Meaningful Awareness

My mind during a part of last week’s meditation session:

  • in breath
  • a thought: “one”
  • out breath
  • in breath
  • a thought: “two”
  • a thought: “Hey, I’m doing ok, two breaths! I’m really focused today. Nice.”
  • a thought: “thinking”
  • a thought: “gone”
  • (in breath)
  • a thought: “one”
  • (out breath)

My mind was wandering, just like always, and, each time awareness of this wandering eventually dawned on me, I observed the wandering mind (“thinking”), released it (“…”), and noticed its absence (“gone”). That was the story of my meditation session, but the rest of my day was another story entirely …

I’d like to say that years of meditation practice have made me continually mindful all day long, but it just ain’t so. I have my mindful moments throughout the day, but there are always times, the missed opportunities, when I wish I had been able to access some of my carefully cultivated mindfulness.

To take just one case, someone appears at my office door and starts a conversation. As a rule, I fall into “conversation mode” immediately: listening, thinking while they talk, reacting, keeping up my own side of the conversation. No problem. Usually. But then the conversation takes an unexpected turn and they demand that I do something for them. Suddenly I find I’m reacting from a different perspective: “Red alert! Watch out! Will this get me in trouble? Will it be unpleasant? Will this mark me as a pushover?” I rarely realize that I’ve adopted this protective posture until long after the person has left. And then I reflect, wouldn’t it have been helpful if I could have been mindfully aware of my thoughts, sensations, emotions, during the conversation?

It’s at times like these that I am reminded that my mind is not completely mine to control. My mind reacts to whatever is front of it. Different situations (example: meditation session vs. office conversation) can trigger very different behaviors and thoughts. The mindful awareness that I practice in one situation might be available to me in another situation, and then it again, it might not.

Prof. C. Shawn Green (Psychology, U. Wisconsin-Madison) labels this problem “the curse of learning specificity.” In this short video he shows how the “curse” works by comparing performance on a mental recognition skill in two situations. People who had become superstars at performing the skill in one situation were no better than average when asked to perform the same skill in another, slightly different, situation.

This raises the question, can one overcome the “curse” by training in multiple situations? If so, we need to bring our practice of mindfulness outside our meditation sessions.

Try this experiment: set your intention to practice a little mindfulness in some other situation that you encounter each day. Be sure to start small. Instead of trying to maintain continuous awareness throughout the day, name one trigger that will remind you of your intention (“about to brush my teeth,” “about to step outside my office,” “about to write an email,” “about to start a conversation”) and then practice mindful awareness (thoughts? sensations? emotions?) a couple of times during that activity. My hypothesis is that, slowly, over time, you will find that you can access awareness more often and in more situations. Let me know how things turn out.