Understanding the 9 layers of mindfulness
One of the first lessons in mindfulness is about creating calm by coming into the present moment. There are many more aspects to mindfulness, each of which has their time, place and purpose. In this series of three articles, I will introduce you to the nine layers of mindfulness.
Why do people come to mindfulness?
Even the most capable people can end up anxious, panicky, depressed, or aggro – and unable to focus at work, communicate skilfully, relax, sleep well at night, and enjoy life.
Most of us first learn mindfulness to help quieten the chatter in our minds, to relax and be calm. Mindfulness can help manage the overthinking, feeling overwhelmed, worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. To stop the frustrations, fears, worries and stress that can hijack our thoughts, mood and behaviour and bring out the worst in us.
Many people think mindfulness is about reducing stress and gaining calm, clarity and focus. And certainly, the first three layers are. A greater richness is developed in the next three layers which help us develop self-compassion, depth of insight and stability. The final three layers focus on cultivating flexibility, joy and wisdom.
Understanding the layers of mindfulness will guide you to which aspects of mindfulness, and which exercises will be most useful for particular purposes. The layers start with coming into the present.
1. Presence – creates calm
As we come into the present moment and focus on the sensory world, the chatter of our minds tends to quieten down. Most of us are naturally mindful in some parts of our daily lives, usually with something we love: surfing, singing, gardening, walking, cooking etc.
When we are doing those things we love, we come into the present. Our minds are gently aware and focused on what we are doing in the sensory world, and our bodies are only activated as much as they need to be.
In mindfulness training we develop the ability to reconnect with this mindful state at will where ever we are, AND especially when we need to calm down. Calm our stress, anxiety, overthinking and overwhelm.
There are hundreds of informal and formal mindfulness meditations and exercises that help us learn to focus our attention in the sensory world. We practice informal mindfulness meditations throughout our daily life, eg, smelling the roses, being aware of sounds around us, washing the dishes etc. We usually practice formal mindfulness meditations sitting, or lying for a period of time. Of the many formal mindfulness meditations, the most well-known ones focus on the body or breath. Both informal and formal meditations help us develop the neural pathways, and build a habit of calm.
This is one layer of mindfulness
2.Concentration – creates focus
As we bring a little discipline to bear in both formal and informal practices of coming into the present moment, we develop our capacity to concentrate. We learn to focus our attention in the sensory world, and notice the body sensations, emotions, state of mind we are in, and the thoughts that arise. And we also learn to let those be, by gently bringing our attention back to the object of meditation (breath, body, sound, mantra, contemplation etc.). In so doing, we drop more deeply into a calm nurturing space. We develop our capacity to focus, our creative inner landscape opens up, and we can gain new perspectives.
As we drop into a deeper calm space we feel even more rejuvenated. Research shows that our nervous system starts to calm down, with all the physiological and mental changes that happen as we de-stress.
We develop the capacity to concentrate and focus for longer more sustained periods, which has two benefits. Firstly, we simply learn to stay focussed. And we learn to not over react unnecessarily to that which arises in our environment or in our own minds. This supports us during the meditations, and also generalises to our daily lives where we both develop a capacity for longer periods of sustained focus and also cultivates the habit of not over reacting unskilfully to life’s inevitable challenges. This helps us be much more productive.
As we continue to concentrate and maintain gentle focus during formal meditations, we often feel a subtle shift in our state of consciousness. This can lead to different mind body perceptions and inner creativity. In the Eastern traditions, this is described as the conscious mind meeting the unconscious mind. That state just before you go to sleep where all manner of images, ideas and concepts pop up. In the West, there have been books written about physicists, who describe this state of mind being the source of all their creative ideas. In referring to the shift in consciousness, Einstein said “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind-set that created them”.
This is another layer of mindfulness.
3.Awareness – creates clarity
As we practice meditation, we notice where our attention goes and what meaning we give to our experience. We become increasingly aware of the workings and habits of our own minds. This includes things we believe to be true – even when they are not. And our blind spots – those things that we have not seen before, or don’t want to see or own:)
The thoughts and feelings that arise unbidden, oft unnoticed, and yet, triggering what comes next … our next thoughts, emotions, mood, addictions, reactions, what we say and do. We see the stories we have running and the conversations we are having in our heads. Usually with us at centre stage. The stories that feel real, the conversations and interpretations that seem right and important – but sometimes are not real, right or helpful.
We become more aware of body sensations and the link between events, thoughts, emotions and those body sensations. Links that have oft been wired together over a long time and are triggered easily.
We start to see where our attention typically goes, how often we are on auto pilot, and the impact on us of simply not being present.
We see how much we judge ourselves, others and the world, how much we compare, and want or expect things to be different from how they are. We want things to be how we want them to be. We see how we want things to be. We see all the shoulds and musts and how so much of our own emotional suffering – and reactive behaviour – arises in the difference between how we want things to be and how they actually are….
The more mindful we become, the more we are able to see reality in its own terms. And we start to realise, that whether things are pleasant or unpleasant, fighting against seeing reality generates our own suffering. We often develop this kind of awareness and insight through formal mindfulness meditations including the body scan, breath, sound and other formal meditations.
We really start to gain Clarity about our own actions.
This is another layer of mindfulness.
Are the layers of mindfulness linear?
No. It’s just like riding a bike. We tend to learn the different parts in layers or steps, yet use them all together.
We find the right size bike, adjust for our height, learn to pedal, keep balance, steer, use the gears, maintain an appropriate speed, use hand signals, watch for traffic, and navigate increasingly challenging contexts. Based on our past learning, and natural talents, some of these layers or steps are easier or harder to learn. However, in order to ride well in different terrains, in different states of fitness we need all layers weaving skilfully together in increasing spirals of competence and flow, deepening and strengthening the more we ride/practice. We simply just learn and add one layer/step at a time, integrating up to the level of competence we want.
So too with learning mindfulness. While we can gain immediately gain the profoundly useful and calming effects of mindfulness, over the long term, it is the awareness, which leads to insight, which leads to wisdom that gives mindfulness its deep value and supports us to flow in our lives. Mindfulness is fundamentally about awareness.
Liana Taylor 2019 Copyright
Excerpt from soon to be published book Mindfulness: How to access your inner wisdom in 9 simple steps
Watch out for part 2 and 3 coming soon.
In addition over the next few months I will share different ways for you to apply these layers or steps of mindfulness in different contexts.
Feel free to share this information, I appreciate your respect in attributing to: Liana Taylor, Clinical Psychologist and International Mindfulness teacher, 2019, www.theaiam.com.au