Leaders, as well as most of us while growing up, have been widely encouraged not to make impulsive, emotional decisions, or to take action based on incomplete information, or a limited or one-sided understanding of the situation. The intellectual foundations for this advice are familiar. They appear in well-developed bodies of knowledge associated with terms like “emotional intelligence,” “social intelligence,” “self-awareness,” and, of course, “good parenting!”
The best of such advice does not deny, condemn, or disparage emotions, or impulses, or the limits of information, but encourages each of us to train ourselves to recognize when these conditions are present, and to take them into account before acting in any situation that calls upon us to make a judgment, decide upon a course and take action.
Of course, if we look closely enough, if we are present and aware enough to recognize the depth, complexity, and richness already here with us, in any moment of our lives, in any situation, in any relationship — even our relationship with ourselves — the critical importance of cultivating awareness over ignorance stands out. This is why choosing to practice mindfulness can be so helpful and empowering. Mindfulness practice strengthens attention skills and promotes access to the dimension of awareness in each of us that notices without judgment — is aware and allowing without interference — and thereby illuminates, the entire universe of conditions present within us and around us in any moment.
The mindfulness teacher Joseph Goldstein once observed that “mindfulness is not the same as recognition.” He gave the example of anger. One can recognize when anger is present and still be unaware (unmindful) of what else is also present as a condition — even a causal condition of the anger — in the present moment. For example, one can recognize anger, but not notice that aversion to the anger is also present, or what deeper beliefs and opinions, or misinformed inner narratives, and fears that fuel the anger are there. In this sense, recognition is narrowed attention and thus, can limit greater awareness. Mindfulness is never limited. Mindful attention is flexible, accepting, and inclusive. It is open to, and penetrating, of all conditions present in this moment.
I have often heard participants in my mindfulness classes express this confusion of recognition and mindfulness. They ask, “I know I am angry (or sad, or anxious, or something else unpleasant), so what do I do now?” Caught in reaction to what they recognize, they are unmindful of the reaction and of what other conditions are also present and impacting them. Typically, the mindfulness practice guidance in response to such comments is to encourage trust and resting in awareness, to re-establish attention on the experience as it is unfolding, and to look more closely at additional elements of experience also present in this moment. This instruction can be supported with questions such as:
A practice suggestion I have found extremely helpful for deepening into the reality of comprehensive, non-interfering awareness that is mindfulness, is an explicit reminder of the simple, yet profound shift in view that occurs as we are practicing being mindful in any moment. That suggestion is: “Taking the position of awareness, let yourself be receptive of the present moment as experience.”
We don’t have to manufacture mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness means recognizing the awareness that is already here, and trusting in the ability to be aware that we already have. This could mean that being receptive of the present moment as experience is as natural as discovering what it means to be embodied by directly noticing — as changing experience — the felt impressions arising through the bodily senses in any moment — sounds, tactile sensations, sights, smells, and tastes. It can also mean noticing thoughts as another arising experience, in any form they take in our minds. And, noticing — as just another experience — the state of our mind — sleepiness, excitement, desire, aversion, doubt, irritation, or something else.
I had occasion to practice and benefit from being “receptive of the present moment as experience” recently in a challenging situation. I accompanied a close relative, who was in failing health, to her physician’s office in a visit that concluded with her being hospitalized. While all this was happening, when there was really nothing more I could do but offer compassion and presence, I found it quite helpful to establish mindfulness in myself and to view and allow all of what was happening in that exam room as unfolding, moment-by-moment experience. This included what was happening in me — in my own heart, mind, and body! Taking the view of all present moment conditions as unfolding experience, I was better able to ride the waves of fear and worry in myself, be less reactive, and to remain more fully present and supportive for my loved one.
Here is a brief mindfulness practice to invite and encourage you to explore the power of the view you take about practice to help you open more deeply into the vast territory of awareness.
Choose any focus for mindful attention you like and, resting in awareness, let your attention settle there. When you notice that other conditions call your attention — sounds, sensations, or thoughts, for example — still allowing yourself to rest in awareness, remind yourself all of these conditions can be viewed simply as changing experiences in the senses, in mind, and in body. Allowing and noticing any reactions or emotions that arise also simply as experiences coming and going in your awareness. You can practice with this shift in view for a single breath, one step, or for longer if you like. What do you discover?
Jeffrey Brantley, MD, DLFAPA, is a physician, psychiatrist, mindfulness and meditation teacher, and author. He is an assistant consulting professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Duke University Medical Center, and is a founding faculty member of Duke Integrative Medicine, where he started and directed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSR) for fifteen years. He currently continues with Duke Integrative Medicine as a consultant, and leads or co-leads programs in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness Training for Professionals, and mindfulness based programming. His most recent book, with Wendy Millstine, is Daily meditations for calming your angry mind: mindfulness practices to free yourself from anger, New Harbinger Publications, Oakland, California, 2015. His website is: http://www.calmingyourangrymind.com
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