Commentary on mindful awareness training by Sara Melzer, Professor Emerita of French & Francophone Studies:
Surprising as it may sound, some of my UCLA students are finding meaning during the pandemic. One student reports: “I’m excited at the inner changes this quarantine is bringing out in me.” Almost all the students are discovering that their lives are fuller than they had realized – when they re-direct their attention. This training is the work of a mindful awareness.
Mindfulness is not necessarily spiritual or mystical, although it can be. Mainly, it trains our most fundamental faculty: our attention. If skillfully cultivated, our attention can dramatically transform our experience and promote well-being, even during a crisis. This claim may seem astonishing because we are not taught to value our attention, even though it is the ever-present background to all thought and experience.
Mindfulness highlights the vast potential of this resource. Our attention is a muscle — a mental muscle that needs to be trained, just as athletes train their bodies, insists Shinzen Young, founder of Unified Mindfulness and my teacher for 20 years.
My students experienced the power of their attention to transform their relationship to pain in a class experiment where I had them hold ice-cubes in one hand, for two rounds. In round one, I offered no guidance and they relied on their standard coping strategy. After five minutes, they were in agony. In round two, I guided them to hold the ice mindfully. One student reported, “I felt blissfully calm. I could have held the ice forever.”
What made the difference? Their attention – what they focused on and how. In the first round, they tightened their bodies and narrowed their lens to block the pain. This mental image, a cortical homunculus, simulates the brain mapping the body from the inside: hands swell up like balloons and dwarf the body.
Their hand defined their whole body. When we are in pain, physical or emotional, we often identify with the ailing part and let it become the whole.
Alternatively, we can re-frame our attention. I invited my students to expand their focus beyond their hands to include their feet, where they noticed pockets of calm. I activated their attention’s telescopic lens when I had them zoom their awareness out, first to sounds inside the room, then outside, before extending to the silence beyond. While they felt their hands throb, they simply included it within a wider attentional field. The impact of the ice was diffused. Just as a few drops of red dye can define the water’s color in a fish-bowl, but not in a lake, my students could dilute and transform their experience of pain by enlarging their attentional frame.
The momentary shift of attention is actually not the hard part. Keeping it there is. To achieve this, Unified Mindfulness emphasizes sensory clarity as a key attentional skill. It can open up our awareness to a fascinating “something” within the seeming “nothing” of our ordinary experience. Take the breath, for example. Using a microscopic lens, we zero in on the outbreath to notice a subtle release of air. Other forms of release – in the jaws, shoulders, rib cage – ripple out. This inter-connectedness is a source of wonder.
Sensory clarity helps anchor our attention because our sensory world becomes more richly layered and attention-grabbing. One student wrote, “I invited my family to join me in my mindful eating exercise. For desert, we had grapes — just ordinary grapes. They exploded with extraordinary taste sensations. Waves of sweetness, then sourness rippled out towards my ears, then throughout my whole body. It was so satisfying I almost felt full.” When we tune into the nuanced layers of something as ordinary as an exhale or a grape, any experience can anchor our attention and nourish us.
Managing our attention in this way contrasts with our standard notion of concentration. The term “concentration” in English mainly signifies a forcible narrowing of focus to bear down on an object. But our bodies tighten and we slip back into a version of the ice-cube scenario. What we resist, persists! Mindfulness, however, emphasizes that the truest concentration comes from an ease that unifies our energies. Coupled with sensory clarity, concentration holds our attention not through coercion, but fascination and wonder.
Of course, the COVID crisis is much more serious than ice-cubes. But the underlying principle still pertains: include the ailing part within a larger whole so that fear does not occupy all our attentional space or define our whole life. One student described how a shift in her attention helped ease her panic after learning that the “shelter-in-place” would continue longer than expected. Initially, she was glued to social media which convinced her “all of life was closing up shop.” Finally, she remembered she had a choice. She could re-frame her attention to include her anxiety within a wider container that diluted its power. She did not deny her fear but included it within a larger lens. As poet Maya Angelou wrote: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can choose not to be reduced by them.”
When all their attention was not colonized by fear, my students freed up energy to explore what was available to them. I had asked them to notice their COVID-19 Silver Linings. Since they were on the look-out for them, they found them. They used their mindfulness muscle to soak their awareness into them and anchor their attention there. Many experienced a surprising inner freedom when they discovered creative resources they didn’t know they had.
Creativity thrives when we are confronted with constraints. Let us seize this opportunity to turn our focus towards what remains possible and open up their hidden depths. In this way lies freedom and well-being.
Sara E. Melzer is a Humanities Professor of French and Francophone Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her latest book is Colonizer or Colonized: The Hidden Stories of Early Modern French Culture. Currently, she is working to integrate mindfulness into Higher Education through UCLA’s EPIC program