7 Theatres of Mindfulness: Living into the Mystery of Us

Most people are so distracted by their thoughts, so identified with the voices in their heads, they can no longer feel the aliveness within them.

~Eckhart Tolle

Many of us pay scant attention to who we are and why we behave the way we do. What really goes on in our heads? How we understand our world? Why we react in such predictable ways?

I’ve had the privilege of engaging many people in deep conversations about emotional and spiritual health and well-being and the importance of bringing greater mindfulness to everyday life. This insight has come first-hand. Through meditation I’ve personally learned just how often I’m not mindful. I’ve also noticed that my lapses have patterns. I drift into favorite places, habitual thoughts and feelings that jump into my awareness like unfinished business. My conversations with others have confirmed that we all have sideshows that entertain or trouble our minds, sometimes to the point of total distraction, whether we want them or not.

A decade or so ago, I began to wonder about the distinct types of distractions that preoccupy our minds. Being a conceptual thinker, I couldn’t resist creating a ‘model’ with seven ‘theatres of mindfulness’, each representing a distinct contributor to my inner life. I call this my ‘Loop’ for short.The degree to which I am mindful of the pull from each of these theatres has a huge impact on my life experience. The seven theatres are:

  1. Essential self – my authentic nature, the grounded place in which I am clean, clear, and true to myself; where I can focus my attention and witness the activities within my mind

  2. Active thinking – ideas, perceptions, reasoning and directed observing that occur in the present moment

  3. Stored thoughts – the repository of facts, memories, analyses, and theories, accurate or otherwise, that I have retained for reference and am able to recall for application to new situations

  4. Active feelings sentiments, emotions, and bodily sensations that reflect my visceral response to events in the present moment

  5. Stored felts – the repository of delights, hurts, and confusions that I have retained and, like stored thoughts, may arise unbidden or are invoked to color my response to stimuli

  6. External world – places, roles and relationships I explore in my real-world ventures

  7. Internal world – soul, spirit and imagination where I find my inner strength and inspiration.

I believe that each of us ventures into these theatres bravely, timidly, and uniquely to carve out our life path and identity. The degree to which our essential self is open to each theatre determines the fullness of our experience. Each provides a different way of knowing and can expand our understanding of what it means to be fully human and alive. Mindfulness about our choices on how we are present in each theatre ensures that we neither get overly absorbed in the perspective born of that theatre, nor reject the knowing available through it. For example, I can revisit past thoughts or felts to deepen understanding and recast them when appropriate, or I can become so immersed that I restrict our ability to process new experiences that might contradict what I have already “decided/learned”, which isn’t very helpful to me. Similarly, engagement with the external world can help me grow and unfold, or I can become so focused on outside-in cues that my essential self becomes distorted by my perceptions of what others think or expect of us.

The journey into mindfulness begins with understanding the unique shape of our personal Loop. Is there a healthy balance among my theatres or are some shrunken or enlarged? Where do I spend most of my time - present, past or future? Which theatre do I default to when faced with challenges or opportunities? How broadly do I forage as I paint my life experience map? When I am in any one of these theatres, do I enter from the grounding of my essential self? Do I enter memories or current experiences as my open witnessing self, or as a conditioned evaluator and judge? Questions such as these begin to unravel the mysteries of personal reactivity, giving greater awareness and choice over responses and actions.

Whenever I become aware of lapses in mindfulness or active states of preoccupation, I use the Loop as a practical tool to identify the pull that has captured my awareness and how that pull has influenced my state of being. It provides a simple and systematic way to understand what I am empowering in my life, so I can exercise greater choice about how I want to respond to the next moment.

Seeing how others depict their personal Loops has been a fascinating journey. Some lobes may be active, expansive and light; others shrunken, withered, or leaden. Loop diagrams give insight into individual meaning-making systems and provide fertile ground for helping people explore how they can relate to themselves and others more effectively. Not only has this opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about what has meaning for me, it has created new avenues for my continuing work with promoting deeper states of openness and mindfulness.