The Mindful Reading Exercise

Here’s a fun exercise you can try that many of my students have found helpful for discerning the difference between attention and awareness and learning how to balance them.

The exercise is called “Mindful Reading” and it comes from an in-depth meditation course I run a couple of times a year (the 30 Days of Mindfulness program)…

The Mindful Reading Exercise:

Find something to read.

Anything will do as long as it’s a few pages long (I recommend something that doesn’t require too much brain power to read. A novel is perfect)

For this exercise, I want you first read it as you normally would, and see if you can notice how much awareness you have of other stuff that’s going on: sounds, physical sensations, sights, mental activity, etc.

Probably, you’ll find that your attention is quite strongly taken up by the act of reading and there isn’t a lot of awareness of other things.

Next, re-read your material, but this time, do it slower (so that it’s easier to do this exercise. As you get better at it, you can eventually work up to your normal speed).

As you read, I want you to see if you can mentally step back a bit from what you’re reading (not in the sense of being ‘out of body’, but in the sense of being an objective observer of the activity of your mind as you read) and observe the actual process of reading simultaneously with the reading itself.

In other words, I want you to see if you can notice any mental images, mental verbalizations, mentally induced kinaesthetic sensations, emotions, etc that arise as you read.

To do this requires that, as you focus your attention on the words you’re reading, you maintain enough awareness of the activity of the mind that you can observe your mental process as you read.

As you do this exercise, you’ll find that If you place too much emphasis on attention, then you’ll get “lost” in what you’re reading and will stop being aware of the mental activity associated with reading.

If you overemphasize awareness, however, you’ll notice the mental activity just fine, but you’ll lose the thread and comprehension of what you’re reading, and you’ll find yourself needing to re-read the material for it to make sense.

See if you can find a balance between attention and awareness that allows you to comprehend what you’re reading, while simultaneously knowing the mental activity that’s occurring as you read.

When you can successfully do this, you may notice that the emotional impact of what you’re reading is significantly reduced. Hmmm. Hang on to that thought – I’ll talk about that more a bit later.

Some Tips:

If you find this exercise challenging, here’s some tips:

  • Tip #1: Relax! It’s much easier to maintain and expand your awareness if you’re relaxed.
  • Tip #2: Periodically, stop reading and focus your attention on the activity in the mind associated with reading.

    Pay attention to the thoughts you were having, the sounds of the words you were making in your mind as you read, any mental images, etc. Then return to the reading.

    This helps train the unconscious mental processes that govern awareness by telling them that you want to know what’s going on in your mind as you read.

  • Tip #3: It may help you to break it down a bit and just read a single word, one that is sure to cause you to perform some kind of cognitive processing.

    For example, read the word “sunset”.

    When you read that word, are you aware of a mental image of a sunset arising in the mind? That’s the kind of stuff you want to notice when you read.

    If “sunset” works for you, then you can practice with it. Read “sunset” slowly and see if you can be aware of the mental image as it arises.

    At first, what you’ll probably be doing is bringing attention to a ‘snapshot’ of what’s going on in the mind and that’s how you’ll notice the mental image of the sunset.

    Then your attention will switch back to the actual word on the page. That’s fine. Allow your attention to rapidly alternate back and forth like this, between the word on the page and your ‘memory’ of having formed a mental representation of that word (such as a mental image of a sunset).

    After practicing like this for a bit, you can try writing down a list of “evocative” words, such as “sunset”, “full moon”, “seashore”, “forest”, “mountains”, “bird”, etc and practice reading down the list, allowing attention to alternate between the word and the mental activity.

    Once you can do this, have the intention for attention to remain on the words and allow the mental images to remain in awareness. And practice with that.

    Once you’ve got the hang of it, try reading a page from a novel.

Applying What You’ve Learned

As you’ve probably already figured out, this exercise is very similar to paying attention to your meditation object, while maintaining an awareness of thoughts.

And you may have also noticed how balancing attention and awareness like this reduces the emotional impact of what you’re reading.

Well, this should give you a sense for how mindfulness (which involves appropriately balancing attention and awareness) reduces the intensity of emotional states such as anger, sadness, anxiety and so on.

So, learning how to balance attention and awareness can take you much farther than just helping you avoid getting lost in thought during meditation…

It’s also the key to developing your mindfulness to the point where it’s strong enough that you can be calm and fully present, no matter what the day throws at you.

You can then bring that level of mindfulness more deeply into your life to transform how you relate to your conscious experience, so you can:

  • feel your emotions, without habitually reacting to them
  • experience the joy that’s present even in the most mundane acts of everyday life
  • deepen your sense of connection and feel more grounded in your spiritual path

(…all of which we cover in detail in the 30 Days of Mindfulness program).

So, by practicing the meditation techniques in the Unruly Mind course, and working with the Mindful Reading exercise, you’re developing an important skill that will also help you tremendously down the road when you want to take your mindfulness practice to the next level.

Click Here if you’d like to find out more about the 30 Days of Mindfulness program and learn how to sign up for the Early Bird List for the next available course.

If you have any questions about any of this stuff, shoot me an email: nick@30daysofmindfulness.com

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