Awareness: The Fundamental Building Block of Learning

Being easily distracted is toxic to our wellbeing. Mindfulness allows us to show up and be present and fully focused on what we're doing.

It turns out that our bodies influence our brains, and our brains influence our bodies. The communication is unequivocally bidirectional. And this insight is so important because, for one thing, it allows us to better understand how it is that our mental state, and particularly our sense of wellbeing may actually not simply be a subjective feeling, but may actually be something which influences our bodies. So there is a plethora of evidence now that suggests that wellbeing is associated with physical health. People who report higher levels of wellbeing are healthier. Now, this is not true of everyone. There are many exceptions to this, but if you test thousands of people, tens of thousands of people, in epidemiological studies, you will see that this relationship is present.

So it invites the possibility that if we engage in practices which cultivate wellbeing, these practices will change specific brain circuits, and when these brain circuits are changed, they will influence bodily systems in ways that will promote increased physical health. So that’s an exciting proposition and one that is empirically attractable.

Whenever a psychologist or a neuroscientist begins to grapple with a complex mental construct like wellbeing, or it could be in the cognitive sphere, like memory or attention, what we like to do is we like to identify what are the more elementary constituents from which this more global construct is comprised? And with wellbeing, there are four constituents that we think are critical.

Four Building Blocks of Well-Being

The first we call awareness. Awareness is so critical, and it’s normally not thought of as a constituent of wellbeing, but to quote the subtitle of a major scientific paper that came out on this topic a few years ago, “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind”. So being attentionally distracted is toxic to our wellbeing. And I think that this probably is not that surprising to viewers. When we are able to really show up and be present and fully focused on what we’re doing, people tend to report higher levels of wellbeing than when their mind is wandering, and when they’re distracted. So awareness is the first constituent.

The mindfulness piece would be mostly subsumed under the awareness constituent, the awareness element that we talked about in terms of wellbeing. And there’s a reason why we put it first. And we put it first because we think it is the foundational building block. We think that it will enable and facilitate all the other forms of wellbeing, in that if you don’t have that first piece, it’s like building a house on a very unstable structure, a very unstable foundation. We need to have this basic mindfulness piece. William James, in his great two-volume tome, The Principles of Psychology, which was published in 1890, he has a whole chapter on attention, and he said in that chapter on attention that the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, he said, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. And he went on to say that in education, which should improve this faculty, would be the education par excellence.

So really, what he was talking about is mindfulness education. And this is the fundamental building block of all other forms of learning. If we’re not fully present with what is in front of us, it will significantly constrain our ability to retain that information. So it’s super important. We also know that there are certain kinds of qualities like resilience, and the way we define resilience, in a very sort of hard-nosed scientific way, resilience is the rapidity with which you recover from adversity. The rapidity with which you recover from adversity. So what that means is that some people, when bad stuff happens, they can recover quickly, and other people have a prolonged response that can perseverate And it turns out this is so important. And we know from hard-nosed research that mindfulness practices can improve resilience.

I should quickly add, however, not to mislead viewers, that the evidence for this indicates that you only begin to see this after quite a bit of practice. It’s not something that arises immediately. And summarizing across a number of major research studies, I would put it at somewhere around 1500 to 2000 hours of practice before you really begin to see an impact on objective measures of resilience from mindfulness practices. Now in the scheme of things, 1500 to 2000 hours, we would consider that in the kind of meditation research that we’ve done to be very much a beginner. But still, it’s quite a number of hours, but it’s doable for most people. But it also reminds us that we need to be patient with this. It’s like changing the course of a river that’s been flowing in the same direction for many years. These changes are gradual.

What our suggestion to people is is this. We ask people to please honestly reflect on their life, and taking into account all the challenges and responsibilities that they have, and for each person to come up herself or himself with a number that represents the number of minutes you think you can practice every day for 30 days continuously without a break, that is doing it for 30 consecutive days, even if that number is one minute, that’s okay. Perfectly okay. But we’d like you to choose an amount of time where you can make an unswerving commitment to practice that amount every day for 30 days without a break.

We want you to be realistic, and we want you to be successful. So you pick the number. And what we find is when we do that, people can choose a number that they can stick to. And then you just slowly build up from there. And even if the number is one or two minutes, what people often find is that they only can do it for two minutes at the time they chose, then they may spontaneously have another two minutes when they’re commuting, or when they’re waiting in line for something, and they spontaneously can do it then, and they realize that you can do it anywhere, anytime, and it becomes much more accessible. It’s not instantaneous, but it is a way to help ensure that success will be the outcome rather than failure. There are programs out there where the expectation is that a person will practice for 45 minutes a day, and the vast majority of people don’t do that. So you set a person up for failure rather than success, and I think there are ways to do this that maximize the likelihood of it being successful.