A 2014 study on mindfulness and equanimity phrased mindfulness as, “the quality of mind that one recollects continuously without forgetfulness or distraction while maintaining attention on a particular [mental] object… the ability or process of maintaining the object of attention in working memory, whether this object corresponds to an external sensory stimulus, an interoceptive sensation from inside the body, a chain of discursive thoughts going through the mind, or even a memory from the past.”
In general, a higher level of awareness. There are many ways awareness can be improved…
1) Mindfulness Meditation: This first one is a fairly obvious and common go-to because it can be among the most powerful of methods, assuming one keeps the practice on a regular basis. Here one focuses on the breath – not because there is anything special about it. One could use any number of things to focus upon: a candle, a metronome, the ocean waves on a beach, etc. The key is that it be something repetitive and boring.
Things we call “boring” are those which the brain takes for granted. This is an important function because it allows us to focus on and prioritize more novel things in our environment. Predictable phenomena tend to be less dangerous.
Yet, this is how we come to take more and more things for granted – loved ones, special moments, and the joys and wonders of everyday life. Much of our lives slip by us while we are on autopilot.
So, by practicing keeping our attention on something boring, which we would be inclined to move away from, we work out our ‘attention’ muscles. In time, we are able to hold our attention more intently and for a longer duration. And just as importantly, we learn to still the rest of the mind, giving it a much needed break from over-stimulation. There are many other worthy varieties of meditation methods, with different effects and roles in a practice. But see my overview, Meditation 101, for an intro to this form.
2) Hourly Alarm: This is a type of practice one wouldn’t be expected to do every day. But it’s more like Lent – something we could do for a certain time, in order to have a transformative effect or jar us out of our old habits. For a few days, you could set an hourly alarm on your watch or phone. As you go through your day, the alarm will be a reminder to take a mindful moment. You can stop, remember your intention of being more mindful, take a few focused breaths and you clear your mind, and then move that attention back to what you are doing.
3) Tangible Item: Often we wear items to remind us of certain values, or teachings, or to keep something in mind. I wear mala beads on my wrist as a reminder of my practice (along with values like mindfulness, compassion, patience, diligence, etc). For another example of a practice you would only want to do occasionally, for a limited time, consider holding the item in-hand.
Once I was able to escape forgetfulness about eating habits, by holding a small stone in my hand. That stone represented my intention to remember to watch certain ways I would eat without even thinking about it. For an entire week I held the small stone in my left hand. It was small enough that I could do most things while holding it. Unless I was sleeping it was always in my hand, without exception. This made it impossible for me to forget. By the time I stopped, I had built up the new habit. One could try this method with anger or worry issues, or nearly anything involving mindful mental habits.
4) Negative Visualization: This is a somewhat advanced practice which helps us to monitor where we are at in terms of anxiety and non-attachment. It is basically about imagining, meditating upon, or thinking about unfortunate scenarios – but not in a negative worrying way. Rather, so that we can monitor how we are feeling and the deep initial emotional impulses that arise in us as we dwell on these unpleasant things. A lot of details about this should be learned before attempting, because if done wrong, or if one is not in the right place for this, it could be harmful. For more information on this practice, see our page on it.
These methods create a space between stimulus and response, and help us to be more aware of the emotional responses rising within us. And that gives more opportunity to examine our responses. Through this, we can begin to build the foundations of equanimity – which I should discuss in more detail in a future article.
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