Updated: Jul 28, 2021
Mindfulness and hypervigilance are simply two different approaches to awareness.
On the surface, they couldn’t seem more different. Mindfulness conjures up sensations of openness and non-reactivity. It brings images of sitting meditation practice or taking a breath in the middle of an argument. Hypervigilance, though, taps into feelings of tension or anxiety. Just thinking about it starts to make my breath more shallow. The images that come to mind are wide, darting eyes and frozen stillness.
Practically, however, they can look very similar because both of them are about paying attention on purpose in the present moment. These are all aspects of the well-known secular definition of mindfulness put forward by Jon Kabat-Zinn. What makes mindfulness different from hypervigilance, though, is in the attitude toward what we notice.
When I first dove into my internal world through meditation practice and other formal mindfulness practices, it was incredibly overwhelming. There were so many thoughts and feelings and sensations, and I did not know what to do with all of them. Sometimes it truly felt like I was drowning in all of the internal stimuli, and the impulses to distract from or get away from them were strong. The first many times I tried to practice, I just walked away in my frustration and overwhelm. Looking back, that response made sense: turning inward, actually paying attention to what was inside of me, went against everything that I had learned to do in order to protect myself. However, I ultimately became determined to reap the benefits that meditation seemed to promise and so started to practice in earnest.
The good news was that I had spent much of my life developing the capacity to pay attention. Specifically, to scan my environment for possible threats or problems so that I could avoid or fix them, aka hypervigilance. I was able to notice a change in the look in someone’s eye, a slight shift in their voice. I had become incredibly gifted at seeing the subtleties of the world and of the humans around me. My level of awareness was in some ways extreme (albeit exhausting). Regardless of the fact that I interpreted most of what I saw through a defensive lens, by the time I found mindfulness practices, I was incredibly practiced in noticing.
For better or for worse, intensive formal mindfulness training and practice gave me the opportunity to turn this skill inwards.
What I didn’t realize was that the overwhelm that my first forays into mindfulness revealed to me was interpreted much in the same way as the external threats that I was so good at detecting. In response, I unwittingly spent the first many years of my mindfulness practices developing an inward hypervigilance rather than what I now know as mindfulness. Yes, I practiced awareness, but I did it in a way that kept me ready to protect myself from the overwhelm and intensity that I often encountered. It became a tool to more effectively control my experience to reduce or manage threats and discomfort.
It’s not that I didn’t have moments of mindfulness. I had experienced many periods on retreats, doing yoga, or in my more mundane daily life when I was able to bring an open, non-judgmental approach toward what I was aware of in my internal experience. Rather, it was that I was also constantly, though unconsciously, ready to scan my internal experiences to see whether there was a threat like the overwhelm I first experienced. Like most people, my systems of self-protection are incredibly intelligent and will use literally anything, including practices meant to build mindfulness, to try to maintain themselves.
An Internal Battle
With time and lots of sitting, my internal awareness was continually sharpened. I became able to put into words even the slightest energetic shift in my body, the difference between how frustration and irritation felt, and the exact description of the difference between the sensations in my left and right hands. I even truly consciously felt my legs for the first time during a body scan on a meditation retreat. I could watch and describe more and more all the time.
But what was the purpose behind all of this awareness? And what was my attitude toward what I was aware of?
On the surface, my purpose was to connect with myself and my life more deeply. That’s what I said I wanted and that was the alleged purpose of mindfulness practices in general. But I had an unconscious condition: I would only allow those deeper parts of me to be seen and connected to when I felt safe. The irony was that the process of turning inwards itself - the mindfulness practices - felt unsafe to my system. What I thought was simply me getting to know myself was actually a battle of sorts playing out between different parts of me.
While I thought that my noticing was relatively objective, my awareness was actually primarily being used by the hypervigilant part of me, scanning for safety. It was cataloging and describing every sensation, but running it through a filter: Does this sensation mean I am going to get overwhelmed? Is this too much? Will I be able to handle what I find if I look closer? Maybe we should look the other way?
Another part, the seeking part, wanted desperately to connect with those deeper aspects of myself that were hidden, the same ones that the overwhelm consisted of. It believed that once they were contacted, I would experience that freedom, peace, and liberation that mindfulness seemed to promise (more on that another time). The seeking part of me pushed against the hypervigilance, seeing a particular version of inner peace as more important than safety. At the same time, it used the hypervigilance to see exactly where the deeper parts of me were. Where there was resistance or reluctance to go deeper, where the hypervigilance was particularly activated, the seeker knew that there lay the parts of me that I was disconnected from.
The hypervigilant part was scared of the seeking part going too far, and the seeking part resented the barriers that the hypervigilant part put in place to building a deeper relationship with myself. Hypervigilance became the “enemy” to my relationship with myself and seeking became a threat to safety, and so I spent years locked in this tension, with moments of mindful awareness peeking out when they could.