Saturday, December 20, 2014

Reflective Attention

And somewhere in the back of his mind was a small, small note of confusion, a sense of something wrong about that story; and it should have been a part of Harry's art to notice that tiny note, but he was distracted. For it is a sad rule that whenever you are most in need of your art as a rationalist, that is when you are most likely to forget it. —HPMOR, Ch. 3

A rationalist’s art is most distant when it is most needed. Why is that?

When I am very angry with my romantic partner, what I feel is anger. I don’t feel the futility of throwing a tantrum, or the availability of other options like honest communication, or freewriting, or taking a deep breath. My attention is so narrowly focused on the object of my anger that I’m likely not even aware that I’m angry, let alone that my anger might be blinding me to my art.

When her skills are most needed, a rationalist is lost in an unskillful state of mind. She doesn’t recognize that it’s happening, and she doesn’t remember that she has prepared for it by learning and practicing appropriate techniques.

The following exercise trains a skill I call reflective attention, and some call mindfulness. For me, it serves as an anchor in a stormy mind, or as a compass pointing always toward a mental state where my art is close at hand.

Noticing that I am lost in an unskillful state of mind is a separate skill. But when I do happen to notice—when I feel that small, small note of confusion—reflective attention helps me find my way back. Instead of churning out even more pointless things to yell at my partner, it allows me to say, “I am angry. I feel an impulse to yell. I notice my mind returning over and over to the memory that makes me more angry. I’m finding it hard to concentrate. I am distracted. I have a vague impression that I have prepared for this.” And awareness of that final thought allows me to ask, “What have I trained myself to do when I feel this way?”

The goal of the following exercise is to practice entering reflective attention.

It begins with an instruction to think of nothing, because when you monitor yourself to make sure you’re not having any thoughts, your attention ends up directed toward the beginnings of thoughts. Since the contents of consciousness are always changing, maintaining focus on the beginnings of thoughts prevents you from engaging for an extended period with any particular thought. It prevents you from getting “lost in thought”, or keeping attention focused on a thought without awareness of doing so. The point is not actually to be successful at thinking nothing, but to notice what happens when you try.

Keeping your focus on the constant changes in your stream of consciousness brings attention to your experience of awareness itself. Awareness of awareness is the anchor for attention. It lets you keep your bearings when you’d otherwise be carried away by a current of thought or emotion.

Once you’re so familiar with that feeling of mindfulness that creating it is a primitive action, you can forget the introductory part, and jump straight to reflective attention whenever it occurs to you to do so.


This will probably take around five minutes, but you can do it for much longer if you want to.

Notice what your mind is doing right now. One thing it’s doing is experiencing sensations of black and white as you read. What else are you experiencing? Are there words in your inner monologue? Are there emotions of any kind?

Spend about thirty seconds trying not to think anything. When thirty seconds is up, stop trying not to think, and read on.

What’s happening in your mind is constantly changing. Even when you were trying not to think, you probably noticed many times when the stillness would shift and some new thought would begin to emerge in conscious awareness.

Turn your attention to those changes. When a new thought emerges in consciousness, see if you can notice the exact moment when it happens, becoming aware of what it feels like for that particular change to take place.

If it helps at first, you can narrate your stream of consciousness in words: “Now I’m seeing the blue of the wall, now I’m hearing the sound of a car, now I’m feeling cold, now I’m curious what time it is…” You’ll probably find that you can’t narrate anywhere near quickly enough, in part because thoughts can happen in parallel, while speech is serial. Once narrating starts to become frustrating for that reason, stop slowing yourself down with words, and just silently observe your thoughts as they occur.

If you’re finding this overwhelming because there are too many thoughts, narrow your focus down to just your breathing, and try to precisely identify the experience of an exhale ending and an inhale beginning, of an inhale ending and an exhale beginning. Keep doing that until you feel comfortable with it, and then slowly expand your attention a little at a time: to other experiences associated with breathing, to non-breath-related bodily sensations, to non-tactile sensations from your environment, and finally to internal mental sensations like emotions.

If you notice an impulse to focus your attention on a particular thought, following it and engaging with it—perhaps you notice you feel hungry, and in response you begin to focus your attention on planning lunch—instead of letting that impulse take over your attention, recognize it as yet another change in the activity of your mind. If you’re narrating, say, “now I’m feeling an impulse to plan my lunch”, and keep your focus broad enough to catch the next thought when it arises. If you realize that you’ve already become lost in a particular thought, notice that realization itself as a new thought, and return to observing your stream of consciousness by noticing the next new thought that happens as well.

You might need to practice this many times before you get the hang of it. I suggest trying it for ten minutes to half an hour a day until you do.

Once you feel like you can recognize the sensation of reflective attention and enter that state of mind reliably given time, begin to train for speed. Instead of setting a timer for fifteen minutes or however long you want to practice, set it to go off every minute for the first half of your practice, spending one minute in reflective attention, and one minute out. (Don’t do this for all of your practice. You still need to practice maintenance.) When you can consistently arrive in reflective attention by the end of the minute, cut the intervals down to 45 seconds, then thirty, fifteen, and five.


In real life, the suspicion that you may be lost in an unskillful state of mind will be quiet and fleeting. “Quiet” means you’ll need to learn to snap your attention to the slightest hint of that feeling. For that, you’ll need to train “noticing”. “Fleeting” means you’ll need to be able to respond in less than five seconds. You’ll need to begin the process in less than one second, even if it takes a little longer to fully arrive in reflective attention. For that, training for speed is crucial.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've always thought of my thoughts as units of words, but during the 30 second exercise I noticed that my thoughts are actually subtle, fluffy things that can somehow acquire words as I notice them, though the words are unnecessary for understanding. Noticing the fluffy quality was slightly unnerving.

Nathan Rosewarne said...

Reflective attention combined with Noticing seems like a very effective structure for turning new skills/habits of thought into instantly available primitive actions. Especially for softer skills that can only be practiced when the opportunity arises.