We’re all being asked to stay alert at the moment, with the Government’s recent, “Stay Alert –> Control the Virus –> Save lives” message. Although there’s a bit of confusion about how we actually stay alert to an invisible virus, most people get the message that we need to continue to be careful.
Anyone who explores mindfulness soon discovers that although the theory is relatively straight-forward, 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 drops, 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.