The Noticing Mind

This is the fourth in a series of articles on mindfulness and the six qualities of the mind.

Take a moment and look up from whatever device on which you are reading this, and look around. Notice the people and objects around you. If it is a room you are familiar with, there is a good chance that most of the objects around you are rarely noticed anymore, becoming little more than wallpaper. As we discussed in the last article, we humans are wired to turn our attention to novelty; we are also, however, wired to stop paying attention to things that seem familiar.

This is unfortunate, because “familiar” does not necessarily mean “unimportant.” Small and subtle, but significant, changes in our environment may be important but can go unnoticed. When we fail to notice our environment, we may fail to identify problems while they are small and solvable and we may fail to recognize opportunities before it is too late to capitalize on them.

This doesn’t have to be the case. The Noticing Mind is that aspect of mindfulness that allows us to be alert and vigilant to our environment, to be aware of what is happening around us. It is also the ability to be aware of what is happening inside of us—what we are feeling, what mistakes we keep making, what repetitive patterns seem to dominate our thinking. It helps us to see both the big picture and the slight changes and nuances in our surroundings that may eventually take on greater importance.

The Noticing Mind evaluates, but it does not judge. It names and categorizes what it sees, but it does not make value assessments (that is the job of the Discerning Mind, which we will cover in a future article). Whereas the role of the Focused Mind (which we discussed last time) is to zoom in—to narrow and intensify our attention—the role of the Noticing mind is to zoom out and expand our attention. These two qualities work together, one scanning the environment for objects or events of significance, the other directing our attention toward them.

Like the other qualities of the mind, the Noticing Mind needs to be cultivated and trained. One simple way to do so is to, every so often, take 30 seconds to raise your head from what you are doing and do a slow scan of your environment.

If you are in your office, scan the walls and notice the pictures or artwork hanging on them, notice the titles of the books on your bookshelves, notice the texture of the paint on the wall…

If you are in a coffee shop, scan the room and notice the people–What are they doing? What color are their clothes? What are they reading? Scan the menu on the chalkboard—What items have you never noticed or considered purchasing before?

If you are sitting in a meeting, scan the other participants—Who is paying attention and who is not? Who is sitting upright and who is slumped? Which participants seem to get the most attention from the other participants, and who is ignored?

The job of the Noticing mind is not only to monitor our external environment, it is responsible for monitoring our internal states as well. We should make it a habit to scan our bodies for discomfort or tension, to monitor our repetitive thoughts, and our emotional states. Noticing these things can point us to problems that need to be addressed. The sooner we notice them, the easier they are to fix.

Again, the job of the Noticing Mind is to see, it is not to judge or criticize. It stays neutral until it ensures that it has done its job. It is like a scout that goes out on reconnaissance, bringing the data back to the decision makers for assessment. The Noticing Mind alerts us to opportunity and threat, but it also makes colors seem more vibrant, music more satisfying, the sound of the laughter of our children more uplifting. It adds color, depth, and richness to our lives.

As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

Now stop reading and start noticing for a while.

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