Drifting Attention

The new movie Inception is the talk of the town at present. It raises the question – how do you know you are really here, really conscious – maybe you just think you are. To a meditator this is old hat.

You can observe in meditation that the mind wanders very easily. Every so often it ‘returns’ home and you become aware of yourself; which we call mindfulness. While the mind has wondered you are not aware that you have lost mindfulness – you are simply caught up in some idea or other.

After a while, being mindful seems to be much more the ‘natural’ state, and the non-mindfulness is like being lost in a dream, in a drunken haze.

One curious effect though, is that while the mind is lost without self-awareness, it can think that it is still being mindful.

For instance if you are watching the breath, the mind wonders away, yet still you think that you are mindful. Then a noise occurs and you ‘return’ to mindfulness, and realise that actually you had been lost in some thought or feeling.

Inception has brought some of these issues to the fore. Actually in psychology they have long been investigated…. in UK’s Telegraph there was an interesting take on the issue.

The article revolves around Adrian Owen, of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University. In one study he looked at

what happens when people doze off while asked to conduct a monotonous task such as repeatedly tapping their finger. Having taken part himself, Owen was surprised to find that when he drifted off, he picked up the task again as soon as he awoke, unaware that time had elapsed: “I had dozed off half a dozen times during the course of an hour, and each time was completely unaware that I had ‘lost’ a few minutes of my life – as a result, my estimate was that the experiment had lasted less than 30 minutes.

Which is exactly what so many meditators find is the case with their concentration exercises – they are not as present as they thought they were. The good news is that it just takes time and practise, until the mindfulness is residually close at hand.