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 emotions are often preceded by a thought, which can induce a reaction. Interestingly time is of no import when experiencing an emotion, as an event that occurred a decade ago, can still incite sharp feelings, and emotional reactions in the present moment. Within mindfulness practice the intention is not to ignore emotions, or feelings but rather to become less reactive and more present and attentive to them. When feelings are expressed at the appropriate time and in a healthy manner, they can become tools to understand ourselves more deeply and can also lead to emotional healing, increasing our overall well-being and happiness (Wallace, 2010).
Individually, when the goals of attentional balance are achieved and the benefits permeate throughout life experiences and relationships, thus increasing the quality of life and overall sense of purpose, a desire to help others and to have a hand in creating a better world, can be a direct result. Altruistic goals and desires begin to expand within a social context, and environmental flourishing becomes an important aspect of a fulfilling life purpose, according to Wallace & Shapiro (2006). Mindfulness can also increase the engagement and expression of creativity, as the focus becomes less about the individual and their experience and more about how they fit into the greater world and environment. This can be a catalyst for new inventions, technologies and ideologies, with a purpose of increasing the well-being of the many. When the individual achieves authentic happiness, the impulse is to share this through the betterment of others. By a decrease in internal suffering there is an increased acceptance and compassion for another (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006).
However, when seeking attentional balance, it is useful to address the opposing components that contribute to any imbalances and distortions that can impede the ability to achieve this desired goal. These include attentional dysfunction, excitation or hyperactivity and laxity or deficit. These dysfunctions are often addressed within the context of education, the diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorders (ADHD) and the increase in mental health disorders, including the inability to focus, concentrate, and compulsive distraction. Psychologists are moving away from focusing on treatment of the disease, and instead moving towards positive psychology tenets, seeking to emphasise well-being and happiness strategies to minimise dysfunction. Mindfulness interventions have shown significant positive outcomes in clinical and non-clinical settings, including decreased depression and anxiety, and increased concentration, and educational outcomes (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006; Cowan, Fristoe, Elliott, Brunner, & Saults, 2006).
The qualities developed in attentional training, are as important as the results, and when done in order, lead to a deeper grounding in mindfulness practice. Conative balance, which is the mental faculty of purpose, desire and volition, encourages the creation of aims and goals that increase well-being, in contrast with hedonic pleasure (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006). This supports the mind to attain a desired outcome without seeking excitement, stimulation and pleasure for its own sake. Next is attentional balance, “the development of sustained, voluntary attention continuously focused on a familiar object, without forgetfulness or distraction.” (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006). The third quality is cognitive balance, the ability to observe and engage in world experiences without distortion, or assumptions. This enhances calm and clear presence, moment to moment, and reduces suffering and self-projection of fear states, that are likely creations of distorted thinking (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006). Lastly, affective balance, the product of the three prior qualities, aims to attain emotional regulation, minimising emotional reactions, excess and impairment, caused by strong emotional triggers, such as craving, hostility, envy, and delusion (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006). Affective balance is indicative of loving-kindness, empathy and a compassionate state for the self and others.
Relaxation is separate from focused attention, however, it is important to contemplate the intention behind the attentive state. This is what determines whether well-being will be attained through mindfulness practice, and leads to both subjective well-being (stress rates, happiness, satisfaction with life), and objective wellbeing (immunity, blood pressure, heart rate) and influencing relaxation ability (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006). Relaxation can lead to an increase in focused attention, and conversely focused attention can lead to increased relaxation, as there is less desire to pay attention to thoughts and other distractions that can increase tension in the body. By using attentional focus as the focal point for awareness, rather than being distracted by discomfort felt in the body or mind, an increase in focus and attentional awareness occurs. Mindfulness of breathing, used to hone the telescope of the mind, or samadhi, helps to develop deeper states of stability, relaxation and mental clarity in order to become more mindful of mental phenomena (Social Sciences Department, n.d.).
Within mindfulness training, I have experienced both the previously mentioned challenges and successes, of distraction and attentional focus. Using breath-work as a powerful tool to bring awareness and attention to specific areas of my body, created and sustained a relaxed and present state. I have learned to become more mindful of my judgements, reactions, emotional triggers and distorted mental states, and discovered a more calm, centred and peaceful place to exist. I now accept that external and internal distractions had taken hold in my life experience, leading me away from joy and perpetuating a physical and mental stress response to life. I was focused inward on my own pain and suffering, allowing this to rule my head and heart, and with mindfulness training, I have now become more accepting, and less attached to particular outcomes for myself and others. This has led to a sense of inner calm and peace and as described by Wallace & Shapiro (2006), allowed personal freedom to achieve an intentional life.
The implementation of mindfulness training within personal and educational experiences, is a beneficial practice with a multitude of advantageous outcomes. Attaining self-mastery over mental distortions and attentional dysfunctions, and achieving attentional balance in all its various expressions, helps both the individual, and results in the collective becoming more compassionate, empathetic, and with a proliferation of loving kindness. This can only help to increase mental, physiological and emotional well-being, and educational outcomes, whilst minimising suffering in the world.
Cowan, N., Fristoe, N., Elliott, E., Brunner, R., & Saults, J. (2006). Scope of attention, control of attention, and intelligence in children and adults. Memory & cognition, 34(8), 1754–1768. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3758/bf03195936
Hall, K. (2013, June 16). Learning thoughts and emotions. [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/pieces-mind/201306/learning-thoughts-and-emotions
Lundh, L. (2020). Experimental Phenomenology in mindfulness research. Mindfulness. 11. 493–506. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-019-01274-9
Schutte, N. & Malouff, J. (2014). A meta-analytic review of the effects of mindfulness meditation on telomerase activity. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 42, 45–48. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.12.017
Social Sciences Department. (n.d.). Mindfulness in Practice. In Cultivating attentional balance – Part 1. Endeavour College of Natural Health, Session 5.
Social Sciences Department. (n.d.). Mindfulness in Practice. In Cultivating attentional balance – Part 2. Endeavour College of Natural Health, Session 6.
Wallace, B. & Shapiro, S. (2006). Mental balance and well-being: Building bridges between Buddhism and western psychology. The American psychologist. 61. 690-701.
Wallace, B. (2010). The four immeasurables: practices to open the heart (3rd ed.). Boulder, CO: Snow Lion.
Wallace, B. (2018). A matrix of mental balance. Personal communication. Social Sciences Department. Mindfulness in Practice. In Cultivating attentional balance - Part 1. Endeavour College of Natural Health.