Mindfully Observing Mindlessness

Mindful observation of mindlessness is inconceivable…and possible. It is inconceivable in that conceptualizing is something other than meditating. In fact, it is the opposite and, therefore, cannot be a solution to mindlessness. Put another way, you can’t solve an excessive thinking problem by thinking about it. Stepping back from mental chatter–not into it–enhances mindful awareness. A brain full of chatter is like a water glass that is too full; there is no room for more water. But there is plenty of room for water when the glass is empty. Decluttering the mind makes room for simple observation…just noticing without evaluating what you’re noticing.

When meditating, I’m seldom aware of the precise moment when drifting starts. With consistent practice, my sharpened attention notices the drifting sooner than when I’m not consistently practicing. Meditating is not about stopping thoughts, a common misconception, but about turning up the lights so you can see your thoughts, feelings, and life around you. The more you practice, the more you see.

Awareness of your internal and external experience does not require thinking about your experience. What did an apple taste like before humans had language to describe it? Tasting an apple requires no thought or description of the experience.

When meditating, here is what you should do the moment you become aware that you are starting to get lost in thought: Don’t waste a thought over it! Just gently return your attention to present-moment awareness…to your “observation deck.” 

A cluttered brain wanders aimlessly. Think about what your mind is like when you are falling asleep. Your mind-wandering state is what some neurologists call the “default system,” the receding of alertness. When you wake up in the morning, your brain returns to alertness as the default system recedes and the “executive system” comes back online. In your daily life, when you recognize the drift and return your attention to the present moment, you are exercising the executive system. 

I believe that most adults with ADHD are unfamiliar with an open state of awareness. We don’t go there naturally. We’re too stuck in a selective state of attention, always focused on something, often a low-priority activity. Getting stuck in selective attention is one reason we don’t notice the clock or competing priorities. We can get lost in a task without regard for its relative importance because determing relative importance (prioritizing) requires an open state of awareness. We tend instead to lock our attention into what is right in front of us, to the exclusion of just about everything else, including our spouses!

Open awareness is necessary for intentionally directing your attention. The last time I was on a local television talk show, I noticed the absence of camera operators I had come to know. The studio was now equipped with robotic cameras. Before going on the air, the interviewer pointed to a small camera behind me, mounted high on a wall near the ceiling. A director sits in a booth directing the four robotic cameras using that small camera on the wall. He makes continuous decisions about zooming in and out, switching cameras on and off, and moving them into position to shift the viewer’s observation (attention) from the talk-show set to the news desk.

I told the interviewer, “That small camera is what my brain needs!” I need the wide-angle view to expand my awareness, the zoom feature to focus in and then zoom back out, and the authority to direct my attention to where I need it to go.

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