mindfulness basics: the pulse of attention


The most important concept to understand when trying to grasp the concept of mindfulness is the pulse of attention. There are many paths to getting a handle on the pulse of attention, and by no means is mere understanding of the concept enough to achieve a solid mindfulness practice, but it’s the concept that keeps many of the practices together.

I think it helps to look at the etymology of the words attention and intention. Notice the “tend” in both those words. Etymologically, that comes from a root that means “to stretch out.” Think of a tentacle.

Think of your attention as actually reaching out and invisibly being somewhere. This is especially easy if you’re doing a localized sensation meditation (I like to concentrate on my toes). You try to concentrate on the sensation for a while, but eventually your mind drifts off and you have to refocus. This is the “pulse.” As you get better, you can focus for longer and longer and slow the pulse down. When you first start, it’s pretty fast.

This isn’t all that different from the fast, shallow breathing of anxiety or the corresponding fast heart rate (though it happens for different reasons).

If you think as though your attention is actually invisibly reaching down to your toes or wherever else you’re focusing your attention, you’re starting to understand the nature of the pulse of attention. This renewal of focus is also the biggest concept behind a mindful lifestyle.

Usually our attention isn’t waving around. It’s not like we’re looking at something and then something else catches our eye, much as this gets played up. Most of the time, we drift into our own thoughts first, and then something happens and we send our attention back out to that object. It’s really not so different from the contractions of a heart.

There are many reasons for this and as you explore those reasons at the higher end of mindfulness, once the pulse of your attention has really slowed down, it becomes very deeply philosophical. But to start, I think it’s important to focus on slowing down the pulse of attention.

This is often called concentration, or, etymologically, “bringing to center.” It’s also called focus, like a lens. See how thinking of these things spatially helps you to make sense of them? It’s through systems like these that we come to understand our minds and effect positive changes in our lives.

Related posts:

  1. why breath is used in mindfulness exercises
  2. mindfulness basics: sitting
  3. mindfulness basics: dealing with distractions
  4. mindfulness basics: a beginner’s meditation
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