Being mindful in daily life, during conversations and while engaged in intellectual activities, is a common challenge. An even greater challenge is to be mindful in emotionally intense and highly charged situations, and when a lot of different things are happening at once. And the latter are the circumstances when mindfulness actually matters the most. Many of us somehow learn to do this as a result of meditating, but usually without quite knowing how. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how we do it, so that we can teach it to others. This is what I have learned:
We have two different ways of “knowing” things that usually go on simultaneously – attention, and peripheral awareness. Mindfulness really means using peripheral awareness to be introspectively aware of what is going on in our own minds, and also the larger context of the situation we’re in. Attention focuses in on details, so it can’t observe the mind in an ongoing way, and it can’t provide context. In conversations, intellectual tasks, and any kind of emotionally intense situation, attention becomes hyper-focused and peripheral awareness disappears. That is what causes us to lose mindfulness!
The second instruction Daniel gave you is all about this. It is quite possible to be observing your own mind in peripheral awareness at the same time that attention is focused on something else, like a conversation. When you do this, it gives you the feeling of “watching the mind” even while the mind is engaged in carrying on the conversation, or whatever else it is that attention happens to be engaged in. In other words, two ways of knowing, happening at the same time, provide the “mirror”. It allows the mind’s activities to be illuminated from “behind”, or “within” or “above”, or however you might like to describe it.
It takes practice to get good at doing this. And being grounded in body awareness is a great way to get into this place. But no amount of practice and skill will get you very far in intense emotional situations, because attention sucks up all of your capacity for consciousness, leaving none behind for peripheral awareness. This is where meditation really helps. The mind becomes more powerful, so, providing you have developed the habit of introspective peripheral awareness, you are able to mindful even in situations where you might otherwise not be.
The reason that some of us have acquired this skill at sustaining peripheral awareness and this enhanced conscious power of the mind is that we have been using it all along to help us succeed in our meditation. Early on, we noticed that when we became too focused, we either forgot what we were doing or we got dull and dozy. So we learned to avoid becoming hyper-focused by sustaining peripheral awareness while we focused. Then, the way we ultimately overcame dullness and distractions was by recognizing them as soon as they arose so that we could correct for them. And we did this by converting our peripheral awareness into introspective awareness so that we always knew what was happening in our minds. Eventually, not only introspective peripheral awareness, but the correcting process itself became automatic, and we were good meditators as a result. But sustained introspective peripheral awareness as a habit spills over into daily life as well. So we also found ourselves being much more mindful, even while working and talking to people and fighting with our partners. This was, of course, a tremendous bonus, and actually leads to Insight.
Those of us who have acquired this skill and ability have done it largely by accident. I know that my own successes in both meditation and life would have come about much more quickly if someone had explained these details to me. So that is why I am so happy to pass it along to you. Cultivate peripheral awareness both on and off the cushion. learn to sustain peripheral awareness even when you are focusing very closely. Transmute peripheral awareness from being all about what is happening outside of the mind to being about what is happening inside the mind as well. Then you can:
- Apply your attention fully to the conversation (or other activity), while at the same time
- Remaining grounded in the present circumstances, aware of your body, and aware of what is going on in your mind – i.e. what you are feeling and doing or saying or thinking, why you are doing or saying or thinking it, and whether or not it is really what you want to be doing or saying or thinking. In other words, clear comprehension, rooted in a habitual matrix of awareness, that has been perfected in meditation.
- When you have achieved unification of mind and single-pointed concentration in meditation, you will be experiencing powerful, perfectly focused attention (i.e. directed and sustained attention) coupled with equally powerful introspective awareness of the ongoing state and activities of your own mind (i.e. mindfulness with clear comprehension). These are jhāna factors, and are naturally accompanied by the other jhāna factors of joy and happiness. They transfer quite readily to daily life, although obviously without the same intensity as in meditation. The result in daily life is not only powerful mindfulness, but happiness, tranquility, and equanimity.