You are here. I am here. Our bodies are present, yet our minds may be bouncing around, our thoughts drawn away, recollecting a task to be taken care of, or propelled into imagination. As humans, we spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around us, and it would appear that “mind-wandering” is the default mode of our brain (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010: 932). This essay will explore the cultivation of Attentional Balance through mindfulness and attentional training and discuss the support of Western psychology from the likes of William James and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of the benefits of focused attention on well-being. For the purpose of this essay, mindfulness will be defined as sustained, voluntary attention continuously focused on a familiar object, without forgetfulness or distraction (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006: 695).
The ultimate goal of attentional training is to live as much of life as possible, functioning in a state of awareness and being awake to what is happening around us in the present moment. To focus on what is present is to achieve what Csikszentmihalyi (1994/2015) terms flow (57:00). Flow is preceded by the establishment of a set of goals; much like Wallace’s conative balance precedes attentional balance, one cannot work effectively without the other. Setting wholesome goals with the intention of well-being for oneself and others (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006: 694) is required to achieve attentional training success. Setting goals to work with laser focus, in a harmoniously ordered consciousness and avoiding psychic entropy (the state where attention becomes split by demands and consciousness becomes depressive), is required to achieve flow (Czikszentmihalyi 1994/2015: 5). However, we can only be aware of what happens around and inside of us in relation to our consciousness. William James stated, “Each of us literally chooses, by his ways of attending to things, what sort of a universe he shall appear to himself inhabit” (McDougal, 2021). Attention is what is reflected in consciousness, with whatever our attention illuminates is what we can see (Csikszentmihalyi, 1994/2015, 57:00). Attentional balance is a state without laxity, without hyperactivity; it is a state where one can find enjoyment in any situation as consciousness has been mastered along with focused attention. This does not mean there is not distraction; simply, the agitation of the mind is acknowledged with introspection followed by conscious release, with attention returning to the object of focus.
Relaxation, stability and vividness are the qualities followed in sequence to achieve attentional balance. Firstly to induce a state of relaxation, a loosening up of sorts, a sense of bodily and mental ease (McDougal, 2021) that begins focusing on the rhythm of the in- breath and out-breath (Wallace, 2010). Stability refers to the continuity and coherence of attention (McDougal, 2021) and may take time to develop. The avoidance here is to not sink into laxity or the progression of lethargy (Wallace, 2010). Vividness is the resolution and focus of attention, a brightness opposite to boredom; it is clarity. For Wallace (2010), the practice becomes a dance of these qualities, enhancing vividness but not at the expense of stability, bringing in greater stability but not at the cost of relaxation. When the continuity of focus is lacking, it is not the time to be concerned with vividness. The breathing must not be forced or manipulated; the body needs to breathe itself and use the out-breath to release the effort given to distracting thoughts and mental wandering. The object of focus need not be limited to breath, as this does not work for everybody, and visualisation is another way to maintain vividness. (Wallace, 2010).
Attention is the first step in learning; we cannot understand or learn what we do not attend to. According to James (McDougal 2021), “The power of voluntarily attending is the point of the whole procedure”. The power that comes from deep attention and engagement in an activity (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006: 696) may demand an effort that one is initially reluctant to make. However, once interaction provides feedback to the person’s skills, it becomes intrinsically rewarding (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Differentiation and integration are two dimensions of consciousness that one needs to perfect to develop a complex personality that is orientated toward growth. Differentiation involves becoming an individual with unique skills, being autonomous and different from other people. Integration unites the goals, skills and relationships into a harmonious entity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1994/2015: 7). Person’s mastering integration and differentiation will more likely experience states of flow and function at the peak of their abilities. The person presenting a complex personality, as described by Csikszentmihalyi (1994/2015: 7), offers clarity as they progress throughout everyday activities, are rehearsed at being at one with what they are doing, understand choices, are committed and care about the activities they engage in and challenge themselves to master and refine their skills. The characteristics of the complex personality involve bringing order to the contents of the mind to facilitate learning and education.
Wallace & Shapiro (2006), ask “Is focused attention opposed to relaxation or is relaxation a fundamental prerequisite to states of focused attention that can be maintained for long periods without exhaustion?” I am uncertain. Can the vividness Wallace (2010) refers to sustain us for long periods of focused attention? According to Wallace & Shapiro (2006), yes, the cultivation of mental and physical relaxation and focus on the development of attentional vividness creates an anomalous state of attentional balance, and a high level of attentional arousal is maintained. This state is referred to as shamatha, and in this state, the mind can be used effectively for any task. However, studies on attention on healthy individuals psychologists have found that attentional arousal is correlated with effort. When one is deeply relaxed, vividness is low level, and when attention is highly aroused, there is a high degree of effort (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006: 696), which seems in contradiction to Wallace’s work. My curiosity leads me to question further: Can the ‘relaxation response’ interfere with maintaining focus? Is exhaustion only bought on by the nature of the activity, intent of engagement or because one is simply tired? I do not feel qualified to offer an opinion on this specifically as my mindfulness meditation practice is still being mastered. In my limited experience, I do offer the observation that I can begin my practice not in a state of relaxation but with a mindful focus on the object relaxation is achieved. Therefore, I do not believe we need to start in a state of relaxation, but a relaxed state maintains stability and moves toward maintaining vividness. I digress to the example of a jet fighter pilot demonstrating focused attention that requires intense conscious training and effort, hyperactivity of thought. The intent of focus would not imply a need for relaxation, quite the opposite. Maintaining a heightened level of attentiveness without any distraction or mind- wandering would be the difference between a successful mission or even life or death. Furthermore, while there are other bodily responses that would assist in maintaining this intense focus, it is not a natural state of mind to be held for long periods, and exhaustion would be experienced. Is that experience a state of flow by a complex personality? Again, I am unsure but curious to explore further. Whereas my experiences and understanding of being still and focusing attention as a practice on the breath or visualisation allows for a state of relaxation. Even with distraction and agitation of the mind, one can refocus and relax more deeply, and I relate this to attentional balance. My curiosity also extends to does one need to feel relaxed to function in the flow state as described by Csikszentmihalyi (1990), or does one feel relaxed once one is focused? Can one be in a state of flow for more extended periods because of the nature of the attention being focused on goals that seemingly relate more to tasks and not a skill in reducing laxity and hyperactivity? I feel that I can maintain longer periods of flow, and it is a more natural state for me than being still in vividness at this point.
A wandering mind is an unhappy mind (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010: 932). Being in a state of flow induces higher rates of happiness and enjoyment (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). The positive psychology movement highlights the cultivation of meaningful priorities, attitudes, perspectives and behaviours. It is agreed by Buddhist’s, and western psychology happiness from internal mental training is more durable than stimulus-driven pleasures (Wallace & Shapiro, 2006: 692). In exploring attentional balance, flow and personal mindfulness mediation experience thus far, I will conclude that maintaining focus and practising mindfulness to achieve attentional balance and flow is an essential aspect for living a life of happiness and experiencing wellness and well-being.
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Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2015). Flow: Living at the Peak of Your Abilities (M. Csikszentmihalyi PhD., Narr.) [Audiobook]. Audible. (Original work published 1994)
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2015). Flow: Living at the Peak of Your Abilities (M. Csikszentmihalyi PhD., Narr.) [Audiobook Action Guide page 5]. Audible. (Original work published 1994)
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Global Learning Communities 2000
Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010) A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science, 330(6006), 932. DOI: 10.1126/science.1192439
McDougal, E. (2021). Session 5: Cultivating Attentional Balance [Powerpoint slides]. [email protected] https://learn.endeavour.edu.au
McDougal, E. (2021). Session 6: Attentional Training [Scorm player]. [email protected] https://learn.endeavour.edu.au
Wallace, B. A., (2010). The Four Immeasurables: Practices to Open the Heart. Snow Lion An imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Wallace, B. A., & Shapiro, S. L. (2006). Mental balance and well-being: building bridges between Buddhism and Western psychology. The American psychologist, 61(7), 690– 701. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.61.7.690
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