Explore how the three mechanisms of mindfulness can support your meditation practice
Dr. Shauna Shapiro, a professor at Santa Clara University who has published over 150 research papers concerning mindfulness, and her colleagues say there are three mechanisms that mutually reinforce each other to create our ability to be mindful. They are intention, attitude and attention.
However what I have discovered is that not only are these mechanisms true for how mindful awareness works operationally but, they can also be used as keys to unlock formal mindfulness meditation practice.
Key 1. Set your intention
If we want to do something, it is helpful to be clear about our intention or purpose. This helps the brain support us in taking actions that align with our wishes and not be distracted. Setting our intention is like using a compass to set a direction of travel, it points the way and shapes our mindset.
To bring mindfulness to life, to start with it has to be something we purposely choose – with continual practice it later becomes unconscious – so, we set our intention to pay attention to each moment, as it unfolds. You might do this in the morning as you prepare for your day, when you do a mindful check-in or before a challenging conversation.
Setting intentions corrals the brain to work with us
Setting an intention is also relevant to formal meditation practice. This might be attending to sensations of breath, noticing when our attention wanders and returning to the breath. Other times it might be to do that and to use labelling when the mind wanders. Other times it might be to simply be with whatever arises.
Just like exercising with weights requires good form, we cannot train mindfulness without intention.
Key 2. Have an attitude of acceptance
Many, if not all, of our struggles are because of our thoughts about a situation. If we realised that things simply are and that it is our judgements that makes them good or bad, as Shakespeare told us in Hamlet, we would find we grumbled less.
When we live mindfully, we set our intention to experience the present moment just as it is in an allowing and non-judging way. We release expectations and bring to each moment an openness and curiosity to whatever arises, in this way we have space for whatever we experience.
Being open to whatever arises develops equanimity
When we sit to meditate it is important to bring this same non-judging attitude to our practice. Without it we will not see clearly instead we will see everything through a critical lens perhaps setting ourselves up for later judgement.
When we bring an open and curious mind to our meditation practice, we achieve two things at once. We train our ability to concentrate the attention and to be with our experience such as it is. Yes, we notice mind wandering and then turn back to the meditation object, notice we are thinking and return to the object, notice we are distracted by sound and return to the object. Accepting everything that arises including any internal dialogue but not engaging with it.
Key 3. Concentrate your attention
Attention runs on a continuum from focused concentration to scattered distraction. Throughout our day, our attention moves back and forth along this continuum, generally without any conscious effort.
Being able to focus and sustain attention at will is fundamental to mindfulness. By choosing to attend to the present moment, we notice what is going on around us and we know what's going on inside of us, our thinking, emotions and body sensations. We witness our experience and from there, we can actively choose what comes next rather than acting on autopilot.
Owning our attention puts us in choice
As with mindfulness, meditation concerns attention with particular practices used to strengthen ability to sustain or move attention, observe our experience and step out of mental commentary.
It can be compared to strength training or playing musical scales, through it we build our capacity to pay attention in particular ways. This means that when we meditate, if we are to get maximum benefit, we use proper form - tuning in and turning up our attentional resource.
How to apply this to your meditation practice
The next time you come to meditate, begin by taking a few moments to set the intention for the practice including how you will be open to everything that arises, embody this intention and then purposefully gather and direct your attention.
Learning about these three aspects of mindfulness and applying them to meditation helped me deepen my practice. I'd love to hear what happens when you use them in your own practice. Let me know in the comments or message me directly here.