Before we start cultivating mindfulness, thinking is mostly an unconscious, involuntary process. (Of course, we’re generally conscious of what we’re thinking about—but we’re generally unconscious of the fact that we are thinking.)
The unconscious, involuntary nature of thinking becomes quite obvious as soon as you start practicing concentration meditation. You rest your attention on your chosen object of attention—everything seems to be going fine—then, all of a sudden, you notice that you’ve been lost in thought, having totally forgotten your chosen object. This happens again and again.
When you notice that you’ve been lost in thought, you’ve exercised a capacity called introspection, which allows you to examine or scrutinize what’s going on in your mind. Introspection is how we make the unconscious conscious. (We don’t need introspection to perceive things that we’re already conscious of, but extra scrutiny is required to discern phenomena that are on the edge of consciousness.) Introspection increases mindfulness by expanding the range of your attention and awareness.
Think of introspection as quality control for your meditation practice. Rather than just waiting for introspection to happen spontaneously, learn to engage introspection intentionally and continuously as you meditate. This means most of your attention will be on your chosen object, but some of your attention will be reserved for gently but vigilantly scrutinizing what your intellect and attention are up to.
Introspection is even more powerful when combined with a technique called noting, in which you simply name what you’re trying to notice, as soon as you notice it. The simple act of naming a phenomenon that you’ve noticed helps bring that phenomenon more solidly into consciousness and helps you recognize that phenomenon more easily the next time it shows up.
You can use introspection and noting in both meditation and daily life to help you become more conscious of many types of phenomena. However, in mindfulness meditation, it’s especially helpful to learn to recognize two things: distraction (when thinking or other phenomena are drawing your attention away from your chosen object) and dullness (when your experience is getting dull and losing vividness because your attention is insufficiently energized). When you notice distraction and dullness, you can silently think the words “distraction” and “dullness,” respectively—or you can just make a mental note of the distraction and dullness without thinking the words.
In Other Frameworks
This article is informed by B. Alan Wallace’s book The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind and by my experiences with meditation instructor Kenneth Folk.