Notice Your Focus

"Understanding does not arise as a result of thinking. It is a result of the long process of conscious awareness."
Thich Nhat Hanh
Our minds are working all the time. We are sensing, perceiving, remembering, interpreting, regulating body processes, refocusing attention, planning, willing, and acting moment by moment. As we go about our activities, we tend to be unaware of most of our mental activity. Generally, that’s OK, because living is a complex process, and it’s best that we focus that sliver of brain activity we call consciousness on the most urgent business at hand. If things are going well, that inner director of consciousness will focus our awareness on what is important. We will then make appropriate choices and feel productive. Life will seem meaningful and worthwhile.

Sometimes life throws too much at us, and the part of our mind that directs our focus becomes overwhelmed. We may find ourselves attending exclusively to the practical matters of survival, and losing touch with the more subtle experiences of our inner thoughts and emotions. Sometimes that inner director works as a censor or guard and directs attention away from areas of mental activity that seem too dangerous or painful. Big hunks of life activity can fall out of our awareness, because the focusing or directing component of consciousness has decided we’re not going to deal with that.

When we have been wounded, our mind will have developed a strategy for managing situations where we might be wounded again. It may tell us that when this kind of danger arises, we’re going to run away, either literally or by taking away awareness. It may decide that anger is the best defense, or maybe humor or seductiveness or being a bully will make things safe. Sometimes we don’t really have much of a strategy for dealing with our hurts, so we just become confused.

We may have learned the strategy of thinking through problems, and we try to apply that to problems where we don’t have all the data, perhaps because the problem is still in the future. So we worry. Not being able to solve the problem, but sticking to our strategy, we worry some more. We can keep this up for a long time. Some people never stop. The price worriers pay is that their mental resources are focused on problems without solutions, and they don’t have much left for the rest of life. Being productive and enjoying the experience of living are sacrificed to the obligation to fret.

None of us wants to be the victim of misdirected awareness or of a faulty strategy for allocating mental resources. We’d rather be effective in our thinking and doing. We’d rather have emotions that fit circumstances now, than emotions that reflect past experience that may be similar, but different in some key way. When our emotions are fresh and authentic and our thinking is flexible, our behavior is more spontaneous, and our experience is rich.


Mindfulness is a practice that helps us expand the scope of awareness. It allows awareness to stay with us in the now. When we are mindful we are more likely to respond genuinely to circumstances. We are more aware of emotions and can interpret them more accurately. Meditation is a primary tool for developing the skill of mindfulness. Another tool is writing down your stream of consciousness. Try this:

Sit at the computer with a blank word processing document, or if you prefer, use a pencil and paper. Center yourself. Take a few slow, deeper than usual, relaxing breaths. Scan your body for tension, and tell yourself to let it go. Tell yourself to relax. You body is looking for direction from your mind, so reassure your body that it is perfectly safe now, you can relax. Sit comfortably upright, so that your body is balanced.

Write down:


You can get started by using the phrases:

I notice. . .
I am aware that. . .
I feel. . .
I have the thought that. . .

Don’t get lost in analysis. Just notice what your mind is doing. If you drift off into a chain of thoughts, consciously let it go, and come back to what you are doing right now. This sequence of awarenesses doesn’t have to lead to any conclusion. The only goal is clarity of awareness.

When you finish, you can read over your impressions, or you can throw them away. The product is the moment of awareness, not the document you’ve created.

An excellent book on Mindfulness is John Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go There You Are.  

To the Meditation Archive Menu

To the current Meditation of the Week


© 2003 Tom Barrett