This is my summary of the book ‘Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day’ by Amishi Jha, quoting and paraphrasing the content.
You are missing 50 percent of your life. And you’re not alone: everyone is.
Why? Because you are not paying attention.
Your attention determines:
Attention is powerful. The “brain’s boss”.
Attention guides how information processing happens in the brain. Whatever we pay attention to is amplified. It feels brighter, louder, crisper than everything else. What you focus on becomes most prominent in your present-moment reality: you feel the corresponding emotions; you view the world through that lens.
Attention is fragile. It can be rapidly depleted under certain circumstances – circumstances that turn out, unfortunately, to be the ones that pervade our lives.
When we experience stress, threat, or poor mood– the three main things that are “kryptonite” for attention – this valuable resource is drained.
Attention is trainable. It is possible to change the way our attention systems operate.
This is a critical new discovery, not only because we are missing half our lives, but because the half we’re here for can feel like a constant struggle. With training, however, we can strengthen our capacity to fully experience and enjoy the moments we are in, to embark on new adventures, and to navigate life’s challenges more effectively.
Mindfulness is paying attention to present-moment experience without conceptual elaboration or emotional reactivity.
Mindfulness training was the only brain-training tool that consistently worked to strengthen attention.
Uncovered new evidence that, with training, mindfulness can change the way the brain works by default so that our attention — that precious resource – is protected and readily available, even in the face of high stress and high demand.
We can train the brain to shift away from specific default tendencies that are not serving us. We can train our attention to better serve us when we need it most.
You can do this in as little as twelve minutes a day.
Our research and best understanding of how to train the brain indicates that if you engage in regular mindfulness practice, for as little as twelve minutes per day, you can protect against that stress- and overwhelm-related decline in attention.
If you can do more than twelve minutes? Great! The more you do, the more you benefit.
All you need is your mind, your body, and your breath. You can start immediately.
With mindfulness training we can learn to protect and strengthen our most precious resource: our attention. You can train yourself to pay attention to your attention, to know – moment to moment – what your mind is up to, if it’s serving you well, and how to intervene if it’s not.
We all need to be asking ourselves:
Attention biases brain activity. It gives a competitive advantage to the information it selects.
Whatever it is you pay attention to will have more neural activity associated with it. Your attention, quite literally, alters the functioning of your brain at the cellular level. It truly is a superpower.
There are actually three subsystems that work together to allow us to fluidly and successfully function in our complex world.
Your attention can be like a flashlight. Where you point it becomes brighter, highlighted, more salient.
Whatever’s not in the flashlight’s beam? That information remains suppressed – it stays dampened, dimmed, and blocked out.
Attention researchers call this your orienting system, and it’s what you use to select information. You can point that flashlight beam anywhere: outward at your external environment, or inward, to your own thoughts, memories, emotions, body sensations, and the like.
We have this fantastic capacity to willfully direct and select with this flashlight of ours. We can shine it at a person we’re with, into the past or into the future – anywhere we want, we can point it.
This is, in some ways, the opposite of the flashlight. Where the flashlight is narrow and focused, this subsystem, called the alerting system, is broad and open.
Think of what happens when you see a flashing yellow light as you’re driving – you immediately go “on alert” as your attention system shines its floodlight. Diffuse and ready, it has a broad, receptive stance.
You are now in a state of vigilance. You’re not sure what you’re looking for, but you know you’re looking for something, and you’re ready to rapidly deploy your attention in any direction as you respond.
What you’re alerted to could be something in your environment, or it could be a thought or emotion generated from within.
To direct, oversee, and manage what we’re doing, moment to moment, as well as ensure that our actions are aligned with what we’re aiming to do: this is the job of the juggler.
This subsystem is what people are referring to when they talk about “executive function”, and the formal name for it is actually the “central executive”. This is the overseer that makes sure we stay on track.
We may be aiming to accomplish microgoals that are near-term, such as finish reading this chapter, draft an email, clean up the kitchen. Or we may have big long-term goals, like train for a marathon, raise happy children, earn a promotion.
No matter how big the goal or how far away it is on the horizon, there will always be challenges along the way, distractions to overcome, competing forces to contend with. So we will need to navigate multiple demands at once.
Importantly, you use your juggler to override automatic tendencies (like picking up that phone at every ping), as well as to update and revise a goal based on new information that’s come in, and to refresh the goal to remind you of what you are aiming to do.
Override. Update. Refresh.
This is exactly how attention is supposed to work, so that we can: focus when we need to, notice when we need to, and plan and manage our behavior when we need to.
In addition to perception, the three forms of attention operate across three types of information-processing domains: cognitive, social, and emotional.
Flashlight: You can follow and sustain a train of thought.
Floodlight: You have situational awareness – you can notice thoughts, concepts, and perspectives that relate to your task.
Juggler: You have a goal and can hold it in mind, knowing what you need to do next to move toward accomplishing it. You overcome distractions and “autopilot” behaviors (like picking up your phone) that could derail you.
Flashlight: You can direct the beam of your flashlight toward other people to listen and connect.
Floodlight: You can gain awareness of the tone of someone’s voice, and of other people’s emotional states.
Juggler: You can negotiate a conversation with multiple people, select relevant points of view to hold in mind, then filter and evaluate them when conflicting opinions are expressed.
Flashlight: You can turn your flashlight toward your own emotional state, first to know what it is, and then to recognize when it’s interfering with your ability to do other things.
Floodlight: Your emotional reactions alert you to how you are feeling. You can see if they’re “proportionate” (appropriate to the situation) or not.
Juggler: You can execute an emotional course-correction when required.
Your working memory is a kind of temporary “workspace” in the brain where you can manipulate information over very short periods of time, from a few seconds to a minute, max.
Your attention, that spotlight created by your mind, is constantly being yanked away from where you want it to be and onto something else, something that your mind, in all its complexity, has decided is more “relevant” and “urgent” – even if that’s the furthest thing from true.
Inside your brain, attention biases brain activity. Whatever it advantages “wins the prize” of gaining more influence over your ongoing brain activity.
The neuroscience literature points to three main factors that determine when our attention is deployed.
Familiarity. Attention is immediately and powerfully biased by prior history.
Salience (novelty, loud noises, bright lights and colors, motion) yanks us toward stimulus – we can’t resist. Salience is tailor-made for each of us – like seeing our name – which is precisely why so many apps ask us to customize our profiles. We are gripped by personally relevant stuff. Our attention moves – fast and ballistic. It is easily captured.
Our own goal. Finally, our attention can be “goal-driven”, biased by our own chosen goal. Attention restricts our perception based on the goal. But our goals are the most vulnerable of all these “attentional pulls”. Familiarity and salience are easily able to pull us away.
Three major forces degrade our attention:
In our lives, what we consider challenging situations are often “conflict states”. There is a mismatch between what we perceive is happening and what should be happening.
Our minds experience these conflicts in different ways:
Mindfulness meditation – anchoring your attention in the present moment and experiencing it without “editorializing” (making up a story about what’s happening or will happen).
Before the retreat, participants were pressing a button when they shouldn’t, about 40 percent of the time – that was their starting point.
The non-meditators also made errors 40 percent of the time, and their scores did not change when we tested them again a month later. But after the retreat, the meditators only mistakenly pressed the space bar 30 percent of the time. So, a 10 percentage points improvement overall.
The data from these initial studies seemed to corroborate our experience, suggesting that mindfulness meditation, unlike anything else we’d studied so far, could actually change the way our attention, our “brain’s boss”, behaved.
Many studies on mindfulness practice suggest that if you accept and allow instead of resist (which we’ll be learning how to do in the coming chapters), stressful content will pass away.
Through my crisis of attention, I discovered that I didn’t know my own mindscape, really. Sure, I “knew myself” in the Socratic sense: my character, values, and preferences.
But I didn’t know, nor did I value knowing, what was happening in my mind moment by moment.
I experienced a way of engaging with my mind, and learning about my mindscape, that was not about striving harder, thinking better and faster, and doing more. It was about being – being receptive, being curious, being present for the moments of my life.
We are collectively and chronically addicted to thinking and doing, which is why shifting into a being mode does not come easily to most of us.
A peak mind is a mind that doesn’t privilege thinking and doing over being. It masters both modes of attention.
Your flashlight represents your capacity to select a subset of information from all that is out there. Focus means that the information you have selected, whatever it may be, is being processed better and is of higher quality than everything else around it.
When I say “Go”, I want you to close your eyes and take five breaths. If you already have a meditation practice, make it fifteen.
Regular, even breaths.
Your job is to focus on your breath – in, and then out – and only on your breath.
As soon as you notice your thoughts moving to something else, or an intrusive thought popping in, stop and open your eyes.
When attention begins to get fatigued or degraded, it makes it harder to place your attention where you want it. But it doesn’t just fade away.
The amount of attention you have remains constant. It just gets used differently, and maybe not how you want it to be used.
Take any task that you might ask someone to do over a period of time and graph it: you’ll find performance declines. Errors go up, responses become slower and more variable.
We are in a constant state of mind-wandering, yet often we don’t even notice.
Some of the best, most innovative ideas come from this type of spontaneous thought, which we scientists call conscious internal reflection, or, more simply, daydreaming.
There’s a big cost to task-unrelated thought. When we mind-wander, it rapidly becomes a problem in three major ways:
Voluntary attention, as you can probably guess, is when you choose where to point your flashlight; automatic attention is when your attention is captured and pulled toward something without your active choice. Attention-grabbing: it’s a figure of speech, but a very accurate one.
If you try to sustain your focus for a long time, you will begin to experience your attention resisting, and eventually scattering off in some way.
Because you always use 100 percent of your attention (load theory), it always goes somewhere, so if you’re not focused on your current demands, it may very well be because you are mind-wandering (experiencing task-unrelated thought) and are not mentally present in your current surroundings (perceptual decoupling).
Mind-wandering is something your brain is predisposed to do, for various reasons involving, but not limited to, fast-moving saber-toothed tigers (inhibition of return), and it likely drives the vigilance decrement, which ensures that the longer you do something, the worse you’ll perform.
While mind-wandering may have its roots in something useful (opportunity costs, attentional cycling), it’s bad for our ability to perform well on what we are trying to do (our “task-at-hand”) and our mood.
A crisis of attention can happen anytime you don’t allow yourself a break – when you don’t allow your mind to “rest” without having any task-at-hand.
Remember our distinction between mind-wandering (having off-task thoughts during a task) and daydreaming (task-free spontaneous thought and opportunity for conscious reflection, creativity, and the like)? Well, one problem today is that we are always engaged in something.
To find your focus, the first skill you need to develop is to notice when your attentional flashlight has wandered away from the task-at-hand. In this first “core exercise”, your goal is to repeatedly find your flashlight.
This is the workout: orient attention to a target object, notice when it wanders off-target, and then reorient it back to the target.
Your mind will begin to get more attuned to noticing when you’ve wandered off, as well: with more practice, you’ll grow more able to notice the initial pull on your flashlight away from the target object, instead of becoming completely lost or hijacked before you do.
And interestingly, just as you improve your ability to notice when your mind has wandered, you begin to notice when you may need to truly let it freely roam.
To find your flashlight, you’ll draw on a foundational mindfulness practice often called breath awareness.
Breath awareness can seem deceptively simple: focus your attention on your breath, and when the mind wanders, return it.
The breath awareness exercise targets all three systems of attention, because it allows you to practice:
Your breath is a changing, dynamic target, and in this exercise, your attention is to be constrained to a single, prominent, breath-related sensation in a specific body part (like your chest, nose, abdomen).
One of the next practices will ask you to take that beam of your attention and sweep it through the body; later, we’ll progress to a practice where you have no target to focus on, but will be monitoring the shifting contents of your moment-to-moment conscious experience – your memories, emotions, thoughts, and sensations – without getting caught up and swept away by them.
And all these together are helping you learn how to pay attention to your attention.
Get ready. Sit in an upright, stable, and alert posture. Breathe, and follow your breath. You are following the breath moving at its natural pace – not controlling it.
Get set. Tune in to breath-related sensations. Choose one area of the body – related to whichever breath-related sensations feel most prominent – to focus on for the rest of this exercise.
Go! Notice when your flashlight has moved and then move it back. Notice when thoughts or sensations arise that pull your flashlight off-target.
The events in this sequence are: focus your flashlight, hold it steady, notice when it drifts, and then redirect it back to the breath.
Multitasking – or, more specifically, task switching – is terrible for our performance, accuracy, and mood.
Think of it this way: You only have one flashlight. Not two. Not three. And your one flashlight can only ever be shining at one thing at a time. (To be clear: I’m speaking of tasks that require your active, focused attention – not “procedural” tasks like, say, walking, which doesn’t demand attention in the same way.)
When you select and engage in a task your attention calibrates information processing to that specific task.
Give yourself time so that you’re not still trying to process the old task, and then fully shift your attention to the new task.
I want you to picture yourself dribbling a basketball: The ball drops away from your hand, and bounces right back. Your focus shifts away from the task-at-hand, and then comes back.
But then I quickly remembered one of the most important tenets of mindfulness training: the point is not that you’re never going to get distracted. That’s not possible.
The goal, rather, is to be able to recognize where your attention is moment to moment so that when you do get distracted, you can easily and adeptly move your flashlight back to what it needs to be on.
Think of someplace you visit regularly – a grocery store, your workplace, your child’s school – that’s about a fifteen-minute journey from your home. Picture it in your mind.
Now, I want you to relive the path from your front door to this destination and count the number of times you have to turn. If and when you do get distracted, take a minute to jot down what distracted you.
If you’re like most of us, the biggest distraction culprit is actually your own mind.
Neuroscientists now call this once-mysterious network the “default mode network”, because the brain is thought to default to this mode whenever it isn’t otherwise occupied with attentionally demanding tasks
When you’re mind-wandering, the default mode is active.
When people got questions right, the attention network was “online”; when they got stuff wrong, the default mode network was active instead.
When mind-wandering directs both your attention and your working memory inward, your default mode is activated.
Even in the absence of external distractions, your brain will produce its own salient, self-related content.
Using your working memory is how you learn and remember. It’s a “portal” into more permanent storage: you need it to be able to encode information – an experience, new information, and much more – into your long-term memory.
Finally, and critically, working memory plays a role in every single thing you want to do, every day, from making your lunch to thinking a thought. In neuroscience-speak, it’s where you “maintain a goal”.
Working memory is where you hold a goal in mind so you can move toward it.
The micro-intentions and deliberate aim of having a desired outcome for each and every task you engage in – all the decisions, planning, thinking, actions, and behaviors you do over the course of a day: anything you set out to do.
You lean on your working memory to maintain your goals and subgoals, update them, and scrap them for a different goal, on a continuous, moment-by-moment, task-by-task basis.
Working memory is the essential partner to attention: it’s what allows you to actually do something with the information your flashlight focuses on.
The field of neuroscience suggests a few ideas:
Working memory and attention are like dance partners: they must work together smoothly to accomplish any of your goals, whether large or small.
The flashlight encodes information and maintains it in working memory, “retracing” it on the whiteboard to keep it there for longer. When your attention is automatically “captured” or yanked by something salient, this more exciting (to your attention) content overwrites what was being maintained.
The floodlight gains access to the whiteboard to accomplish an urgent goal. Under acute threat or stress, your alerting system temporarily blocks access to working memory to ensure that your brain’s action systems prioritize basic survival behaviors (fight, flight, freeze) over any other goals or plans. The alerting system can be set off by feelings of threat, even when there is no real danger.
The juggler keeps your current goals active on the whiteboard, and updates these goals as circumstances change. Overload, blanking, and distraction in working memory all derail the central executive’s juggler, leading to lost goals and misguided behaviors.
Students who got the mindfulness training improved an average of sixteen percentile points on the reading comprehension section of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), an important test for gaining entry into graduate programs.
STRESS-RELATED MENTAL TIME TRAVEL YANKS THE ATTENTIONAL FLASHLIGHT AWAY FROM OUR PRESENT-MOMENT EXPERIENCE AND INCREASES THE CLUTTER ON OUR MENTAL WHITEBOARD.
When it’s present-centered, attention can encode and refresh the contents of working memory with task-relevant information. And in turn, working memory is able to successfully meet present-moment task demands.
MINDFULNESS TRAINING HELPS TO DECLUTTER THE MENTAL WHITEBOARD, SO THAT WORKING MEMORY WORKS BETTER.
Rumination is one of the most potent forms of mental time travel. It involves getting stuck thinking about the same thing over and over.
When we ruminate on something, we get caught in a loop: we go over events, wishing they could have gone differently; sometimes we imagine the alternate ways things might have gone, or we remember how they actually went, and we end up going over those events yet again.
We can also ruminate by catastrophizing: imagining how events might unfold in the future, worrying about various potentialities that may never come to pass.
These types of mental loops are magnetic – they become conflict states, and it’s very hard to pull our flashlights away from them. When we do manage to, we tend to return immediately to the topic as soon as possible, like a tongue seeking a sore tooth.
Mental time travel diminishes our working memory’s ability to do the work needed for the demands of our present moment.
Whatever the contents of our working memory, highlighted and escorted there by our attention, they are the actual contents of our moment-to-moment conscious experience.
If you’re holding something in working memory, your brain’s computational resources shift to service that content. This is what we call the biasing effect of working memory.
Disappearing ink: Your brain needs to automatically dump content at a rapid, constant pace, so that there is flexibility and choice in what you continue to focus on and, therefore, maintain.
Fragility: We need to be able to rapidly act without a sluggish delay.
Capacity: One explanation may that even if you could remember a million things, a big reason for having working memory, like attention, is to be able to take action, and you still only have two hands and two feet.
We need to stop holding down the rewind or fast-forward buttons and stay in play, to experience every note in the song of our lives, to hear and take in what’s happening around us.
Repeat the previous steps.
We begin the same way we did with the basic Find Your Flashlight in chapter 4, by sitting in a chair, comfortable but upright, resting your hands in your lap, and closing or lowering your eyes (to limit visual distraction).
Again, select prominent breath-related sensations. Remember the metaphor of your attention as a flashlight, the beam pointing toward your selected breath-related body sensation.
When your flashlight drifts to something else, notice where it goes. This is a new step! In the first exercise, I asked you to notice if attention wandered away, and if so to immediately move your flashlight back to your breath.
This time, I want you to pause for a moment and observe where the flashlight is now directed. Give it a label. Identify what type of distraction has appeared on your whiteboard. Is it a thought, an emotion, or a sensation?
Make this a quick process. Notice if you begin going down a rabbit hole of elaborating on the distraction, or asking why you are thinking about this particular topic, or defaulting to unsupportive habits like chastising yourself for getting distracted in the first place. It is not your job right now to answer these questions or reprimand yourself.
Now is actually the time to notice what is on your whiteboard but not to engage with it. Just label the contents as best you can from these three categories: thought, emotion, sensation.
And then move on. Come back to the present moment, back to your breath, after every instance of labeling.
If it’s a strong experience, it might pop up repeatedly – then just label it again.
Repeat. Each time you notice yourself mind-wandering, tag the content of your mind-wandering (as thought, emotion, or sensation) and then come back to your breath.
Ultimately, having a strong working memory is not about always using it for your goals and plans, every minute; or about always being in the present moment – this is neither realistic nor desirable.
Instead, it’s about becoming aware of what your working memory actually contains. It’s about recognizing and heading off any interference (such as mental time travel) when there is a task to be done.
When we stay in play – when we are filling up our whiteboards with the present moment – we have a much greater chance of encoding that moment into long-term memory.
What we think is a memory problem is often an attention problem.
It’s tempting to think of memory as the brain’s record button. And indeed, I’ve been using the “press record” concept as a metaphor here for how we remember. But we don’t really “record”, not exactly.
Remembering is a complex, nuanced process. Memories are mutable, not static. Unlike a photo on your camera roll, they don’t stay the same every time you pull them up.
Memories morph and change. And some things stick in our memories while others fall away. Rest assured: there’s probably nothing wrong with your memory. This is just how memory works.
Our memory privileges certain types of information, and we forget other things completely, by evolutionary design. What you might say is “wrong” with your memory probably has an evolutionarily selected purpose.
“Episodic memory”, which is your memory for experiences, involves selective encoding of only those aspects of experience that were most attended to and held in working memory.
“Semantic memory” – meaning your general world knowledge, for facts, ideas, concepts – is similarly selective. What you remember is based on what else you’ve previously learned.
Both these types of memory are not only inexorably linked with attention, but also a tightening circle: what we pay attention to is what we remember, and what we remember will influence what we pay attention to – and therefore what else we remember.
We remember negative information better than positive information.
The purpose of memory is not to allow us to savor the past, but rather to help us act in the world now.
Memory, like attention itself, is a completely biased system that evolved to privilege survival.
Forgetting is a highly evolved brain feature that we absolutely need in order to function. Just as you’d be overwhelmed without your attention system to filter and select, so it is with memory.
Forgetting is a good thing. It’s a feature, not a flaw in our biological makeup. We need it – we rely on it, just as we rely on other “features” of memory, like negative experiences’ becoming more salient, for survival, learning, and decision making.
On the subject of memory, the results were consistent and clear: people who were asked to photograph events – either for others on social media, or just for themselves – were much worse at remembering details of those events later.
If an experience doesn’t get on your mental whiteboard – where it can be organized and synthesized, where the elements of the experience can be integrated together – it doesn’t go into long-term memory.
Your working memory is not only your cognitive “scratch space” where you do your creative thinking, ideation, focusing, and goal pursuit. It’s also the portal into (and out of!) long-term memory.
A lot of the issues we see around memory and aging are actually misattributed. The problem is not “you’re losing your memory”. Rather, the problem is “you weren’t paying attention and failed to encode”.
If working memory is overwhelmed by stress-induced mind-wandering, then knowledge may not surface when it’s most urgently needed.
To remember, you do three critical things.
As the brain replays information, it’s laying down new neural pathways and then going over them, strengthening those new connections.
That’s why we think that mental downtime and sleep are both important: they’re opportunities for memory consolidation.
When I spoke earlier about mental time travel, what I meant was: you’ve been hijacked by content created by your own mind, using the raw materials from your long-term memory.
Salient in your inner landscape are things that are:
Episodic memory has a highly specific state of consciousness associated with it, called autonoetic consciousness. This term describes the embodied fullness – the richness, the detail, the three-dimensional depth – we have when we recall an episode from our lives with self-awareness.
As with the other practices, begin by sitting comfortably, closing your eyes, and finding your flashlight: bring your attention to your breath sensations.
But now, we’re not going to keep it there, on the breath. We’re going to move it through the body. We’re going to keep that focus – that beam of attention – concentrated, though the focus will move, sweeping slowly, like a searchlight through the body.
Start by directing your attention to one of your toes. Take note of whatever sensations you notice there. Cold? Warm? Tingling? Tightness in your shoes? Nothing?
Notice it, then move on to the other toes, and the other foot. Go slowly! If you’re trying this for three minutes, as with the last exercise, think of your body in thirds and take about a minute with each section.
Gradually move your attention up from your lower body – your lower legs and then your upper legs – to your core: the pelvic area, lower torso, upper torso; to your upper body: your shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, and hands.
Then finally move attention up to your neck, your face, the back of your head, and finally the top of your head.
Pay attention to each sensation – or lack of sensation – rising and falling away, moment by moment, but don’t fixate on it. Move the flashlight along.
Throughout this practice, as you are moving your attention slowly up your body, whenever your mind wanders simply return it to the area of the body where your attention was directed before the mind-wandering occurred, then continue.
Mindfulness exercises help train your attention to be more fully in the moment as it’s happening – which can add that fullness to your episodic memories.
Memory-making and learning are benefits of mindfulness training, yes, but you need both: to be mentally present in the moment, and then to have space to let the mind roam free, unconstrained by any task or demand.
We fail to remember when we fail to notice what our attention is up to.
Situational awareness – the mental state of constantly knowing what’s going on around you – is critical for people in a variety of professions, including police and first responders.
We use simulations to arrive at mental models that guide our thinking, decision making, and actions. This is really what I mean when I say “story”.
The ability to produce – in vivid detail – an imagined future based on our past experiences and knowledge is incredibly useful and powerful. This is a desirable feature of the brain – not a flaw. You would not ever want to be without it. Simulations allow us to:
Remember that 50 percent of the time when you’re mind-wandering? As we discussed, when your mind wanders, your default mode network is activated.
The default mode is massively involved in simulation: your attention and working memory are mobilized inward and you begin simulating versions of reality, projecting yourself into the past or future, or even into other people’s minds and lives. Much of the time that you’re mind-wandering, you’re simulating.
This incessant simulating we do (largely by default) quickly becomes a problem when: You’re simulating “kryptonite”. If you’re transporting yourself to a sad, negative, threatening, or stressful scenario (whether remembered or imagined), it’s going to lay claim to your attention and working memory bandwidth, make you more error prone, and tank your mood.
Repeated simulations of this sort, referred to as maladaptive repetitive thought, are considered a “transdiagnostic vulnerability”, meaning they are a hallmark of many serious clinical disorders, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Your simulation causes you to make decisions that don’t align with your longer-term goals or sense of civility.
All these outcomes can result from your mind’s simulations, compelling you to act. Your simulations lead you to a mental model that is wholly wrong causing your course of action to skew wrong.
Remember: simulations constrain perception. They dampen the information that doesn’t align. They literally make the stuff that isn’t consistent with your imagined scenario harder to see, hear, and feel.
That means that if your simulation is off-base, so will your thinking, your decisions, and your actions.
Keeping your attention in a mindful mode – that is, in the present moment, without conceptual elaboration – increases situational awareness: your ability to observe and see clearly what’s happening in any given situation you find yourself in.
The goal is to have the capacity to shift into a mindful mode when you need it.
Know that you will have a story. No matter the situation, you will arrive at it with some kind of expectation. A story, a plan, a framework, a mental model.
Step one is realizing this and noticing it whenever you can. Asking yourself “What story do I have about this?” is a good habit to get into.
Stay in “play”. You’ve already learned this one – you should be a pro by now! Just kidding – this takes practice. But the point is, the skills you are already working on are going to help you here, as well.
The more you stay in play and pull your mind back from leaping into predicting mode, or reliving mode, the more agile you’ll be when it’s time to drop a story and pivot. Just because you’ve been in a past situation that had 80 percent in common with your current situation isn’t a good reason to dismiss that 20 percent of new information.
Remind yourself: thoughts aren’t facts! When we trace over stories in our minds, they become essentially “engraved”. This is a lot of what’s happening when we ruminate, or “loop” – we’re reifying a story.
In most situations, consider that any thought, prediction, or other simulation you have is only one of many possibilities – not an immutable fact. The way that you do this is by putting some distance between yourself and the current contents of your mind.
In psychology, as well as in mindfulness practice, we call this practice of stepping out of your simulations and mental models “decentering”. Decentering emphasizes a perspective in which the experiential “I” is not at the center. From a decentered perspective, it’s easier to determine how well our simulations represent reality.
Capacity to decenter, by which I mean that we probed their ability to see thoughts and feelings as separate from themselves.
Cognitive stance they were to take toward the memory:
Mindfulness training does both: it reduces stress and improves attention. And being able to weaken the pull of simulations by decentering is key to achieving both of these benefits.
Decentering is a powerful technique because it weakens the hold that mind-wandering episodes can have on our attention.
Get the data.
Observe yourself and the situation at a distance. Get the raw data of what you are experiencing, not an analysis of it.
Watch your inner dialogue and distance yourself from it. It helps to replace “I” statements with “you” or your name.
Better yet, just notice what is coming up: Amishi thinks she can’t get this done. She’s afraid her talk won’t go well.
Remember that thoughts come and go. As thoughts bubble up, remember that thoughts are merely constructions in your mind; they will appear and they will fade away. I pictured each thought as a bubble, floating away into the sky.
Dropping the story is NOT about:
Dropping the story IS about:
To get more done, monotask – don’t multitask. Task switching slows you down.
To best plan for the future, don’t just simulate possible scenarios – observe and be in the present moment to gather better data.
To lead well, become more aware of your own emotions and those of others.
We’re used to living in action mode: thinking and doing. Mindfulness training unlocks a new mode: noticing, observing, and being.
Goal neglect: a failure to execute the demands of a particular task, even though you can recall the instructions.
So here is the next major way that we go wrong: We are paying attention. But our attention is too narrow or too wide, too stable or too unstable.
You’re paying attention in some way successfully – but it’s not appropriate for the moment. To correct that, you need meta-awareness.
Meta-awareness is the ability to take explicit note of and monitor the current contents or processes of your conscious experience. Basically, it’s an awareness of your awareness.
When I say “pay attention to your attention”, what I mean is apply your meta-awareness.
If situational awareness in high-demand professions means “surveilling the external landscape”, then you can think of meta-awareness like this: situational awareness for the internal landscape.
It’s not always a “satisfaction” feeling – sometimes we get tripped up and sucked into hyperfocus (or another attentional state that isn’t appropriate to the moment) by anxiety, fear, or worry.
That’s an important part of what having a peak mind really means: it’s being able to get that “peak” perspective and take in the entire landscape of your mind.
With meta-awareness, we are aware of the current contents of our conscious experience, and we monitor to see if those contents are aligned with our goals. We’re asking ourselves:
It’s easy to confuse meta-awareness with another thought process we call metacognition.
The difference is this: Metacognition is thoughts about how you think. It’s knowing that you have certain mental tendencies.
Metacognition is, in part, self-awareness. “I have a tendency to assume the worst”, is an example of metacognition. Or: “I take a long time making decisions”.
Metacognition is certainly helpful – this kind of incisive self-awareness of your own cognitive tendencies can clearly support you. But it’s not the same as meta-awareness, and it can’t replace it.
While you might know that you tend to think in certain ways, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to be aware of problems as they’re happening.
When you’re mind-wandering and simulating, it doesn’t matter if you’re the most “metacognitively” savvy person on the planet – you’ll still get caught up in these mental processes in the moment.
Vigilance decrement: performance gets worse over time when continuous attention is required on a task.
With tuning out, meta-awareness of the situation lets you make sure that your current behavior is aligned with task goals before you decide to shift your attention away – no adjustments of attention are needed.
But if the task demands suddenly rise, and performance starts slipping, attentional resources will be diverted back to the task-at-hand. Your own mind cues you – you don’t need an external cue, which, as we know, usually come too late anyway.
Without meta-awareness, no monitoring occurs – no noticing of the task demands growing, no noticing of the current state of attention, and no redirection of attention.
The problem is not mind-wandering – the problem is mind-wandering without meta-awareness.
With experienced mindfulness practitioners – and even with people who’ve taken an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction class – we see something else, too: reduced default mode activity. You remember what that is: reduced activity in the brain network, sometimes called the “me” network, that’s most involved during internal attention, self-focus, mental simulations, and mind-wandering.
Mental simulations that can hijack attention are less frequent and less capable of keeping you locked-in.
When you’re meta-aware, you’re looking at yourself. You’re the object!
You can’t be simultaneously immersed in self-related thinking (mind-wandering, simulating) and reflecting on the self. This is why, as meta-awareness goes up, mind-wandering goes down.
You hear yourself shout, angrily, “I’m NOT angry!” You realize: Oops. I’m angry.
That moment of realization of where your attention actually is and what your mind is doing – that’s meta-awareness.
Our goal with mindfulness training is to increase our meta moments so that we can actually execute the attentional pivots that are so critical for our success and well-being.
The attentional force multiplier you need to acquire is your capacity to be meta-aware, to notice.
Noticing is what unlocks our capacity to intervene in these pervasive attentional problems. It’s simple: To know if you’re getting grabbed by something and need to intervene, you have to be watching.
In the Find Your Flashlight practice, the moment you noticed that your flashlight had drifted away from breath-related sensations – that was meta-awareness.
During the Watch Your Whiteboard practice with labeling, when you noticed a thought, feeling, or sensation and labeled it – that was meta-awareness.
During the decentering practice, when you took the bird’s-eye perspective and scanned your mind for biases, simulations, and mental models – that was meta-awareness.
Even during the body scan, when you directed your attention to a particular bodily sensation, you were noticing which sensations were there and becoming aware of mind-wandering.
Up to this point, our goal has been to make sure that your attention was on a target object, like your breath. Now, the target of your attention is your attention.
Get ready. This time, stand up!
You can always sit if you prefer, in the same way as with the previous practices. But I usually recommend doing this practice in what is commonly known as Mountain Pose.
Stand comfortably, your feet shoulder-distance apart. Let your arms relax at your sides, palms out. Close your eyes or lower your gaze.
Get set. Find your flashlight and direct it toward prominent breath-related sensations for several breaths.
This is always where we’ll start with any practice. And at any point in this exercise if you feel yourself getting drawn away (for example, getting caught in a ruminative loop), you can always anchor back on the breath. Flashlight on the breath is your home base – return to it whenever necessary, and reset.
Go! Now broaden your awareness so that you are not selecting any target object. Instead, use the metaphor of your mind being like a river. You’re standing on the riverbank, watching the water flow by.
Imagine your thoughts, memories, sensations, emotions – whatever arises – as if they are flowing past you. Notice what appears there, but don’t engage with it. Don’t fish it up, chase it, or elaborate on it. Just let it flow by.
Keep going. Unlike in the Watch Your Whiteboard activity we did, you’re not going to be actively “labeling” the stuff that you notice on your whiteboard, nor returning to your breath once you do.
Your job right now is not to be making distinctions between which content is useful or relevant, and what’s mind-wandering. You’re not even going to try to stop your mind from wandering.
The river will keep flowing – there isn’t anything you can or need to do about that. This is the key to open monitoring: you allow your mind to do what it will do. Your job is simply to observe that flow, at a distance, without engagement or participation.
Troubleshooting. If you have difficulty letting things pass you by, come back to your breath. Imagine your breath sensations as a boulder in the middle of all that flowing water. Rest your attention on that stable, steady object; when you feel ready, broaden your attention again and go back to monitoring.
But as we learn to watch what is unfolding in our minds with a practice like open monitoring, we can see the sequence of mental events flowing by with greater precision and granularity. And we may notice the small gaps between events – where we are making choices.
With practice, we get better at noticing mental events and identifying opportunities to intervene – to make different choices.
The Buddha explained: In life, we can’t control whether we’re hit by an arrow or not. But the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The first arrow causes pain – the second arrow is our distress about that pain.
Meta-awareness offers us a window into our own minds as if we are watching it from someone else’s perspective, but it also allows us insight into others. Using your attention, you can not only time travel, but mind travel.
High-quality interactions require high-integrity mental models. And to make them, we need to draw on all our attentional skills:
All the skills we’ve been practicing come into play here:
Distracted: You can’t keep your attentional flashlight pointing to one or more conversation partners. Your mental whiteboard is cluttered – you have failed to let distracting content fade from your working memory. You keep time traveling, unable to stay in the present moment of the conversation as it unfolds.
Dysregulated: You can’t regulate your emotions. You are reactive or display volatile behavior during the interaction.
Disconnected: You incorrectly believe that thoughts are facts. You fail to have a shared mental model of the situation. You apply the wrong mental model to the situation.
You can change the way you orient to an experience, even if it initiated an overwhelming emotion.
By reappraising, we reduce the intensity of negative emotion, allowing us to take a clearer look at the situation and assess whether the impact is as negative as we initially assumed.
Stop the inner war against the actual circumstances – just accept them. It is what it is.
Let me be clear: this does not mean that you are “all good” with the situation. It has nothing to do with your judgement about the actual event. It just means that you are accepting the actuality of what has occurred.
Drop the story – your assessment of this situation is merely one story. Not the only one.
Roll with it – keep going, keep moving, get curious about what the next moment will bring.
Begin this practice as you have the others, sitting comfortably yet alert.
Anchor on your breath and focus on breath-related sensations.
Now shift to bringing a sense of yourself into your mind, at this very moment in your life.
Silently repeat the following phrases to offer yourself well-wishes (three minutes). Remember: the point is to offer yourself well-wishes, not make requests or demands for them. Saying these phrases supports that:
The phrases and their order are not important. Some people may say, May I be free from suffering instead of May I be safe. Others may wish to say, May I find peace instead of May I live with ease. The important thing is that you choose phrases that resonate with you and that convey a feeling of goodwill to the recipient.
Next, while allowing this sense of yourself to recede from your focus, call to mind someone who has been very good to you in this life, very kind and supportive, someone you might describe as a benefactor.
Silently repeat the phrases below, offering them to this person:
Now, letting your sense of this person recede, bring to mind the image of someone with whom you have no real connection and for whom your feelings are neutral. It could be someone you see now and again but don’t have strong feelings for, one way or another. Perhaps it’s a neighbor you pass while walking your dog, a parking lot attendant you see daily, or a grocery store clerk.
Mentally offer them the phrases.
As a sense of this person recedes from your focus, next bring to mind an image of someone with whom things are challenging at this time in your life. This is often called a “difficult person”. There is no need to pick the most challenging person in your life.
Remember, you are not endorsing their view and are not necessarily even forgiving their actions in the past. You are simply offering kindness to them as a practice aimed at strengthening your ability to take another’s perspective, realizing that – like you – they too wish for happiness, health, safety, and ease.
With this in mind, mentally offer them the phrases.
Now move on to everyone in your home, community, state or province, and country, and continue to expand outward until you include all beings everywhere. Spend a few moments visualizing each place (your home, your community), and then offer the phrases to everyone there.
Throughout this practice, notice when your mind wanders away from the chosen focus, and gently guide your attention back. When you’re ready, spend a few moments anchoring on your breath to end the practice.
And when it comes to better attention – to achieve better performance, better emotion regulation, better communication and connection – one form of mental training consistently shown to work is mindfulness training.
And when participants go through multi-week training programs, here’s what we see: Over time there are improvements in attention and working memory. Less mind-wandering. More decentering and meta-awareness. And a greater sense of well-being, as well as better relationships.
On average, those who saw benefits practiced twelve minutes a day over eight weeks.
What we found: the positivity training was not only less effective than the mindfulness training, it appeared to be actively depleting attention and working memory in these pre-deployment soldiers.
And once again, the high-practice group showed positive results: attentional benefits. And on average, these guys did their twelve-minute exercises five days per week.
The minimum required dosage for training your attention:
Practice twelve minutes a day, five days a week.
If you don’t have time to meditate for five minutes, then meditate for ten.
We use an acronym to describe the most potent, high-demand, high-kryptonite circumstances that degrade attention: VUCA.
You can pick up these practices any time.
You can use them to start protecting your attention and working memory today.
At the back of this book, you’ll find a suggested weekly schedule for how to structure your first four weeks of practice.
It’s hard, because the first thing that happens with mindfulness practice is that you become acutely aware of the ways your mind can rebel against what you actually want it to do. You see how it’s restless and squirrelly.
It doesn’t want to do the twelve minutes of breath awareness. It wants to do something else. Anything else!
Building your core capacities:
The basic description of mindfulness practice is paying attention to present-moment experience without telling a story about it.
And that’s the promise: that you will become, if you engage in these exercises, more able to be your best, most skillful, most capable self through the present moment – even if that present moment is hard.
What we gain from mindfulness – from the capacity to keep our attention where we need it, in the form we need it – is this fundamental understanding that everything passes. Everything changes.
This moment will pass quickly, but your presence in this moment – whether you’re here or not here, reactive or nonreactive, making memories or not – will have ripple effects that expand out much more widely.
So the question is:
When we engage in mindfulness practice, we learn to keep our attention present in the moment for the unfolding of our lives. We step away from the mode where we’re simulating and planning, and we experience life directly.
I said in the introduction that the present moment is the only place you can use your attention. It can’t be saved up for later. It is a superpower – but it has to be used now, it can only be used now.
Practice twelve minutes a day, five days a week.
From here on out, the schedule is up to you!
You know by now that you’ll need to practice for a minimum of twelve minutes, aiming for five times per week, in order to see benefits in your attention system. But the combination of practices is completely customizable.
There’s the standard way of thinking, and then there’s the Peak Mind Pivot. It’s not that the standard way of thinking isn’t valuable – it’s that the Peak Mind Pivot greatly expands your options.
Peak Mind Pivot: