’s a single attention of ours that has the ability to quickly bounce between different things, zooming the context in and out, but it can happen so quickly that it’s easy to suspect or wonder if there’s not two cameras of attention keeping an eye on things, like two eyes that can look in different directions.
With the practice of mindfulness, our seemingly second attention, our meta-attention, can begin to take on the role of a movie goer. After enough time it’s as though our better self is always present, and most of the time, this better, more thoughtful self, just watches the movie of our life as it happens.
But unlike the movie goer who is bound to the whims and turns of a predetermined script up on the silver screen, this metattention that we develop in mindfulness creates the constant opportunity for our better self to step in and change our default behavior.
For example, those who have anger problems can seem practically drunk on the emotion. Some people even experience memory problems regarding their spells of anger. With enough practice of meditation, a metattention of the situation allows for a more thoughtful version of this angry person to eventually have the ability to step in and decide that the default actions that are usually taken in anger, won’t be this time.
This is one of the true benefits of meditation. So many of us are simply on autopilot, doing the same thing day in and day out, unable to break the pattern, even if we want to, because the moments when we truly and thoughtfully pause are few and far between. Meditation not only gives a person the ability to see themselves more clearly, but eventually it provides the avenue to step in and make changes in the moments when it is most needed.