Lately, I’ve been reflecting on the importance of the attitudinal component of mindfulness. Mindfulness is more than just mechanically paying attention in the present moment. Mind you, the awareness and self-regulation of attention that comes through training the mind to be in the present moment is worth developing. It is great for focus and sustained concentration. But, back to the main story. In mindfulness, how we pay attention is just as important as the basics of attention training. A mindful attitude is characterised by curiosity, care, non-judgementalness, acceptance, patience and more. These attitudinal qualities can be cultivated through mindfulness meditation and in daily life.
Cultivating mindful attitudes in daily life
A great way to cultivate these attitudes in daily life is to notice when the opposite attitude is present – when we have shut down, are not interested, are judgemental, resist something and are impatient. When these attitudes are present we usually feel tight and disconnected. They are a reaction to not having what we want (or having what we don’t want) and generally are maintained through a repeated story in the mind that “this shouldn’t be happening.” Those tight and disconnected feelings can provide useful information. It is helpful to acknowledge their nature and notice what else is present (bodily sensations, emotions, thoughts, judgements). That tight and disconnected state becomes unhelpful if it reactively determines our behaviour (which it so often does). Pausing in these moments and tuning in with interest to what we are feeling can be a useful way to move out of the “story” and come back into a non-reactive presence. This can be done through bringing a curious, caring, patient attention to what is present in the body. The pause helps us to bring key parts of our brain back on-line (pre-frontal cortex) so that we are able to make choices that are more skilful.
Remembering to pause
Without a doubt, every day will deliver multiple moments to notice resistance, reaction and judgementalness. The trick is to remember to pause in those moments, notice and name what is going on. For example, before tweeting abusive comments about the judiciary, a head of state might pause. In pausing, he/she might notice an increase of heat in the body, identify an upsurge of anger and revenge, witness thoughts such as “They can’t do this to ME!” In the pause, it then becomes possible to move out of the reactivity of fight/flight/freeze and chose a response that is more consistent with the rule of law and recognises the value of the separation of power in a democracy.
It is the same process for those of us who are not heads of state. When the person in front of you in the queue finds yet another thing to ask, there may be an opportunity to observe a movement into reactivity. As your reactivity is revving up, pause and experiment with re-connecting with some of the attitudinal qualities of mindfulness: acceptance, non-judgementalness, patience… It is not easy but these attitudes are worth developing. You come out ahead as does everyone else.
Research into attitudinal components of mindfulness
Some interesting recent experimental research shows the benefits of remembering these attitudes. In the research, people underwent a public speaking stress test and were then implicitly primed with mindfulness principles such as “letting go,” “present moment,” “non-judgmental” and “acceptance.” This was done in such a way that the participants were not aware that this was happening (details in the research). Compared to the control group, participants who were implicitly reminded of these mindfulness principles/attitudes had lower perceived stress and a greater decline in cortisol. There was no meditation involved – it was simply being reminded of these attitudes that seems to have lowered stress.
Don’t be fooled though. If you want to have access to those beneficial mindful attitudes it helps to intentionally cultivate them. They don’t always arise automatically. Mindfulness meditation is one of the best ways to develop them. Mindfulness meditation provides a laboratory in which we observe changes in the body, mind and emotions. Bringing curiosity, care, acceptance, non-judgementalness and patience to what we observe during our mindfulness meditation is how we strengthen our access to these mindful attitudes.
Try it out for yourself and see what happens.
Kathryn Choules (PhD)
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