Many of us come to mindfulness seeking relief from the confusing jumble of thoughts that dominate our lives much of the time. So the first gift that mindfulness gives us—after we get accustomed to the shocking simplicity of sitting and doing nothing—is a little bit of peace. We’re no longer as tormented by our thoughts, since as we observe them come and go, no single thought seems to be a big deal anymore. It’s like being at a laundromat watching the clothes tumble in a big dryer. We don’t have to tumble along with the clothes; we can just watch them fall through space.
As we gain some spaciousness and peace, we also begin to sharpen our concentration. We can hold our attention on an object longer, whether it’s a difficult problem at work or simply the lines on the roadway ahead.
Tranquility and concentration are great benefits, worthy of celebration. But the mindfulness journey doesn’t end there, because as we develop calm and focus, a broader kind of awareness starts to come along naturally.
Take mindful eating, for example. In this practice of moment-by-moment mindfulness, we pay attention with a light touch to what we’re putting into our mouths—its taste, texture, aroma, and the act of chewing and swallowing. When we extend that to the environment surrounding the meal and everything that food means to us—emotionally, physically, economically, socially, and so on—we’re in the realm of awareness. That’s where the stable lens of a settled mind allows us to see how the world operates and how we interact with it.
Awareness takes our contentment in the present moment and extends it into an ongoing sense of well-being and a deep caring for others. It yields insights that will affect the future, because being mindful of the moment does not mean we’re unreflective and accepting of the status quo. Awareness simultaneously creates acceptance and the motivation to make changes.
Awareness is not something we manufacture by doing meditation. Like mindfulness, it’s already there, part of our human inheritance. It is precise and vivid, rich and multifaceted, and it can be described in many ways. Here are just a few of the ways we can come to know ourselves and our world better when the peace of mindfulness blossoms into the open inquisitiveness of awareness.
You may begin and end the exercises following each section with a simple mindfulness practice. Sit or stand upright and take 5 or 10 minutes to pay attention to your breathing. Gently return your attention to your breathing when your mind inevitably wanders.
The Space Inside
A fine example of the power of our inner reality is watching a movie. Light is projecting onto a flat white surface in a dark room, and from these flickering images our mind creates characters. We feel empathy, irritation, anger, attraction, and love—for people who don’t even exist.
Just as our bodies and minds are built to perceive the outer world with accuracy, they’re also built for feeling. Smelling a certain kind of pie can remind you of your grandmother’s kitchen and rouse feelings of warmth and goodness. Fingernails scratching along a smooth surface may irritate you.
We tend to think our emotions register in the same place all the time, but in fact we feel them throughout our body. We get goosebumps in the midst of fear or excitement, our jaw tightens in anger, a wave of relaxation spreads through our body when someone embraces us.
Inner awareness is about apprehending our feelings and thoughts as they’re occurring. We’re also aware of how we color the world to conform to our emotions— we might paint a yellow glow around what we love and, alternatively, focus on the worst features of what repulses us.
Our inner emotional life is rich, but it is fraught with peril. It gets us into trouble, and it also makes life worth living. Refining our “inner eye”—our capacity to see the workings of our emotions clearly—allows us to ride them, rather than be swept up by them. As we become less concerned that our emotions will rule us, or ruin us, we come to know them better, like a violinist knows her instrument. We can play them with both careful attention and free-flowing enjoyment.
Explore: Let your mind settle on something you like—a food, a favorite shirt, whatever. Spend a few minutes noticing the feelings it arouses. Now choose a person you like. Let your emotions rise and fall. Turn to something negative for a while. Don’t try to reach any conclusion. Just note the quality of the emotion, with simple curiosity.
Our emotional life, our inner life, is rich, and also fraught with peril. It gets us into trouble, and it also makes life worth living.
The Space Outside
You’re at a party. There’s a break in the conversation, and a thought pops into your head: “Can we afford to replace the washing machine?” The thought grabs you and a chain of thinking is unleashed. Before long, you’re lost in thought and wrapped up in your own concerns. If someone starts talking to you, you’re startled. You apologize for being “preoccupied.”
When swirling thoughts take us into a world of our own, our surroundings are still there reliably waiting for us. When we come out of our little dream, we take off our proverbial headphones and the outer world rushes in with full force.
We may still need to reach a decision about the washing machine. What we don’t need is to take ourselves out of our surroundings and gnaw on our concerns like a dog with a bone. We can attend to the washing machine in due course, and in the meantime we can appreciate the simple vividness of what we are encountering with our senses. Wherever we are, a full array of color and texture and flavor and smell is ours for the taking. People’s faces and gestures and voices are communicating with us in big and small ways. Our bodies are primed to sense the world with great precision, allowing us to navigate with grace and ease.
Aware of where we are—the space around us and the space we’re taking up—we can dance with life, rather than plow through it. When a door opens, we can graciously leave space for others to come through before entering ourselves. We are open for business.
Explore: With your eyes open, turn your head to the far left. Slowly rotate your head back past the middle and as far right as you can, taking several minutes to do so. Drink in the sensations of your surroundings. Return your head to the center. Rest. Repeat.
Distinctions and Judgments
One of the most common mindfulness instructions is to pay attention to our experience nonjudgmentally. Over time, practicing in this way slows the rapid-fire judging mechanism in our mind—the one that categorizes a little too quickly and acts too frequently based on bias.
Some people think that taking a nonjudgmental approach means we don’t make judgments. That’s not true. Mindfulness practice only asks us to become familiar with the moment we’re in before we start making distinctions. It asks us to suspend judgments for a bit, not to abandon them.
Our intellect contains great power to break up the world into categories, to make distinctions, and to disassemble and reassemble our experience endlessly. Making distinctions is delightfully complex. Just think of all the colors in the 120-crayon box, and that’s nothing compared to the more than 1,000 in the Pantone system used by designers. Consider all the names of plants and animals, the words in the dictionary, the songs on iTunes. Our ability to discern infinite variations is the source of creativity, innovative thinking, and our ability to make decisions. Cultivating awareness only enhances that capability.
With the openness and clarity of awareness, we can see the process of categorizing and judging while it’s at work. We can make better use of our ability to pick and choose, discerning which actions will create benefit for ourselves and others and which will likely do more harm than good. We can perceive our tastes and preferences without one-upping others who don’t feel the same way. The sunlight of awareness reveals a world that accommodates many points of view.
Living with enhanced awareness means we may no longer operate with rock-solid certainty—the know-it-all mentality that masks an underlying insecurity—but when we do decide, we have more knowledge about how we got there. With a mix of humbleness and confidence, we can make leaps into the partially known, willing to learn from what comes next.
Explore: Recall a person you know well. Let his or her characteristics and attributes pop into your mind. Keep going until you’re tiring of the list. Now pay attention to what kinds of judgments you’re making. Notice if they become harsh or hasty. What does an honest judgment feel like?
We can perceive our tastes and preferences without one-upping others who don’t feel the same way.
We have a habit of thinking of time as fixed. A minute is a minute is a minute. Of course, that’s true from an objective standpoint, but we’re rarely that objective about time. If we don’t want to be doing something, a minute can seem like an eternity, and when we’re absorbed in something, time flies.
Seeing how “time is what we make it” allows us to be more patient. We can ease our thumb off the stopwatch and let go of metering our time, thinking, “When will this end?” or “I hope this doesn’t end soon.”
When my mother was in her 90s, if one of her grandchildren would say they were “getting old” as they approached another birthday, she would say, “Don’t age yourself. Just be as old as you are. Aging will take care of itself.” As we begin to appreciate the subtleties of time, we become more at ease with the aging process. Things change. They’re born, they ripen, they shrivel, they wrinkle, and they die.
Becoming more intimately aware of this inevitable process helps us be more accepting of the passing of things we love and more appreciative of them while they’re here. We can also appreciate birth and newness more, without trying to freeze-frame every novel experience. We perceive the origins and destinations in the simplest of things. When we see where somebody is in life, we’re interested not only in the snapshot but also in the arc—how they got there and where they’re going. All targets are moving.
When our thoughts go to the past, as they must from time to time, we are aware that we are merely thinking of the past, not actually being there. The same goes for the future. Being in the moment does not mean we’re oblivious to the past and the future. In fact, we are much more aware of time’s passage.
The world has many clocks and rhythms, and becoming attuned to them improves our timing—when to insert ourselves and when to hang back. We have a better sense of when to arrive, how long to stay, and when to move on, let go, and put the party to bed.
Explore: As thoughts arise, notice which ones are about the past, the near past, and the distant past. Notice the same about future thoughts. What’s the difference? Notice how you may be drawn to or repelled by the past or future. Is it possible to be fully present in the midst of those thoughts?
Neither mindfulness nor awareness is a one-time thing. They mature gradually, over time. They lead to occasional breakthroughs and memorable insights, but these are rarely dramatic.
Mindfulness and awareness reinforce one another in a virtuous circle. The focused attention of mindfulness inspires more inquisitive, open awareness. In turn, the discoveries that emerge from awareness, and the choices we make based on them, allow us to be more mindful in each moment. As a group, the human race is always on the search for more mechanisms, gadgets, and apps, but the greatest tool of all is the power of a trained and refined mind. It’s lightweight, portable, sustainable, renewable, and free. And it’s ours.