Anyone who explores mindfulness soon discovers that although the theory is relatively straightforward, a bit like learning to play the piano, mastering the practice is not easy. Apart from attention, one of the key ingredients is the level of alertness we bring to our practice. So, if we’re meditating on our breath and feeling a bit drowsy, we’re much more likely to drift off in thought, away from the intention of the exercise, or even fall asleep.
When our awareness and energy drop, part of our brain, called the default mode network, notices that not much is going on and takes over by providing unintentional, automatic thoughts, like a running commentary, or narrative at the edge of awareness. Like a radio or smart speaker chattering away in the background, our mind is wandering and we’re only half aware. Research shows that our minds wander away from the current task around 48% of the time, which is half of our waking lives. Of course, mind-wandering can be useful; we may be in the shower when the solution to a complex problem we’ve been struggling with, or a creative idea pops into our heads.
But there’s a downside to this unintentional thinking, which is that automatic thoughts tend to be negative. Typically, these will be negative automatic thoughts that are judging, self-critical, and limiting. So being able to notice when our mind wanders is an important skill. A useful tip is to ask yourself, “Where is my attention now?” and see what you discover.
One of the fundamental steps in practising mindfulness is to notice when our attention wanders away from what we were doing. This is most obvious when we are following the flowing sensations of our breath with our attention. One moment we’re completely with each subtle change in the body of every in-breath and out-breath, the next we’re rehearsing a conversation that we plan to have later in the day. We go from one thought to another until we remember that we intended to focus on our breath. The next step is to acknowledge where our attention went, then gently return our attention to the breath. One challenge is that the transition from following the breath to being off in thought is so fast that we barely notice. Another is that our attention wandered because our level of awareness dropped. In other words, we were not alert at the time. The word “alert” comes from the Italian “all’erta” meaning on the watch, or on the lookout. Mindful alertness is the level of intention in our attention, our wakefulness, and watchfulness, so, our level of alertness is an important inner resource.