Mindfulness, Awareness, and Concentration

Mindfulness seems to be on everyone’s mind these days. Sorry for the bad pun – but it is, apparently, increasingly a topic of interest. In fact, Google search trends show a steady increase in web searches for the terms mindful or mindfulness since 2005. Europe was the source for most of the searches of the term mindfulness while North Americans chose to search most frequently using the term mindful. Interesting to note is that meditation – widely recommended as the greatest antidote to monkey mind and considered to be the best predictor of success in the search for mindfulness – had a lower score in searches. Awareness and concentration, two first cousins to mindfulness, were of much less interest, both displaying mediocre scores with little change over time. The ‘why’ of all this remains unknown but I wonder if, as we face greater levels of distraction in our mundane daily lives, we seek solutions that will enhance our resilience and increase our mental stability and resistance to the stresses of change and the onslaught of information in the digital age.

I have been thinking about these terms lately and trying to discern their meanings. What are the distinguishing features of the these three states? Are they simply synonyms? Looking for some expert help I found the Insight Meditation Center in California produces regular podcasts and these ideas of mindfulness, awareness, and concentration were the topic of a lecture earlier this month. The lecturer ably described, from an Insight Meditation perspective, how these states of mind differ. When I say ably, I should draw your attention to the fact that from a meditator’s perspective, mindfulness awareness and concentration are the very things that they focus their attention on (sorry – another lame joke); you could consider them professionals if not actual experts. Like the proverbial eskimos’ discernment of 40 different types of snow, meditators understand the subtleties of mental states like no others do.

Simply put, awareness is the capacity to know what is happening while it is happening. Awareness is more than consciousness or thinking and implies an expansion of the mind’s capacity to sense and take in what is. However, “simply being aware is not enough in terms of helping us to understand/free our minds” according to the meditation Masters. Awareness is not, then, the release from information overload or digital distraction that might offer relief or enhance our ability to “be here now”.

The lecturer described concentration as a state where the mind is “composed”, “stable”, “when awareness becomes continuous”, and with a “single point of focus”. The experience of concentration is that the mind becomes more still and change ceases to be a feature of the experience. It is as though our minds have greater awareness with a particular awareness on some thing. I imagined the lens of a camera bringing something in the foreground into clear focus while the rest of the picture faded a little into the background without disappearing or becoming fuzzy.

Mindfulness is described as the mind in a state of flow with what is, with little reactivity moment to moment while remaining responsive to what is. There is awareness and equanimity around change – as though the camera lens magically became able to focus clearly on the foreground and the background at the same time without sacrificing clarity. The distinction between mindfulness and concentration is in the awareness of change. Mindfulness is the state we require when we are in the thick of life, involved in the moment-to-moment making of decisions, choosing emotionally intelligent responses instead of reactions, and remaining energetically free to sustain ourselves though the 8, 10, or 12 hour days. Concentration is for sitting at our desks with charts and reports, wading through the data that reaches us on a daily basis and competes for precious room in our pre-frontal cortices.

You might have guessed that the word equanimity jumped out at me. The root of the word – equi – means equal or same. The root is not quite the same as the root for equine but close enough for me to riff on it. If nothing else the word equanimity conjures for me the picture of horse and rider, a pair equally balanced and moving as one being. Being at one with a horse isn’t possible without achieving an equality, a balance, an emotional and mental union that is the epitome of mindfulness. Being at one with a horse is being one with constant change without reactivity. The best riders know that one must “ride every step” and are able to do just that.

My experience with horses has been very much like increasing a skill in meditation – moving from consciousness, to awareness, to concentration and finally to mindfulness. Like meditation, spending time with horses naturally brought my attention to my inner experience and over time increased my facility with these mental states so that I can call upon them in the office and in other areas of life. Coaching with horses has allowed me to bring that experience to people who might otherwise never have the chance to experience this in-the-moment, change aware, non-reactive state of being.

As a leader, having access to an enhanced ability to rely upon mindfulness is a valuable tool in the course of a day filled with demands on our attention from data, from people, from decision-making and from our own inner physical demands to manage our well-being.

If like many others you are not realistically going to take up meditation, I recommend trying equine facilitated explorations in mindfulness. It will “blow your mind”.