A Model for Mindfulness
Meditation and mindfulness have become increasingly popular in the last few decades. When I learnt to meditate over 30 years ago, meditation was still a peculiar, fringe activity. People rarely knew what to think of me when I told them I would spend time meditating.
Now, meditation has gone mainstream. You can find magazines on mindfulness at the supermarket checkout (at least, here in California you can!). When meditation first hit the cover of Time magazine in 2003, I knew it had finally arrived firmly for good.
Over the years, I’ve studied, practiced and analyzed dozens of different meditation techniques. Many people learn to meditate based on the well-publicized ability of meditation practice to reduce stress and regain a sense of peace and calm that often seems to be missing in hectic, demanding lives and troubling global events such as the climate crisis and the covid-19 pandemic.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the ability to deliberately direct your attention to the information provided by your senses. In the article Your Attention is Like the Beam of a Flashlight, I talk more about how to think about attention in a way that can make it more effective and increase the level of deliberateness with which you direct your attention.
Our senses are what enables us to be aware of the world both outside of us and within us. Our senses are the cameras, microphones and sensors of consciousness, providing multiple ways of gathering information about both the physical world that we share with others, and the unique internal inner world which is ours alone.
Traditional meditation often tries to teach us to be more aware of the world outside of us and inside of us using obscure, mysterious and contradictory koans and riddles, and sometimes inexplicable beliefs you should hold in order to fit in with the particular mystical ideas or dogma associated with their practice. Those things are used in a very roundabout way to prompt you to have realizations about the nature of attention and reality, rather than just giving you a model of how consciousness works and have you practice the using your skills and senses.
Koans and riddles might be fun as Instagram posts, but they are frustrating because they encourage thinking about meditating, rather than just doing it.
More modern mindfulness training has simplified the approach of teaching meditation, successfully removing much of the mysticism and complicated language often associated with traditional language. However, modern mindfulness often oversimplifies a little too much, focusing on your ability to repeatedly simply shift your attention away from distractions, and pay more careful attention to an action or thought in present time.
Why do we need a mindfulness model?
In order to really progress in meditation and mindfulness, a slightly more complex way of understanding where and how we should be directing our attention during meditation is useful. This article introduces a simple model of consciousness, called the three-layer model. The three layers of consciousness in the three-layer model are called external consciousness, internal consciousness and abstract consciousness. Each of the three layers has five ‘consciousness senses’, making15 senses in total.
When we start to understand which of these fifteen senses we are using during mindfulness and meditation practice, it can increase the effectiveness of our practice tremendously, and help us calm down our mind more quickly.
Note that this is a different model of consciousness from the Freudian three-layer model which is at the basis for a lot of ideas in analytical psychology. The Freudian model described the conscious, preconscious, and unconscious. In Freud’s model, the levels correspond and overlaps with Freud’s ideas of the id, ego, and superego. There are countless variations and interpretations of Freuds model, and it has been hugely influential in the growth and success of analytical psychology. Unfortunately, Freud’s model is not really that much use in our study of mediation and mindfulness, as it focuses on theoretical and often controversial ideas about how we operate. In meditation, we are training ourselves to observe reality more carefully, rather than give it intellectual meaning or dismantle it as part of a therapy session. We are more often ‘letting go’ of meaning rather than interpreting it or trying to extract meaning from the events in our lives.
The Five Physical Senses
Everyone knows the five physical senses provided by the various sensory organs of our body, which enable our brain to receive information about the external world outside of us, the one that is directly experienced by our bodies.
Our eyes provide our sense of vision, our ears provide our sense of hearing, our skin provides our sense of touch, our tongue provides our sense of taste, and our nose provides our sense of smell.
When we are with other people, we tend to be in broad agreement about what our five physical senses are telling us about external reality. We achieve that by carefully calibrating the information from our external senses and reaching agreement with the people around us. When most people see the color red, they agree it is red. When we pass a squashed skunk on the road, most people agree that it's a pretty bad smell. When the sun is shining, most people will agree that the light is bright and warm on their skin. When a surface is hot to touch, most people will agree that it should be avoided. We can use language, art, photography, video and so on to capture and do our best to share the experiences of the external world that are special to us.
Even a basic meditation training in your physical senses can result us feeling calmer and more alive. Try the simple exercise in How Can I be More Present? if you want to experience how using your external senses more deliberately can change your awareness of the world.
Unfortunately, we are seeing a breakdown in many societies of these agreement about what are senses are telling us about our shared external reality. Deliberately inaccurate descriptions of reality are being used for purposes of social and political manipulation. Even more sadly, a lot of this misinformation is creeping into spiritual and mindfulness communities.
The Five Internal Senses
The second layer of the three-layer model is also familiar to all of us. Everyone understands these next five internal senses. The five internal senses enable us to receive information and make sense of the internal world inside of us, the one that only you are experiencing
The five internal senses are thinking, emotion, memory, imagination and interoception.
Often these internal senses are just lumped into a general category called ‘mind’. Strangely, we often do not even refer to these internal senses as distinct senses. You often hear people talk about the ‘sixth sense’, but that usually refers to intuition, which is covered in the third layer of the three-layer model. There are many different categorizations of what happens in our internal or mental space. The five internal consciousness senses in the three-layer consciousness model are just one of them, but it’s simple and easy to remember.
Interoception may be the only internal sense you may not be immediately familiar with the meaning of. Interoception simply means your perception of sensations inside the body, and it includes your awareness of the size and shape of your physical body, the feeling of your muscles, bones and tissue, and your awareness of your body organs such as your heartbeat, your temperature and the need to pee.
There is also an aspect of interoception called proprioception, which deals with balance and your perception of your body's location in space. Proprioception is carried out by an internal physical sensory organ. Aptly called the labyrinth, it’s part of the inner ear, and uses fluid filled cavities to determine what our body is doing. You can read more about how our proprioceptive sense is important to meditation in the article Sensing Space in Meditation.
The word ‘sense’ can seem confusing because our internal consciousness senses are not based on distinct physical organs, with the exception of the labyrinth described above. Interoception gathers information from the entire body using the nervous system and delivers that information to our brain for interpretation. But for the purposes of mindfulness and meditation, it is useful to think of them as senses because we use them to gather information about our internal world, just like we use our external senses to gather information about the external world.
Physically, neuroscientists confirm that these internal senses occur in different parts of the brain. However, the brain also has an ability to change which area it uses to process information about these senses in some circumstances, and even relearn these senses to a certain extent if the part of the brain that originally was used by that sense is damaged in some way. This ability of the brain to reconfigure itself is called neuroplasticity.
Because the internal senses can only be experienced by us, we rely on communication to convey our experience to others. We talk or write to describe what we are thinking, we express our emotions using body language, gestures and facial expressions, we describe our memories, or use them as the basis of stories, we use our imagination to come up with new ideas, and we use our proprioception to ensure that our bodies move us smoothly around in the external world in harmony with others.
Meditation requires us to work on these internal senses and become more mindful and attentive to them. Our objective is to learn to strengthen them, practice using them in specific ways, and fine tune our observation and perception skills for each. We work on increasing our ability switch between our internal consciousness senses very clearly and deliberately, a bit like selecting what show to watch on television.
Training this ability to switch between internal consciousness senses makes us calmer, more focused, more purposeful, and more observant and attentive to the world and the people around us. By refining and developing our internal consciousness senses, we will maximize our ability to progress to some of the more challenging objectives in meditation.
The Five Abstract Senses
The third layer of the three-layer model of consciousness is the abstract senses. Abstract consciousness senses are a deeper, more subtle set of consciousness senses. These are the senses that can vary widely from one person to another and are often assumed to be natural abilities rather than trainable senses. They are often never deliberately practiced or trained except in spiritual settings. When we study meditation, once we decide we want to progress to a more advanced level, we have to dive right in and make the effort to understand the abstract consciousness senses, even when it may be somewhat confusing and difficult for us to do so.
The abstract senses are abstraction, intuition, instinct, psychic, and creation.
Abstraction is the deliberate mental ability to direct your attention away from your normal viewpoint of something, and instead sense that thing from the viewpoint of another person, spatial perspective, belief, identity, emotion or thought process.
For example, some meditations ask us to deliberately feel the emotions of someone we hate in order to gain a new perspective on our relationship with them or gain new insight into both their actions and our own. Or we might choose to view ourselves as we think or feel others see us. Or we might choose to see ourselves as part of a different social group, identity or organization, to understand the world from their perspective. Understanding abstraction is the one of the most powerful skills in meditation.
Intuition is a quiet, deep and subtle sense that provides some distinct and clear information or knowing. Intuition is essentially a heightened and subtle level of awareness of the consciousness of ourselves, another human being, or outside situation or events. Intuition is usually combined with another external or internal sense. For instance, intuition combined with your sense of hearing could result in an understanding that goes beyond the actual words being spoken. Intuition and your sense of thinking could result in a subtle yet clear insight about which decision is the right one to pursue, without quite knowing how you arrived at that decision.
Instinct is about responding and reacting in real time to something in our environment. Instinct is what is occurring when we have a feeling of being watched, or that a situation is dangerous without the danger being visible immediately. Instinct is almost always perceived in connection with a physical body sensation, such as hair standing on end, clammy skin, coldness or contracting of muscles, often in the stomach, or our heart beating faster. Instinct is an evolutionary survival and protection mechanism and is may even be connected to genetic makeup. The theory of epigenetics proposes that instincts can even be passed from one generation to the next, although the mechanism of how this happens is not yet clear.
The psychic consciousness sense is perhaps the most ‘mystical’ internal consciousness sense. Where intuition usually concerns our own future, psychic consciousness is normally associated with perceiving the thoughts, experiences or emotions of others who are not directly present. Psychic perception can mimic external consciousness senses, where we see, hear, taste, smell or feel what others are sensing. Psychic consciousness is rarely directly visible to others and is only experienced by the person that is getting the information, which contributes to its aura of mystery. If you have ever walked into a room and sensed immediately that one of the people in the room just received bad news, that is probably your psychic sense in action. Because it is something personal and internal and not visible to others, there can be a lot of credibility and belief issues tied up in psychic perception.
Sorting out mystical beliefs from your own actual psychic perception abilities can often be problematic. We are social creatures, and mystical beliefs have a deep attraction for many of us. Often people with genuine psychic skills resort to mystical story telling in order to communicate what are very real experiences for them. However, in meditation, we are practicing these skills for ourselves, to come to our own conclusions. Meditation is an exercise in attention and perception of our own unique personal world, not in taking on the mystical beliefs of others. We leave that to religion.
Creation is the consciousness sense where we experience something completely new has formed in our consciousness. If you’ve ever had an ‘aha’ or ‘eureka!’ moment, that’s a moment of creation in consciousness.
Creation is the essence of human creativity, and how new all ideas come into existence. It’s also a highly frustrating consciousness sense, because it often seems to work only when we finally stop trying to make it happen deliberately. In much of meditation, being deliberate with our intention is a key to mastery. With creation, we need to let go of our desires and intentions completely, in order to create a ‘blank slate’ from which new ideas spontaneously arise.
In meditation, our objective is to improve our ability to experience moments of creation and learn how to provide our brains the optimum conditions for creation to most reliably occur. Like all the consciousness senses, it is possible to practice and improve our creation skills by doing various meditation exercises. We do this by getting better at identifying and experiencing the conditions in consciousness that are necessary for creation to occur and practicing those skills until we are reliably able to create that ‘blank slate’ from which creation occurs.
Practicing Mindfulness of your Senses
We live in a world where being busy is often seen as some kind of status symbol, a badge of honor that denotes how important we feel and confirm that we matter. In these busy lives, directing your attention to just a single consciousness sense at a time may seem difficult or inefficient, and stop you ‘getting things done’. Yet this is precisely the point.
Part of the goal of meditation is to shift our awareness away from the quantity of things, such as appointments, activities, responsibilities, and achievements in your life, to the quality of the sensory experience we are actually having.
When we have understood the three-layer model of consciousness, it becomes much easier to be mindful of which consciousness sense we are using at any time. Then, we can practice focusing all our attention on a single consciousness sense at a time. If we notice we are thinking, then we direct 100% of our attention to our thoughts. If we are feeling, then we direct 100% of our attention to every tiny nuance of each emotion we experience. If we are imagining, then we direct 100% of our attention to the depth and complexity and beauty and intensity of whatever it is we are choosing to imagine. If we are using our interoception, then we direct our attention to our body posture, the sensation of our muscles and tissues, the sensation of our body in space and its balance and how it is moving, and our perception of the space around us and within us. If we are remembering, we remember as deeply and in as much detail as possible. And so on with each sense. When we are done experiencing one sense, we decide which sense to direct our attention to next.
Practicing mindful, deliberate exploration of our senses is a foundational skill for any meditation practice. In a future article, I’ll describe how meditation works in consciousness, and why deliberately being able to shift your attention from one sense to another is a key skill in going as deep as you want to go in meditation.
This article is adapted from Peter Hill’s upcoming book ‘Reality Check — How Meditation moved from Mysticism to Neuroscience’, which is scheduled for release in 2022.
About the Author
Peter Hill loves to take time to think and feel deeply. Over more than thirty years, he has studied dozens of meditation, self-development and spiritual techniques. Guided by neuroscience rather than mysticism, his mission is to demystify consciousness and teach people to live better lives by using their brains more effectively.
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