PAYING ATTENTION TO ATTENTION
In the following practices, you will observe and evaluate your own attention patterns to understand where you are putting your attention, both intentionally and unintentionally, throughout your moments, hours, days…well… your life.
By auditing your attention—playing with it and exercising its various forms, deliberately, using the activities below, you will build your attention “muscle” which will help you be a more conscious learner so you can know yourself better.
Sit still for a hot minute.
“Meditate” for 2-4 minutes or as long as you want. Focus your attention (selective attention) on your breath going in through the nose and out through the nose. Notice only that. If your attention shifts elsewhere, perhaps to your chest or to the noises in the room, or your feet, or an itch; if it shifts to thinking, or your mind wanders to the past or the future, just notice. Try to bring your attention back to the breath. It helps to sit up straight or lie down if you want to– it doesn’t matter so much, especially if this is new to you. When people try to “do it the right way” when it comes to meditation, they usually just focus on outcomes rather than the process itself, just the trying. The trying and failing IS THE THING. If you are trying and failing– you’re doing everything perfectly!
*AN IMPORTANT NOTE!!!*
If any of this causes feelings– anxiety, fatigue, hyper-arousal, sadness, muscular tension…whatever, just notice. Stop if you get to a point where you feel overwhelmed, especially if you are someone who experiences symptoms of traumatic stress or high anxiety. Do what you need to to calm your arousal. (Here’s a resource who can teach you all about stress and trauma and somatic healing of your nervous system. You can orient your eyes to a point in the room; rub your hands together or on your arms, give yourself a hug, feel your bottom on your chair; talk to a safe, loving person; in other words, ground yourself in the present and in your body). Later, when you are in an even space (within your mind-body), reflect on the experience and write about it. Each time you attend to your attention, your experience may vary! You are different each time you try. People vary in the ways they react and respond to paying attention to attention— it only matters that you TRY it and later reflect and record what happens. NO RIGHT OR WRONG; NO JUDGMENT. JUST OBSERVATION TO LEARN. Take are of yourself! Don’t be such a force!
If you find yourself struggling TOO MUCH in these attention practices,
please click here to read important information about trauma and self-study.
Reflect, in writing, on your experience paying attention to your attention in step one above. Describe, in detail, exactly what happened with your attention. Don’t just reflect— Write about it! Did your attention remain focused on the breath coming in and out of your nose? Did it wander? Where did your attention shift towards? How many times did it shift and change?
NOTICE and write about: Did you judge your “performance?” Did you get frustrated or disappointed when your attention fell away from the breath? Or did you remain neutral when your attention shifted? WHATEVER YOU EXPERIENCED (THOUGHT, FELT, BEHAVED) JUST WRITE IT DOWN. IT’S ALL OKAY!! YOU ARE LEARNING. THIS IS THE PROCESS AND YOU MUST TRUST THAT JUST BY DOING THIS, YOU WILL LEARN AND GROW.
Reflect on this process of noticing your own attention. Free write about your attention, judgment, and the difference between the two. Any other thoughts related to this activity are welcome! This is your personal learning, so you can write about whatever you want for as long as you want. Even if you are frustrated, angry, confused, unsure of yourself, or think this self-study is a waste of time, write about it because this will help you understand the nature of your relationship to your attention (which is really just how you relate to yourself and your experiences in the present moment)!
If you made it this far….you’re building courage AND focus!
Good for you!
NO…LITERALLY— These things are good for your body and mind.
Go to a busy place, sit back, and simply observe the external stimuli competing for your attention. Be sure to relax your shoulders and breathe. Notice the sounds, sights, smells, tastes and tactile feelings. Don’t try too hard. This should not be a stressful activity (If it is, then perhaps at some point you could write about why or the source(s) of your tension and stress. Here’s some resources to learn about stress and overwhelm.
Watch your thoughts within this environment. Write about your observations and your feelings in response to noticing how much external stimuli affects your attention and ways in which it impacts you. Perhaps it causes your mind to wander; perhaps you get imaginative and creative? Perhaps you get overwhelmed and feel nervous?
Try to notice when you are voluntarily controlling your attention and when your attention is captured involuntarily (by a sound, sight, etc…).
PAYING ATTENTION IN NATURE
Repeat the activity above by going into a more natural environment outdoors by yourself to notice your attention. Notice when you get immersed in the scenery and “lose yourself.” Notice when you are being self-aware or conscious of your attention and where it is focused. Remember, the goal here is to understand yourself, how you operate, and what’s happening with your attention.
You might also reflect on and/or write about the differences between how you felt (physically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually) in the busy place versus in a natural environment/outdoors.
Go online and scroll through social media like Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook to notice what gets your attention and holds it enough to pause and linger (maybe a slow count to five seconds or more), and what does not. Think about why some things are interesting and keep your attention and which things do not and why. How does you body feel when you are focused on some things as opposed to others? Remember, your body (and its super attentive and aware nervous system) is “paying attention” as well as your eyes and mind are. Write about this experience.
What did you learn about yourself?
What did you learn about your own attention?
What about your self-control or management of attention—what was that like?
You may have to repeat this exercise to improve your learning about attention.
*Remember, non-judgmental observation of yourself and your experiences to learn is the goal. Negative criticism is unnecessary! Collecting data about yourself to know yourself. Keep it simple!
Listen carefully to a podcast of your choice or one listed in the References at the end of the Classic Wisdom for the Modern Human: A Self-Study Guide for Wellness (2019). Notice the length of time you are able to stay focused without distraction. Make a note in your journal each time you are distracted, maybe by physical distractions like hunger or thirst or having to go the bathroom. Maybe your mind wanders. Just make a note or check mark on a page in your journal each time you lose focus on the podcast. See how long you can listen, and practice keeping your attention on the conversation. Your goal is to learn about your attention and maybe note how your focus and concentration behave (not how well or poorly, only what’s happening without judgment!).
The only way to build the muscle of attention is to practice. Practice as intentionally as possible, as often as possible. That means mistakes all the time! Notice over time how the length and capacity of your focus increases (Perhaps fewer check marks during same period of time?) the more often you exercise focused attention.
Repeat this activity as often as possible with podcasts of your choice or even randomly selected material that may not be as engaging, so that you can see the difference in your ability to pay attention when listening to what you may like versus what you don’t. Our attention is challenged when we are uncomfortable, yet this is an even better opportunity to strengthen it! You will learn more about this in the course on Challenge.
Trouble paying attention to ideas that make you uncomfortable? (Well then, I Welcome you to being alive and human learning. Best to accept this and get used to it!).
It’s also worth practicing listening to what’s annoying or to opinions and ideas that conflict (even sharply) with your own, to build your endurance for paying attention and increasing your tolerance for listening without critical judgment, especially when it’s challenging. You will see, again, the difference between attention and judgment and why the difference is crucial to your level of stress, wisdom, and wellness.
*Trouble paying attention to people and/or their ideas? (Well, now, isn’t this a problem these days?). Focus ONLY on yourself as listener and attender, not get swallowed up by the CONTENT of what people are saying….Look at the ideas and people just as they each are– people and ideas– and that’s all. (Notice your “automatic” urge to have an opinion? Want to fix? Urges to respond, react? HOLD…..)
Listen carefully to a person for a short period of time at first and then longer and longer. Try to speak as little as possible. Just listen as intently as you are able, for as long as you are able. Repeat this activity as often as possible and write about your private experience being the experiencer of this phenomenon.
One of the first things I noticed after I began practicing paying attention to my attention regularly was how much my attention improved as well as my ability to pay better attention to my students. I began interrupting people less which was one of my most annoying habits!
ATTENDING TO “WHAT IS”
Using a podcast to practice mindful listening allows you to participate in a conversation without speaking or interrupting, perhaps building your “listening muscle,” so that you listen more, speak less, and interrupt people less often in interpersonal, real world face to face conversations.
You may notice over time that you are increasing your ability to be present in the moment. To be OKAY/neutral/not-doing with WHAT IS (no matter if it is beliefs you disagree with, annoying behavior, or uncertainty, or suspending your judgment so you can learn something new) You may even experience a sense of “flow” as you get so deeply engrossed in listening that you lose track of time (whether to an audio recording or in person with another human being).
You are practicing “being in the moment” more than “doing” in an almost effortless, stress-less state of equanimity. This is wonderful for your health– your body and your mind– and will be positively contagious for the people around you.