What is it that most attracts your attention? Most of us, most of the time, find our attention drawn to things external to ourselves: the morning commute, our child's bad report card, the unexpected need to replace the roof or the water heater.
Yet, what about the array of goings-on inside ourselves? Cold feet, a knot in the stomach; waking up from a pleasant dream, knowing that we are thinking and planning? Researchers have shown that attention turned outward engages our brain's "top down" abilities -- the logical, rational, and linear "smarts" we have that allow us to be efficient and to multi-task. This capacity of the amazing human brain is a wonderful asset. Top down reasoning is great when we need to solve a problem. Often we may need to anticipate what may happen next, and to compare that likely outcome with past experiences. It kicks in when we plan a car trip, and need to decide if the tires need to be replaced, or where to stay overnight en route.
When is comes to emotional functioning and interactions, there's is a different brain process that can serve us better, and it's called "bottom up" reasoning. Author Bonnie Badenoch explains that when we turn attention inward, to information arriving via our senses, like a cool breeze, the sounds of traffic, the sight of kids playing, we change the way our brain processes information.
Tuning into ourselves, and paying attention to the features of our inner experience, gives us the power to calm ourselves, soothe intense emotions, and recognize physical needs -- hunger, thirst, exhaustion -- that we can usually address readily. Tuning into ourselves is the essence of mindfulness. It is not a matter of being self-centered or oblivious to people or events that matter. On the contrary, it is a profound way of giving ourselves time and space to be fully present to our own lives. When we persist on "auto-pilot," our inner experience may run amok with wild narratives, worries, interpretations, and so on. This is often a recipe for stress, fatigue, and being so preoccupied we risk missing out on our lives right here and right now.
Joseph Goldstein, in his book Insight Meditation, says, "we hop on a train of association, not knowing that we have hopped on, and certainly not knowing the destination. Somewhere down the line we may wake up and realize that we have been thinking, that we have been taken for a ride. And when we step down from the train, it may be in a very different state of mind from where we jumped aboard."
Attuning to ourselves sharpens our awareness and empathy for others. Exercising the "mental muscles" of compassion for ourselves (no matter what state we may discover internally) prompts us to extend the very same compassion to those around us. For a great introduction to mindfulness, check out Jon Kabat-Zinn's new book, Mindfulness for Beginners.