A Little Talk on Awareness — A Pillar of Well-Being

In this little talk on Awareness, we explore what science has learned about how the brain functions when we are aware, how awareness is a skill that is built through practice, and how factors in our lives like negative moods, threats, or our values not aligning with our actions can compromise our awareness—our attention in the present moment. Enjoy.

3 thoughts on “A Little Talk on Awareness — A Pillar of Well-Being

  1. Hi Mary. I really enjoyed listening to this talk on Awareness. Especially intriguing was the part associating mind wandering with unhappiness. I had not previously considered this and figured that mind wandering was quite natural and is just our brain exercising its incredibly powerful capabilities. I think my revised understanding of this is however touched upon in the latter part of your talk, because our wandering mind is too easily attracted to reflection on past events or future speculation on our concerns, and hence wandering not onto pleasurable thoughts, but onto the negative or stressful things that lead to the “unhappiness” association. So mind wandering may not be too bad if it could be focused on pleasurable things and imagination (but if it’s focused then it’s probably not wandering ?) Does this mean our unconscious brain is biased towards processing negative things ? Like when you’ve had a bad situation / conversation / event and your mind can spend the next few days going over and over this, mostly with little benefit, because you cannot go back and change your reaction / response for the action you might have otherwise taken or smart thing you should have said, to your manager, colleague, family member, friend, partner etc. I like the conclusion that says, pay attention when you should be paying attention, try to only allow your mind to wander when this is appropriate. It also raised in me a question, my inner mind and voice is often a constant buzz with a streaming narrative – thoughts darting around with urgency. To imagine this level of processing / streaming, consider yourself driving down the road and your mind is working overtime but you’re also physically verbalising everything you see and should be considering (by the way, when you take a UK “advanced” driver course they ask you to do this for a minute or two). “I’m at 30 mph, the vehicle behind me is a little close but looks less than five years old and probably has decent brakes, the vehicle in front is an SUV and is partially obscuring my forward view, also a recent model, road condition is fair, some potholes, weather dry, visibility good, I see pedestrians on my right, be aware of any sudden movement towards the roadway, vehicles coming towards me on the opposite side of the road are stable, well spaced, best evasive action if they crossed into my path is to brake hard and steer to the right (no danger to others), I’m approaching a side road, there are cars waiting to join the main carriageway, be ready for any inappropriate movement, evasive action is brake hard and steer left”. (all these thoughts within a few seconds and of course it takes longer to speak them out aloud – you should try it sometime). So is this inner voice / streaming also a problem – because it can be a distraction from “paying attention” or is it part of paying attention ? I need to think about this some more. Keep well. Richard

    • Hi Richard,
      Thanks for your comments. At the end I invite everyone to pay attention to paying attention so that we can get to know our minds better. Some people are always stuck on fast forward worrying about the future that hasn’t happened. Others get stuck on rewind ruminating and playing the “what happened movie” over and over. Still others switch between the two modes. When we investigate we can see what our mind habits are. Once we get to know our habits, it is easier to “not judge” them but rather be aware of them, so we can better use the alerting system to notice when “rewind” or “fast forward” happens, softly mentally note what is happening with a single word “thinking” and then let the thought go staying in the present moment.

      You ask, “does this mean our unconscious brain is biased towards processing negative things ?” The brain has a negativity bias. This is well-studied and has evolutionary roots. Imagine the hunter gather going off to look for food, predatory animals are also looking for food at the same time, so the human brain was always on the lookout for predators. This negativity bias does not rule us unless we are not paying attention and noticing when it turns on.

      When we are working creatively or taking a walk in nature, allowing the mind to wander is part of the creative process. This mind wandering is different though. It isn’t stuck somewhere; it is always moving, I think. At least that is how it is for me when I am writing a short story or poem.

      You say, “ my inner mind and voice is often a constant buzz with a streaming narrative – thoughts darting around with urgency.” Yes, thoughts are always darting around around. When we are mindful (aware of each present moment) we are aware when a thought arises and fades away without jumping into the content of the thought, judging or editorializing about the thought. We may simply softly mentally note “thought, thought.” As we pay attention, the constant buzz of thoughts and the editorials we make about them calm down. We may notice more pauses between the thoughts but there are always thoughts. Thinking is what the mind does; it is how we are in relationship with the thoughts that matter.

      When we say we are paying attention to what’s happening now, we are aware of bodily sensations, thoughts (plans, stories, fantasies, opinions etc.), mind states (boredom, excitement, etc) and emotions (angry, sad, afraid, glee etc.) arising and falling away. Everything is constantly changing and so our present moment awareness is aware of this flow of experience without hanging onto any part of it or pushing away any part of it or having opinions and judgements about any part of it. It is just awake to the present moment and knows what is happening in the moment. When we do a focused awareness meditation on the breath. We pay attention to the breath breathing in/out and we are aware we are breathing in/out.

      The driving test example is excellent because what the test is asking the driver to do is to pay close attention to every moment of the driving situation and to make appropriate responses. When the driver is concentrating on the what is happening with the car, with other cars, with the environment, the mind is highly aware of each moment. This is focused awareness.

      Be well.

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