What Is Mindful Awareness?

  • By: Ryan Kane
  • Updated: March 23, 2022
  • Time to read: 4 min.

You know that feeling when you’re in the middle of doing something, and all of a sudden, you realize you weren’t actually paying attention to what you were doing?

That’s awareness.

Observing myself, I notice a lack of awareness most commonly shows up as a combination of tension and hurrying through a task.

For example, washing the dishes is a common example of an everyday task that you can train yourself to do mindfully. 

When you wash the dishes without awareness, you’re likely to find yourself hurrying through the task, living in a future where you’re no longer doing the dishes. Or, maybe you’re using that time to process difficult feelings about something that happened earlier in the day. 

When you wash the dishes with awareness, you focus on being simply present while you wash the dishes. You pay attention to each step in the process: lathering the dishes with soap, letting your hands feel the warmth of the water, drying the dish and gently placing it where it belongs.

It’s easy to describe. But in practice, life is often a tug-of-war between forgetting to be aware, and then remembering again.

Why it’s so hard to stay aware

Don’t worry—you’re not the only one struggling to stay aware.

It’s how you’re wired. Our brains are built for distraction.

A study in the scientific journal Neuron found that our attention shifts focus as much as four times per second

Why is this happening? The brain naturally shifts its ‘spotlight’ of attention around to see if there’s anything in the environment that’s important to give attention to. 

There are times this is useful. Walking through intersections in a busy city, for example.

But when your attention jumps around while you’re trying to read, or wash the dishes? Not so much. 

Ian Fiebelkorn, one of the authors of the study, points to evolutionary reasons for this phenomenon:

“Think about when life was more dangerous. You would have to constantly be on the lookout, you would want to always be aware if there was something around you with bigger teeth.”

So, rest assured that while it’s hard to maintain your awareness, it’s not just you. Your brain’s trying to keep you safe. Along with the rest of us, you’re battling millions of years of evolution. 

Awareness is a series of small victories

How to Practice Mindful Awareness

When you’re up against these kinds of odds, battling your own biology, it can feel like a lost cause. 

Almost makes you want to go back to washing the dishes in a state of blissful unawareness.

But over time, you can gain insight into how your mind works. You can recognize patterns. You can understand how to nudge yourself into a different way of being.

Or, at the very least, you can recognize the fact that your awareness is elsewhere. That alone is a win.

Awareness isn’t like flipping a switch from Unaware to Aware. 

Instead, it’s a series of small victories over years. 

At first, my understanding of myself was nonexistent. And to be honest, progress has been slow.

But the small wins stack up. 

Six or seven years ago, before practicing mindfulness, it would have been unusual for me to stop in the middle of a task to notice that I’m actually not present.

Now, I catch myself daily in moments of unawareness. 

Before, there was no separation between myself and my emotions. I projected them onto the outside world, figuring there must be an external reason I felt bad.

Now, on my best days I can recognize when my nervous system is activated and I’m in a negative emotional state. I can take responsibility for my feelings instead of projecting them.

I still feel like I’m early in the journey of awareness. But over time, the small wins have added up to a meaningful improvement in my life.

How to practice mindful awareness

Mindful awareness is a skill that’s easy to learn, but difficult to master.

To practice mindful awareness, simply:

  1. Give your full attention to whatever it is that you’re doing
  2. When your attention drifts away, bring it back to the present moment

Take pleasure in those moments that you catch yourself in unawareness. In a way, it can feel like failure, but it’s not. Each time you catch yourself in unawareness, you’re training your mind to notice when your attention has drifted, and to bring it back.

With enough practice, your skills of attention and your ability to remain in the present moment improve.

Understanding yourself is a lifelong journey

Each of us walks through the world guided by automatic behaviors. 

We’ve accumulated them over years of living. When we react to something, oftentimes we’re reacting not only to that event, but to emotional triggers from our past. Our brain operates in this way in order to conserve energy and protect us.

And on top of that, our brain’s biology is wired to zoom out of the present moment frequently in order to keep us safe.

We can be grateful to our brains for keeping us safe.

But as a result, through no fault of our own, our default mode is autopilot mode.

So how do we snap out of autopilot mode?

Unfortunately, it’s not a quick process. Like learning the piano, or any difficult skill, understanding yourself, your emotions, and your patterns of behavior takes time. 

We can gently ease ourselves into greater awareness through years of practice.

It’s a lifelong journey, but each step into the present moment makes life better.

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