Attention is our natural aptitude to orient to what needs to be attended to. So attention is not something we strain to do, it is what happens under circumstances that warrant it. To use an analogy: Hunger is not something we strain to do, it is the sensation that comes up when we need to eat.
The mind strives for efficiency. Think of it as going through a scanning process to determine whether anything requires special attention. As long as no special danger is identified, as long as things seem familiar, within the norm, there is no reason to trigger attention.
In order to be a shift from mindless to mindful, what we need to do is to set the stage for that. How do we do this? By realizing that we do not have all the information we need. To do this, we need to interrupt our default mode.
How can we game the system? A mindful pause disrupts the status quo. As you notice that you are on autopilot, you are no longer totally on autopilot. There is at least some part of you that is engaged in paying attention to your relationship with the environment. Unless you do that, you stay on autopilot.
Once you notice, once you start to be engaged, it is possible to go further. This is when you can start to be curious about what it might be like to be less passive, to have a different relationship with your environment. You have activated the mindfulness process.
It takes intentionality to shift from the mindless autopilot mode. The way to do that is essentially similar to what happens when we change directions in our car and the GPS recalculates the situation. Something changes, so the GPS has to take a break from its programmed route, to re-orient and redirect.
When we pause, we take a break. This is a moment where our mind, our body, our whole organism, recalculate how we are vis-a-vis the situation. This recalculation is new information about the situation, in a very subjective way. That is: It is a felt sense of what’s happening to “me”, a sense of the potential danger or opportunity, and the beginning of an intuitive response to it.
We are not necessarily conscious of our assessment of the situation and of our response. In fact, much of the time, if we experience it at all, it is as at a pre-verbal level, like a fuzzy felt sense.
We are not computers or logical machines. Our minds evolved to give us a sense of how to face dangers and opportunities. The assessments it provides are not scholarly treatises, but action-oriented information. Subjective, as opposed to objective. This subjective information builds into a sense of who we are relative to the world, and into a sense of meaning and purpose. We are not talking here about lofty definitions of meaning and purpose: It could simply be that, at a given moment, my purpose is to tie my shoes. It’s just what is at the moment.
What are the implications of this perspective?
Being mindless means being disconnected from that moment-by-moment sense of meaning and purpose. No amount of lofty thinking about “meaning and purpose” can compensate for that primal alienation.
What we’re talking about is: The practice of mindfulness involves paying attention to a sense of self. Not as an abstract philosophical inquiry into what “self” might be. More like a sense of living life as a koan: Who is it that is facing the situation? Who is this “me” that I experience when I am mindful?
This may seem a little strange if you’ve read that mindfulness requires that you get rid of the self. It may seem contradictory, but it’s actually not. What we’re getting rid of is the idea of the self as a fixed object, something that is solid.
So what is it that we practice?
Being mindful involves tracking our felt sense of our interaction with people and situations, moment by moment. This gives us a different sense of self, arguably a sense of our truer self. Not as a rigid construct, but the self as the unfolding of moment-by-moment experience, as we make moment-by-moment decisions.
When we are involved in any form of mindfulness practice, we are acutely aware of how fluid our mind is, moment by moment. This leads us to let go of the idea that there is a fixed mind or a fixed self. On the other hand, as we are paying attention to what happens moment by moment in our interactions, we notice a sense of the process. We may as well call that experience (the process, and how pausing affects the process) the experience of the Self. In this sense, all of our life is a potentially mindful practice.