Two Dimensions of Mindfulness: Intensity and Breadth
Today’s post is about a concept that has been really helpful in looking at how I apply my mindful attention. Brother Phap Linh, in a lecture he gave as part of a 4th year University of Toronto class, titled Advanced Exploration of Buddhist Psychology & Dharma, introduced the idea that there are at least two dimensions of mindfulness to be aware of: intensity and breadth. He discussed the concept for only a few minutes, like a small side topic, but of everything he said during that nearly 3 hour lecture, this one stuck out to me.
About Br. Phap Linh
Brother Phap Linh (on far left in the featured image of this post), also known as Brother Spirit (translated from the Vietnamese), is a zen Buddhist monk, musician, and seeker. He began his monastic training with Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village in 2008. Before becoming a monk, he studied mathematics at Cambridge and worked professionally as a composer. A co-founder of the Wake Up Movement for young people, today Brother Phap Linh is actively engaged in teaching applied mindfulness to climate activists, business leaders, artists, and scientists. As a leading voice in the new generation of Buddhist monastics in the West, he is passionate about exploring how meditators and scientists can help each other to go further on the path of understanding and discovery. He has the conviction that a modern form of monasticism can play a crucial role in bringing about a more compassionate society, as well as a much-needed collective awakening to our interbeing with all life.
A few talks from Brother Phap Linh (unfortunately I cannot share the talk that this post references, as it was a University of Toronto class):
- Here is a talk he gave during COP26
- Here is a talk on Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness & Plum Village Practice
Introduction: Intensity & Breadth
So, let’s get into it. I transcribed the section of the lecture when Brother Phap Linh described two dimensions of mindfulness: “intensity” and “breadth” (for reference, from 19:45-28:50). He discusses them in relation to awareness of breathing and of the body.
He offers this,
“We can be aware of at least two dimensions of mindfulness. We, in the west, might tend to focus on one, which is the intensity dimension. You can have more or less intense awareness of something. But I also want us to think about the breadth of awareness.”
Please, dear reader, in case your brain has skipped over the “d” in breadth at any point so far, know that it is there. He invites us to ask the question,
“How much does our awareness include, and are we making the mistake of…only paying attention to what is the focal content of our awareness?”
”We have a very strong habit of extracting things from their context. I believe that causes significant harm and that affects how we relate to the world. We could go more into that, but let’s just be careful when we start to pay attention to our attention.
We say, “Ok, now I’m going to be aware of my breath.” If you have a tendency to say that I’m going to have a ‘laser’ kind of awareness, ‘I’m just going to be aware of my breath,’ you might actually be making the focus too narrow, and you might be making the breath into an abstraction.”
“There is no breath, as a separate thing.”
“The breath is an orchestrated movement of the whole symphony of body - it’s a dance. There are so many things happening. All of your intercostal muscles are opening, the curvature of your spine is changing, your balance is changing, the position of your head is changing, there is gas exchange, the diaphragm is moving. There are so many things going on, and you can feel it all.
If you have this abstract idea, that I’m only going to pay attention to the breath, then you might miss a lot.”
He goes on to discuss and invite us to reflect further using the example of looking at a photograph. When we look at an image, we can observe if we only pay attention to details in the foreground (the focal point), or if we observe both the foreground and the surrounding scene. For example, imagine a picture of two people having a conversation, we might only see and remember details of the two people (colour of clothing, details of their face, etc.). However, if we take in the scene, we might also see that these two people are having a conversation in a forest, surrounded by nature - there might be birds in the trees and flowers on the forest floor. Br. Phap Linh invites us to,
”Investigate in our own experience. We can ask, what is the intensity of my awareness, the stability of it, but also what is the breadth of it?”
Br. Phap Linh then invites us to try a short exercise to further illustrate the point. We did this on Zoom, but it should work just the same while reading this blog.
Dear reader, without shifting your attention away from the words on the page, I’d like to invite you to expand your awareness beyond just these words. You can see the words on the page, and you can take in a sense of the surrounding room. You can also take in a sense of the other people in your space or nearby. We can go even further, and as Br. Phap Linh says,
”My awareness can expand to the trees outside, to the earth beneath, to the stars above and in every direction. In fact, there are stars beneath. We are in a wild and wonderful cosmos, and yet we forget. And we tend to be very narrow in our attention.”
”We are in a wild and wonderful cosmos, and yet we forget.”
Application: awareness of the body
Br. Phap Linh then discusses how we can apply this concept when we are bringing awareness to our body. I think this is a really wonderful example of what we might miss if our attention is quite narrow.
When we practice a body scan or a deep relaxation, we are frequently guided to go through the body in a certain order (for some of my personal favourite guided recordings, see this post). Maybe we start at the toes, the fingers, or the scalp, and then work our way through the body. The idea is to bring non-judgemental awareness to all these different parts of the body, noticing the sensations that are present, without trying to change them. It can be a wonderful way to calm the mind and get in touch with the body.
Br. Phap Linh invites us to notice if we are only noticing body sensations. He says the following, as he describes broadening his awareness beyond just the sensations of his body,
”I’m going to keep my mind open to, ‘yeah I can feel my body, I can also feel the air around my body, I can feel the earth below my body.’ It’s a different type of awareness. In my experience, it’s a more beneficial kind of mindfulness.”
So, in this way, the breadth of awareness is wider. Br. Phap Linh includes in his awareness both his body and the surrounding setting, just as we expanded our awareness earlier beyond the words on this page.
Cultivating multi-modal awareness: discovering feelings
Br. Phap Linh continues,
”If we can cultivate that kind of multi-modal, wide open (awareness), as we go into the body, and we scan different parts of the body – what we’ll find is feelings. Maybe a lot of feelings, maybe some uncomfortable feelings, maybe feelings that have been, to one extent or another, repressed or uncomfortable.
He encourages us to include both the sensations of the body and how it feels to be noticing that sensation. Sometimes in my previous experiences with certain body scans, the guidance that I’ve received seems to encourage simple non-judgemental awareness of body sensation. When my mind wanders or notices something other than body sensation, I often feel like the guidance is encouraging me to simply note whatever it was, and return to my body sensations (e.g. temperature, pressure, pain, etc.). While I know this is likely helpful for certain populations (e.g. low back pain: Cherkin, et al, 2016, Braden, et al, 2016, Luiggi-Hernandez, et al, 2018, Turner, et al, 2016) and may be useful in certain circumstances, to be honest, as a practitioner I often find it quite boring and challenging to attempt to do this for 30 to 45 minutes. I am easily distracted. I’m not saying these guided body scans invite us to ignore our feelings, just that the way I have received the guidance in the past didn’t seem to quite include them.
Br. Phap Linh invites us to embrace the feelings that arise,
“I notice the physical sensation of muscle tone, to one degree or another. There’s tightness there, relaxation there, ease, movement, softness, there’s hardness, tightness, looseness. But alongside, and sort of around, infusing all of that, is a kind of emotional aura. A feeling of, ‘this is how it feels for my shoulders to be like this, this is how it feels for my jaw to be like this, this is how it feels to have this body and to have had this life,’ and all of it can be embraced.”
“All of it can be brought into a loving sphere of awareness, of kindness, of tenderness, non-reactivity.”
If my focus is quite narrow and only on body sensation, I might consider broadening it to include more of my present moment experience. In this way, I more fulsomely embrace myself. Br. Phap Linh encourages us to engage with this, “with some curiosity and openness, and see where it takes us.”
Leon’s Sign Example
In between hearing Br. Phap Linh’s talk and writing this post, I let this idea simmer. I thought to myself, “Yes, absolutely, I will do that during a body scan. I don’t think I’ve ignored my feelings in the past, but I’ll make an extra effort to remind myself to embrace them as I can.” As it simmered in my subconscious, I started to recognize how many situations in my life that it would be helpful to be aware of the breadth of my attention.
This particularly became clear to me one day while I was driving in rural Ontario, frustrated with how many Leon’s Furniture Store signs were distracting me 🙂
Let me rewind a little. A few weeks ago, Elli (my partner) and I spent a week at a cottage 3 hours north of Toronto that sat on the edge of a frozen lake and was surrounded by forest. We worked remotely on our laptops during the day, and whenever we could, got outside to enjoy the forest, the frozen lake, the snow all around, and the stars above.
We spent that week with very little input from the world of consumerism that we so often find ourselves inadvertently surrounded by in the city of Toronto. We didn’t watch TV with commercials, we didn’t have a city to walk through with billboards, and we didn’t read any magazines with print ads. In general, what our eyes, and therefore our consciousness, took in was the nature all around us. It was peaceful.
When we drove home to Toronto, I started to notice more and more how signs on the side of the road were pulling my attention away from the peaceful surroundings. I started getting frustrate at all the Leon’s Furniture Store signs. I thought to myself, “why am I reading the details of these signs, rather than enjoying the sight of a wide open frozen lake that is just beyond the sign?”
I tried, for a little while, to laser focus my attention on the bits of nature in between the Leon’s signs. I didn’t want to miss any opportunity to take in the goodness of nature, and so I tried to force the Leon’s signs out of my awareness.
It didn’t work.
I had forgotten Br. Phap Linh’s guidance and as soon as I realized it, I wondered if there is a way to apply the concept of breadth in a helpful way. The answer was yes.
Broadening to include nature
I did my best to let go of my goal to ignore the signs completely, and I broadened my attention to include both the sign and the surrounding nature.
All of a sudden, the signs became quite “small.” They inhabited less of my attention. I was able to relax into my awareness of the beautiful landscape, which also happened to include a few signs.
It’s not so difficult to broaden my awareness when the object of my attention is a Leon’s Furniture Store sign on the side of a road in the middle of rural Ontario. It can, however, be quite the different story when I’m lost in my mind with a story about a mistake I think I’ve made, or when I’m listening to someone express some deep suffering. I tend to get laser focused on only the “foreground” in those moments, and I lose track of everything else around me. So, this moment in rural Ontario was a nice chance for me to see the possibility of broadening my attention in a moment of minor challenge.
By seeing this possibility during a minor moment of difficulty, I could see that it might be possible during situations that are quite a bit more challenging.
Application: engaging with suffering
One of my primary reasons for continuing to write this blog is to explore how I can arrive home within myself and with others, even amidst great suffering. So in this section, I want to talk about applying the concept of breadth in moments when we are challenged significantly.
To help me do this, I want to discuss a few examples from an Applied Mindfulness session that I recently co-led for a leadership class as part of the University of Toronto’s Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) program.
The DrPH class I was in is full of working (generally mid-career) healthcare leaders. There was an obstetrician, a rehab hospital leader, a home care nurse, a surgeon, and many others. They are there to learn leadership philosophy and frameworks that can help them become better leaders in their respective fields.
A healthcare VP, that I co-led the session with, opened up the conversation and asked the folks in attendance what they think of when they hear the word “wellness.”
One person reflected on burnout. They shared about a time, during the height of the pandemic, when they tried to maintain their output at work despite strong personal family challenges and a burnt out and triggered team that they were managing.
They tried for so long and to such an extent that the emotional impact became physical.
I know first hand how fatigue and emotional exhaustion can really hit the body, so I resonated with this – I think a number of the other folks in the room did as well.
As I was starting my journey as a clinician, I was aware of my habit of trying to push away, run away from, or ignore suffering and difficulty within myself. This is something I’ve been bringing my awareness to and practicing with for a long time. When I was working with patients experiencing chronic pain, I thought I was practicing well with this at the start. I really felt I was connecting with patients and providing a safe space for them, while maintaining safety within myself.
Over time, the amount of suffering I heard from my patients started to build up. Old habits took over in a way that I didn’t see, and I started to push away the emotional impact. In moments when I wasn’t working, I tried to laser focus my attention on anything besides the stories of my patients' suffering that were circulating in my mind.
Just like the Leon’s Furniture Store sign, I attempted to direct my attention elsewhere, and it didn’t work. I started to feel the effects within my body, just like the person who shared about their burnout.
Boundaries and capacity
I think it’s important in this discussion to mention boundaries and capacity. I might have an ultimate goal of being able to offer full space and care to all the patients I see. But what if in doing that I harm myself, and therefore my ability to offer space and care to the next person.
If that is reality, I’m learning that I have to respect my capacity and set the appropriate boundaries within myself and between others to allow me to continue to offer what I can to as many folks as possible. For a more fulsome discussion of boundaries, head back to my earlier post: Mindful Boundaries: Making Space for Love.
A physician in the DrPH session summed up why we need to set appropriate boundaries well with a personal example. She said that her energy was so consumed by her clinical work during the day that she was unable to fully connect with her children when she got home. She reflected that her biggest regret in life is not having the relationship she had hoped for with her children.
I think the relationships with those around me also suffered while I was working full time in a clinic with chronic pain patients. During that time, I didn’t realize what was happening within me and around me.
My ability to see clearly was clouded by my stress.
I think one of the challenges of working clinically is a lack of space and time. It was difficult to take stock while in the thick of it. I was experiencing/listening to so much suffering during the day through my interactions, that I didn’t have more capacity to deal with my suffering. Old habits took over.
There may be times when it is actually appropriate to not dive too deeply into our suffering. It may overwhelm us. At the same time, if we ignore it for too long, it starts to have a toll.
I wonder what might have been different if I had been able to broaden my awareness throughout the entire day. I see now that I have the habit of getting lost in and over empathizing with others.
When I broaden my awareness to include how I’m feeling and how the other person is feeling, I have more solidity and am less controlled by my habitual thought patterns.
Broadening is not always the thing
It may, of course, not always be useful or safe to broaden our awareness in every situation. We may not want to broaden to include the other person, especially if there is concern of safety. We may be overwhelmed by our own suffering, and so it may be useful to set it down for a while and know that we can return to it when we are ready.
Occasionally, I might be wrong when I think it’s safe to broaden and include the suffering of the other person in front of me. The key here is to continually try to include myself in my awareness and in this way, I can respond in a way to protect my heart when I need to.
Safety is a priority. We might be tempted to think that mindfulness is all about acceptance and love of all beings, but it’s not. Every so often, we need to fiercely say no – especially regarding safety.
When I don’t include myself in my awareness, is there some upset?
I’ve been asking myself the question, “If I lose awareness of myself, even in the smallest of moments, does this contribute to some degree of upset?”
An easy example is watching a movie. I have noticed that I can inhabit the protagonist's feelings – I can feel their joy and their sorrow in my body. Dear reader, have you ever cried watching a movie? I can get lost in the emotional content of what I’m consuming.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes beautifully about this in his book, The Sun My Heart on page 37 (1988 version),
"Even while sitting beside a clear, flowing stream, listening to beautiful music, or watching an excellent movie, do not entrust yourself entirely to the stream, the music, or the film. Continue to be aware of yourself and your breathing. With the sun of awareness shining in us, we can avoid most dangers – the stream will be purer, the music more harmonious, and the soul of the artist completely visible in the film."
In this way, throughout my entire day, I try to practice including myself in my awareness. It can be quite difficult. Sometimes I get up from a long work session only to realize I am quite thirsty or in need of a toilet!
I can also lose myself amidst a conversation. I can get overly focused on what my impact is and what the other person might need me to say. I forget to keep my awareness shining within. I get laser focused on “problem-solving.”
When I lose awareness of my feelings, it doesn’t mean that they go away. They continue to drive my thoughts, speech, and action. I just might not see it clearly.
When I am aware of myself, I can see the present moment more clearly and have a greater capacity to respond in awareness rather than react by instinct/habit only.
In this way, I act more in accordance with my deepest values.
Include happiness in joy in awareness
I am also starting to see that a great support in maintaining a breadth of awareness is to include my joy and happiness in my awareness at the same time as allowing myself to be aware of my suffering.
One thing that Thich Nhat Hanh says over and over, is that we already have enough conditions to be happy. It’s sometimes hard to see because we can get laser focused on the one thing that is going wrong – a very natural human thing to do. If I broaden my awareness and look deeply, there are always conditions for happiness around and within me.
I can think of simple ones like, I am breathing, and therefore I am alive. This is a condition for happiness. I can also recognize that I have food security, a roof over my head, a loving partner, good friends, a body that supports me, access to beautiful nature, and this wonderful community of Plum Village practitioners of which I am a part.
This is not to minimize suffering, but maybe if I bring it into context, it will have a bit less weight.
This is just like the Leon’s Furniture Store sign. It felt smaller in my awareness when I broadened to include all the surrounding nature.
Resisting the strong suffering that is present and trying to laser focus on something else only creates more suffering. Instead, I practice including the suffering and the world around and within me.
It then becomes possible to embrace all of it.
A supportive work structure
The folks in the DrPH session were also interested in preventing burnout and looking to see what structures they could set up at work and at home to support this.
I think that curating a culture that brings breadth to our awareness could be a start.
What if, in our workplaces, we included in our awareness the fact that we have a body and that we feel feelings?
It seems so simple, right? And yet, we so often laser focus on the task at hand and ignore our bodies. What if our workplace allowed time to both do our work and to be real with ourselves and each other about the consequences of that work?
Dear reader, I invite you to consider what situations in your life might it be useful to bring awareness to the breadth of your attention? Might it be useful sometimes to include your body and feelings a bit more often in your awareness?
To bring back some of Br. Phap Linh’s words, we can explore this, “with some curiosity and openness, and see where it takes us.”
”We are in a wild and wonderful cosmos…”
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Further Resources and References
Br. Phap Linh discussed the topic of Intensity and Breadth in follow-up to his lecture from the week before on the 16 exercises of mindful breathing. For this post, it wasn’t needed to know the 16 exercises well, but if you’d like to learn more:
- see this talk: The first eight exercises of mindful breathing, By Thich Nhat Hanh, June 16, 2021
- the original text is here: Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing, which can also be found in this book with commentary: Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries
Braden, B. B., Pipe, T. B., Smith, R., Glaspy, T. K., Deatherage, B. R., & Baxter, L. C. (2016). Brain and behavior changes associated with an abbreviated 4-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course in back pain patients. Brain and Behavior, 6(3), e00443. doi:https://dx.doi.org/10.1002/brb3.443
Cherkin, D. C., Sherman, K. J., Balderson, B. H., Cook, A. J., Anderson, M. L., Hawkes, R. J., . . . Turner, J. A. (2016a). Effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction vs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Usual Care on Back Pain and Functional Limitations in Adults With Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA, 315(12), 1240-1249. doi:https://dx.doi.org/10.1001/jama.2016.2323
Luiggi-Hernandez, J. G., Woo, J., Hamm, M., Greco, C. M., Weiner, D. K., & Morone, N. E. (2018). Mindfulness for Chronic Low Back Pain: A Qualitative Analysis. Pain Medicine, 19(11), 2138-2145. doi:https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/pm/pnx197
Turner, J. A., Anderson, M. L., Balderson, B. H., Cook, A. J., Sherman, K. J., & Cherkin, D. C. (2016). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and cognitive behavioral therapy for chronic low back pain: similar effects on mindfulness, catastrophizing, self-efficacy, and acceptance in a randomized controlled trial. Pain, 157(11), 2434-2444.