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MIDL 15/52: Observing Attention Move 1

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In MIDL Mindfulness Training 15/52 you change your focus from observing the elemental experience of your body in the previous trainings, to developing the skill of observing the habitual movements of your attention away from them. This is done by using the elemental quality of the touch of your hands as a reference point from which to observe when awareness shifts towards habitual thinking. Observing these shifts in attention strengthens mindfulness, lowering the time lost within habitual thinking thereby allowing you to observe when it arises and eventually the desire to think the thought itself. Submit Your Question

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Stop Thinking

Your Question: When told not to think are we not thinking about "not thinking"?

Stephen Procter: The intention to 'not think' is used to create a gap in the thought stream so that the arising and process of thinking can be observed. The intention to not think is not a thought but rather a desire to 'not do'. This at first can seem quite strange for us since we are all driven 'to do', with the abandoning of doing, even momentary, a gap in thinking is created.


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Observing Thinking

Your Question: Elsewhere you indicated thinking and awareness are separate. So in this exercise, when we stop thinking, do we continue to focus our awareness on our hands or do we let everything go blank? Letting it all go blank seems to make it easier for thoughts to arise, and perhaps makes it easier to detect them.

Stephen Procter: We keep awareness of the touch of our hands in mind but in a very gentle way. Like holding onto a rock in a flowing river just by the tips of our fingers, trying to notice the moment our fingers let go. It is the gentleness of the grip on our meditation object that is important. If we become too firmly focussed on the touch of our hands then the concentration developed will suppress the thinking process and no thoughts will arise.

It is necessary to relax the grip of our awareness and allow the mind to produce thought. This allows us to use the touch of the hands to observe thinking when it occurs. Creating the intention to not think and then relaxing that intention, allowing the mind to go blank, makes it easy to observe thinking as it arises.


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Can't See Attention Move

Your Question: This week was challenging for me. I find it very difficult to observe my attention moving. It seems as if I am just thinking and evaluating but not really observing. How can I improve this?

Stephen Procter: The difficulty in observing our attention as it moves with clarity arises because one or all of these four factors of attention below, have not been developed to a strong enough level yet. When developed they give us the skill of releasing the mind from the control of fixed concentration, allowing habitual movement to arise and 'staying on the horses back' as it were.

The ability to "stay on the horses back" as it were is based on the cultivation of four things:
1. A sense of investigation.
2. Mindfulness.
3. Momentary concentration.
4. A refined skill in softening.

Exercise: Sit down without a guided meditation playing, hold your hands gently one in the other resting in your lap. Be aware of all the sensations within your body, also be aware of the touch of your hands. Put effort towards remembering to remember to be aware of the touch of your hands. Observe whenever your attention moves from the experience of that touch.

If judgement or commentary in the form of thinking and evaluating arise use a few softening breaths to relax them and re-establish awareness within your body and touch of your hands. This is the way to strengthen the foundation of your meditation practice, treat observing your attention move like a game - make it fun - it is a game you will only get better at - you can't lose.


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Observing Attention Difficult

Your Question: I believe this is an important meditation in the series but I am not grasping your point about being aware of the movement away from touch of hands (or body sense or contact with the floor). In the meditation, I am aware of my hands touching and then I am off somewhere in a memory. I have no awareness of a transition between the two. This is my 4th time doing it. I will keep trying but the inability to sense a transition is striking to me.

Stephen Procter: You said: " I am aware of my hands touching and then I am off somewhere in a memory. I have no awareness of a transition between the two."

Reply: This is wonderful, this is exactly what you are meant to see, you are given the 'touch' to create a reference point from which you can observe your attention habitually move and most importantly the collapsing of awareness of that transition of attention. Literally you are observing a collapse of mindfulness. When mindfulness is forgotten awareness fades, when awareness fades habit takes over and your mind will habitually absorb into thinking.

Keep placing effort into observing the transition point of your attention from one experience to another. At first you will have periods of unawareness of this movement; this is not important. It is the gentle effort to notice shifts in your attention and also the acknowledging of when you have been lost within habitual thinking that is important. This effort towards noticing that your attention has wandered is what cultivates mindfulness and momentary concentration.

In this way gradually your mindfulness of these habitual shifts of your attention will strengthen and the periods in which you wander off before being aware of it will shorten. With practice you will be able to observe the very arising of thinking itself without being lost within it. Keep up the investigation, treat it like a game. Once you have learnt this skill you can apply it to all the meditation training that you do.


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Is it Possible to Not Think?

Your Question: Thinking kind of sneaks up on me. I only realize that I am thinking when I am already in the middle of it. To actually stop thinking is an impossible task. I do try very hard, I concentrate on my hands until they feel on fire but nevertheless I catch myself thinking again and again. Is it REALLY possible not to think? I wonder.

Stephen Procter: Yes it is possible to experience the mind free from thinking. The thinking that you are experiencing is habitual thinking. The task of habitual thinking is to verbalise our world and our place in it. It is not that you are ‘doing’ the thinking; habitual thinking is just habit talking to you. Habit try's to reinforce itself. Like everything else it wants to exist and encourages this existence. It does this by commenting on the world around you in a way that herds you in a direction that will reinforce the habitual pattern, it also produces ‘feeling’ to encourage this behaviour.

The way to break the pattern of habitual thinking is not by trying to stop it. It is by putting effort into trying to notice the moment your attention moves away from your meditation object to the thought process. The effort of noticing your attention move is how mindfulness is developed, as mindfulness strengthens your ability to catch the moment your attention moves becomes faster until you will notice the thought arise without being lost within it or forgetting your meditation object.

This is what the meditation object is for during MIDL mindfulness meditation, it is not there for you to remember but to give you a reference point to notice every time you forget it.


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Not Noticing Mind Move

Your Question: I'm having difficulty noticing the point when my attention shifts. I seem to notice I'm elsewhere but not when it happened. Also, I have been very aware of my heart beat and blood flow since the first exercise. That is a constant distraction for me. Any advice?

Stephen Procter: Not being able to notice when your attention shifts is normal. I have given you a meditation object so that you will forget it, your meditation object is your reference point so that you can learn to notice when your attention moves away from it. Keep your meditation object in mind but with the intention of noticing whenever your attention shifts away from it. The very effort of trying to notice these shifts in attention and the period of unawareness during that gap, is how mindfulness is cultivated.

Practice this regularly in a soft and gentle way and your mindfulness will strengthen and the period of time of unawareness will shorten. With training, your mindfulness will catch the movement of your attention so quickly that the gap of unawareness will not exist and your continuity of mindfulness will be continuous.

In answer to your second question, the beat of your heart and blood flow is not a distraction - there are no distractions within this practice - they are just more sensations within your body. The thought "my heart beating" "my blood flowing" - that is the distraction and it is this thought process about the experience of "throbbing" "movement" "tension" "warmth" etc. that creates the story about the experience and the obsession that comes with it.

During meditation we have to be careful not to identify with any stories that our mind creates around the experience. Within this story of your heart beating there is aversion: "I should not be experiencing this." "If only this would go away then I could meditate." This is the game that the mind plays during meditation. The general rule is whenever your attention draws towards an experience during meditation practice observe and soften your relationship towards it.


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Hard to Keep Image in Mind

Your Question: This was a wonderful exercise and I found it quite challenging. When we needed to 'not think' and just keep our hands in mind, I felt like I was struggling with all my might to cling to that image, like a scene from a movie where the person is losing their grip before falling. Not that scary though!

Stephen Procter: When doing this exercise, instead of bringing an 'image' to mind of your hands touching each other, focus on the sensations that arise from the touch of your hands such as 'pressure' , 'hardness' , 'softness' , warmth' , 'coolness' etc. Keep these sensations in mind but do not hang on to them too tightly. Instead be gently aware of them and see if you can notice any time your attention is drawn away to a thought.

Paying attention to the movement away from the touch of your hands is how mindfulness is developed during this MIDL Mindfulness Training. The feeling of struggle to hang onto your meditation object that you experienced is very interesting, it has much to teach you about the habitual patterns of your mind. The 'pull away' that you are experiencing like 'losing your grip' is the pull of your habitual patterns of thinking trying to draw your attention into them. This is what this training is meant to do, make the habitual thinking patterns obvious so that they can be observed and understood.


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How Do We Acknowledge?

Your Question: During the meditation session you ask has "has your attention wondered and if it has, where has it wandered to? acknowledge it and bring your attention back" My question is how do you acknowledge it? and what is the importance of acknowledging it?

Stephen Procter: We acknowledge that our attention has wandered by bringing awareness to the present experience and literally rubbing awareness in this experience. This is similar to putting your hand through a hole in the wall to ‘feel’ what is on the other side through the sense of touch. In mindfulness meditation we bring awareness to our current experience and mentally ‘feel’ the experience through this sense of touch. This ‘touch’ can be aided by using simple labels to describe the experience such as “hearing”, “thinking”, “itching”, “worrying” etc.

Acknowledging the current experience is important because it is part of investigation. This has three purposes:
1. Acknowledging the current experience re-establishes mindfulness.
2. It applies awareness towards the current experience which cultivates applied and sustained attention in order to develop concentration.
3. The actual experience is needed to develop understanding in terms of the three characteristics and cultivate wisdom.


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