Lately I have been happily reading “The Undoing Project” (Michael Lewis, WW Norton & Company, 2017), a book which details the collaboration between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and their groundbreaking work which created the field of behavioral economics. That may sound a little bit like off-center reading for a pastoral counselor and mindfulness teacher, but Kahneman and Tversky’s work has changed the way the field of psychology understands how people perceive reality and make judgments. It was in this book that I read about a principle in psychology known as the “cocktail party effect.”
So, what is the cocktail party effect? I’ll paraphrase from Lewis’s book. The cocktail party effect is the ability of people to filter out a lot of noise from the sounds they wish to hear – as they do when they listen to someone at a cocktail party. On the evening of the same day that I read Lewis’s account of the cocktail party effect I happened to go to a cocktail party, where I settled into a conversation with my good friend and neighbor Dave. I love to talk to Dave, as we both appreciate each other’s sense of humor. It’s good, once in a while, to talk to someone who truly thinks you’re witty whatever the actual truth may be!
In any case, as I tuned in to what Dave was telling me I could still hear all of the voices and noise in the house, which was filled to capacity with nearly 50 senior citizens. Occasionally my focus on Dave’s voice wandered a bit, especially when a word that meant something to me broke into my awareness. Someone said “baseball” and my mind shifted attention in that direction. Someone else said “Jim” (there were at least 4 men there named Jim) and off went my attention again. Someone said “dessert” and you know what happened next. But all in all my attention stayed fixed on Dave and what he was saying, and as usual we enjoyed each other’s company.
I think you can see where I’m going with this. The cocktail party effect, our capacity to focus on an object of attention despite the background noise, is a wonderful metaphor for mindfulness meditation. In our meditation we shift our focus to some mental object, usually the breath, but maybe body sensations, sense perceptions, thoughts, feelings….; it doesn’t matter where we focus our attention, so long as we do so intentionally and without judgment. As we do so we get distracted by some mental object that gets our attention, such as remembering that we have yet to make our grocery list, or the image of someone we like comes to mind, or an aroma from the oven wafts through my senses and now I’m focused on feeling hungry. Now my attention shifts away from my primary focus of attention, and without judging myself or the mental object I’ve shifted attention to, I return my focus to Dave….I mean to my breath.
There is a cocktail party in my mind! When I sit to meditate there is so much background noise! And whenever the background noise throws something up to my attention that is interesting, my mind wanders yet again. But I return to my breath, without judging, over and over again. In time the background noise largely subsides, as if the guests at the cocktail party have said to one another “hush, Jim’s trying to focus now.”
This is our practice: to stay present, to be aware of all of the noise in our minds, and without passing judgment. Our practice trains our minds and bodies to stay fully present with “what is,” with an attitude that knows clearly and succinctly that each person, each event, and each moment are worthy of our noticing. Sometimes the moment is unpleasant, even painful, and at other times quite pleasant, maybe even pleasurable. It does not matter to the mindful person; all moments are ready to be fully experienced. Only then can we gain the wisdom to understand fully, and the capacity to respond with compassion unconditionally.