Awareness Served Four Ways
The Buddhist notion of sati or mindfulness can be translated loosely as awareness, but encompasses many subtle meanings other than the western notion of awareness as focused attention. Mindful awareness is non-evaluative, non-goal-directed, present moment experiencing without accompanying internal dialogue (Mahathera, 1990). Mindfulness is awareness refined: it abstracts observation from concern about outcome. One simply observes whatever is happening without judging it to be good, bad or otherwise—to the extent that that is possible—and without reacting. When mindful, one is attentively observing without an agenda, rather than vigilantly watching for something. Though one may observe that one has intention, one does not observe with intention. As Daniel Siegel (2011, p.86) describes it, “mindfulness is a form of mental activity that trains the mind to become aware of awareness itself and to pay attention to one's own intention.” The ideas of non-evaluative observation and awareness of awareness seem to capture much of what is meant when mindfulness is used outside a Buddhist context. To be aware of one's awareness, focusing on moment-to-moment changes of one's state both internally and with respect to one's environment, mindful activity represents a high degree of attunement within and outside oneself.
Mindfulness is a process not a state of being. David Wallin (2007, p.6) describes mindfulness as “attend(ing) to the process of experiencing.” Most familiar processes are in the service of goals that are external or consequent. One eats to satisfy hunger. One works to make money. The “goal” of the mindfulness, if can be said to have a “goal,” is mindfulness itself. One does it as an end in itself; one does not arrive there or achieve it.
Mindfulness is thought to promote development of new neural pathways in the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), the area of the brain responsible for impulse control, emotionally self-regulation, empathy, moral sensibility and our ability to relate to other people. In early life, circumstances associated with insecure and disordered attachment are thought to hinder the normal development of the PFC. Mindfulness practice has been shown to be effective in treating depression, mania, anxiety, bipolar disorder and borderline personality which may be related to the individual's attachment history.
The concept of awareness has a developed history in western psychological discourse along the lines of being the activity of focusing attention. In this framework, various types of awareness have been distinguished based on the target of attentional focus. In a therapeutic context, this is useful in that many of the problems for which people seek therapy are the result of habits of attending so some things and not others.
The concept of zones of awareness in Gestalt therapy (Canes, Trier-Rosner & Rosner, 1987, pp.28-29) is a model of awareness with three levels or areas to which attention is focused:
Outer Zone – what is perceived by the five senses (sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste)
Middle Zone - thinking, analyzing, planning, remembering, imagining
Inner Zone – feelings, emotions, body sensations
Siegel (2011) groups things differently, modelling awareness in three broad categories and making an important contribution by distinguishing relational awareness as distinct from the rest:
Body Awareness: contact with the environment (objects, air flow, wetness, heat, cold, etc.--the province of the five senses), internal states (breath, pain, pressure, pleasant sensations, internal changes – proprioception).
Mental Awareness: synonymous with the Gestalt Middle Zone plus feeling
Relational Awareness: our mental model of our relation to others in our social world
Wallin (2007) offers us the four concentric rings of awareness pointing out that attachment theory deals only with our development in terms of the first three rings. The fourth, innermost ring of awareness is the province of mindful practice which may be the key to the remediation of difficulties rooted in one's attachment history.
External reality (the outermost ring): physical and social stimuli in one's environment
Representational World: one's interpretation of perceptual data based on previous experience
Reflective World: one's reflective stance about the meaning of our experience
The Mindful Self (the innermost ring): one's ability to be aware of, observe and think about one's engaging in the other three rings of awareness. This gives rise to our sense of self, which even if it be a fiction as Buddhist psychology contends, is a persistent and useful one.
This model maps best onto distinct areas of the brain responsible for specific functions of which Wallin (2007, Ch.5) gives an excellent account.
Canes, M., Trier-Rosner, L., & Rosner, J. (1987) Peeling the Onion. Toronto: Gestalt Institute of Toronto.
Mahathera, Venerable H. Gunaratana (1990) Mindfulness in Plain English. High View, West Virginia: Bhavana Society
Siegel, D. (2011) Mindsight: the new science of personal transformation. NewYork: Bantam.
Wallin, D. (2007) Attachment in Psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press.