Embrace mindful living: Cultivating peripheral awareness and sustained attention

This is part four in our series on attention. Find part three here.

How hard can it be to count breaths, really? That thought most probably has passed many a mind before trying mindfulness meditation for the first time. But as most novice meditation practitioners come to realize, this most basic of exercises can be surprisingly hard to pull off for more extended periods. One moment you are focusing on your inhales and exhales but in the next, you start to drift away without noticing, daydreaming, planning, or ruminating on past events. Suddenly the bubble pops and you are unsure of how long you were lost in thoughts.

Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment, non-judgemental, awareness of your thoughts and feelings, bodily sensations, and surroundings. Contemplatives and scientists alike agree that this practice has shown many benefits for our well-being; and that it can improve our working memory and attentional control (Van Vugt & Jha, 2011). 

In his book The Mind Illuminated, Culadasa (John Yates Ph.D.) offers a comprehensive meditation guide that combines Buddhist teachings with research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. He describes how mindfulness can be said to be an optimal interaction between stable attention and peripheral awareness. If attention is the spotlight that helps you to analyze and interpret objects within its scope, peripheral awareness is the canvas of everything our senses take in. He notes that:

Peripheral awareness helps us stay alert to our surroundings and to use attention as effectively as possible. When peripheral awareness doesn’t do its job, attention moves blindly, without guidance, and can be taken off guard. (Culadasa, 2015, The Mind Illuminated, Conscious Experience and the Objectives of Mediation, p. 31)

Even though mindfulness has its roots in the Buddhist tradition, where attentional stability has been a core part of meditative practice throughout the centuries, with an ultimate goal of awakening and enlightenment, the practice of cultivating mindfulness has made its way into the secular mainstream. This contemporary practice has been widely adopted as an intervention by the positive psychology paradigm, which focuses on what contributes to a good life - both on the individual level and for societies as a whole. This was done through the pioneering work of Jon Kabat-Zinn that culminated in his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. 

The Greater Good Magazine, published by the Greater Good Science Center, committed to the science of well-being, at the University of California, lists common components of practicing mindfulness, like  

  • Paying attention to your breathing, especially during intense emotions
  • Putting a close lens on what you are sensing in a given moment, what you see, hear, and smell
  • Recognizing the impermanence of your thoughts and emotions, to avoid being bound by them
  • Tuning in on your body’s physical sensations, like the sensation of walking on different surfaces 
  • Finding “micro-moments” of mindfulness in everyday life, to reset your focus and sense of purpose

To cultivate these skills common exercises include

  • Bringing attention to your breath as you inhale and exhale, a common practice in many forms of meditation 
  • Scanning your body when meditating, to bring close attention to the feel of all parts of your body at the present moment, from head to toes
  • Slowly using all your senses to observe one single - preferably edible - thing, like a raisin, from the tactile feeling in your hand to the taste and texture in your mouth

In his book The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind, Alan Wallace explores the Buddhistic discipline of Shamata, a path of attentional development with its ten stages of attentional development, ranging from a mind that cannot focus for more than a few seconds, to stable attention sustained for hours on end. Even though the advanced stages described in the book are out of reach for most people that do not adhere to highly dedicated and rigorous meditation practice, even sprinkles of mindful attention throughout the day can make the difference, or as Alan Wallace aptly puts it:

Just as a meal can pass by unnoticed, so can the rest of our lives.  

Fredrik Köhler

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