An ancient practice with a modern need
Mindfulness practice has its roots firmly planted within the teachings of various schools of Buddhism. This ancient practice of becoming more present with mental focus, brings with it many benefits, but it is not without its own particular challenges. Set within a modern landscape filled with a multitude of external and internal stimuli, it can be difficult to attain mastery over our random and scattered thoughts, cravings, and impulses, with their accompanying deficits and dysfunctions, whilst achieving directed, and focused mental acuity (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006). The act of training minds to achieve a state of purpose, direction, and inspiration grown from clear intention and focus, will add to, and increase an overall subjective and objective sense of well-being. This is now being recognised within some schools of psychology such as ‘Positive Psychology’ as an important approach to healing and supporting the modern overwrought, and overstimulated mind (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006).
Attentional balance can be defined as, “…the development of sustained, voluntary attention, is a crucial feature of mental health and optimal performance in any kind of meaningful activity.” (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006). This adds to mindfulness and introspection skills, which in turn increases attentional focus and presence, an underpinning goal. According to Wallace (2018), attentional balance can be achieved within the context of the “A Matrix of Mental Balance”, within such causes as our social/environmental, psychological, behavioural, and physiological experiences. The goals therefore can be determined by states of well-being within each of these aspects.
Physiological well-being is not only expressed by how fit a person is, how much exercise they do or what they eat, but within the context of attentional balance, it can be measured through the decreased levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, increased immune function, and an increase in the activity and length of telomerase, which correlates to health and mortality (Schutte & Malouff, 2014). This overall reduction in stress inducing effects on the body can also be used to focus more attentively on the process of mindful breathing, which according to Wallace & Shapiro (2006), is a widespread practice for developing attentional balance, as it encourages connection to and awareness of the tactile and physical sensations that arise in the body during the process of respiration. The focus on the breath encourages awareness of the abdomen, the nasal passages and the sensations of the passage of the breath into the body, leading the mind into a more focused state of attentional awareness (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006).
The psychological benefits arising from attentional balance include a sense of overall well-being, not linked to a particular stimulus or stimulation, nor from excitation, either internal or external, but rather from a sense of inner peace, serenity and contentment (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006). This inner well-being is the direct result of training attention to become intentional and deliberate, whilst practicing compassion and acceptance, as this act is not intended to become militant nor punishing, but rather loving and insightful. Rather than attention being compulsive or the result of mental addiction, the goal is to attain freedom to attend to what we choose, be that the breath, a sensation, an emotion, or a thought. If a feeling or a thought is resisted, then as a consequence the focus is aimed at the very thing that is being avoided. By becoming free yet focused in attention, there becomes an ability to choose where the focus is placed (Wallace, 2010).
According to Hall (2013), “if you act more in accordance with your emotions, knowing and understanding what you are feeling will help you be effective in making wise choices.” Another goal of attentional balance is that of emotional control, as em