A long time ago, in what seems like a second life, I had a ritual on Tuesday night …
After work, I walked down Manhattan’s west side until I reached an indescribable office building. Invariably, a group of people, of all ages and backgrounds, flooded the lobby waiting to be crammed into a small elevator and taken to the sixth floor. When the door opened, we slipped our shoes, put down our appliances, and nodded softly, before settling on the pillow for thirty minutes of silence.
Sometimes it takes the absence of something to recognize its value. (Hello, for the past twelve months.) Where the practice of mindfulness used to be a big part of my life, as well as many things during a pandemic, I let it slip away just when I needed it most. I miss the moments of simply being present with what you are.
So this week I talked to a meditation teacher Adreanna Limbach about how to carefully incorporate attention into our daily lives.
First, what is attention?
At the most basic level is the definition to which I return Jon Kabat-Zinn: “Consciousness that occurs when we pay attention intentionally, in the present moment, without judgment.” I love that it separates the difference between daily attention and the practice of awareness, which is not judgment.
How to apply it in practice?
First, it is important to note that there are four grounds for care:
– Emotions and feelings
– Mind and thoughts
– Phenomena, which means the world around us
A shortcut to attention, at least for me, falls into my senses. To do this, take a moment to close your eyes and move through the awareness of each of these four foundations.
For anyone unfamiliar, can you walk me through how you do it?
[Ed note: At this point, Adreanna assumes a soothing voice that makes me feel instantly at peace.] Keep your eyes slightly closed. Take a few deep breaths, feeling the weight of your body on the surface below you. Notice all the places where the body comes in contact with it. Pay attention to the texture of your clothes. Feel your breath move in and out. Notice the sounds in the room and the air temperature. Notice the emotional tone in your body – not just your mind, but any physical sensations as an emotion manifests. Notice any thoughts. After a minute, just move into space. Take a few more deep breaths, open your eyes and come back.
In practical terms, how useful is attention?
The most honestly helpful way I’ve found is when I find myself particularly charged with feeling – namely negative, like stress, jealousy, anger, sadness – it will only take me a minute to navigate through the checklist above. It also helped me personally how I feel about control. My own tension and anxiety stems from always trying to keep my finger on the pulse of the 17 things I need to stay on top of. But being able to go back to my body and be aware of the present moment as it can now can help me relax.
What would you say to someone who is intimidated by meditation? Or who might have tried but not held on?
If you’ve tried meditation and feel bad about it, the fun and potentially radical thing about attention is that there’s nothing you would do ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’. Almost everything else in our lives can be measured or evaluated on a scale of good or bad, right or wrong. But the whole ethos of meditation is that there is neither good nor bad. If you sit down and all you notice is that you’ve spent five restless minutes unable to pay attention to your breath and surroundings, that’s still great, because it means you’ve been present enough to notice how busy you are internally.
In your book, you described how when we run on autopilot, we can miss the subtle moments of beauty around us every day. How can we practice this in our present life, where many of us are stuck in the same environments day in and day out?
When you get to know something excessively, adjusted blindness develops around it. So take a moment to still be in the room you’ve been to a million times and you’re probably using for more purposes – work, sleep, school – and take a break. Look down at the floor for a minute, then consciously look on purpose and notice what catches your eye. Notice the plant, the light plate of the midday sun, the way the color of the pillowcase intersects with the color of the wall. It is our responsibility to get out of the way, to catch the beauty.
Do you have words to share with someone who might experience a pandemic burnout?
The truth is, we change from day to day. Every day we bring a whole new set of thoughts and feelings and physical sensations and moods into those same old situations and the same old environments. Carefulness helps us notice what is different. It turned out to be a reverse judgment of curiosity. Bringing a spirit of curiosity to this moment, even when it’s a challenge, even when it feels like we’re doing the same things in exactly the same environment, invites us to say, ‘What’s new here, what’s fresh here?’
The practice of mindfulness is one of inclusiveness – when we meditate, we breathe with sadness, with sadness, with anxiety, with overwhelm. When a feeling arises, we don’t have to cut it off or push it away. We invite these unpleasant emotions to the table and practice being with them, without judgment. Best of all, mindfulness is not something extra or something we have to acquire – it’s something we all have thanks to being human. If we can create the conditions for the emergence of consciousness, we all have access to it.
Thanks a lot, Adreanna. Do you have a practice of mindfulness? Have you ever tried to meditate? Do you have any thoughts or tips to share?
For anyone interested in more about attention, I highly recommend Adreanna’s book, Tea and cake with demons, to whom I have addressed many times. It reads like a conversation with a friend full of love, full of wisdom and support. And to experience her soothing voice for yourself, Adreanna’s website has a lot of resources including free guided meditations.