The following information has been excerpted from my book, Classic Wisdom for The Modern Human: A Self-Study Guide for Wellness (Amazon, 2019)
“Tell me to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are.”
— Jose Ortega y Gasset
Why Attention? Why Now?
“You can tell what a man truly values by observing what he pays attention to the most. And as countless spiritual teachers have warned, what a man pays attention to ends up molding his soul and character.”
— The Art of Manliness
What’s got your attention? What’s molding your soul and character? When you pay attention to your own attention, you will learn about its value for your wellness. It’s critically important to understand the nature of attention and your own attention to know who you are.
When you own your own attention and control it, you will become more consciously aware of exactly what it is you are aiming at, focused on, believe in, and live by. In other words, attention is linked to your values, thereby directly linked to your priorities, goals, actions, and habits (Peterson, as cited in Dose of Truth, 2017). It takes a little (or a lot of) slowing down to observe your attention and how it is linked to your identity and your wellness.
Once you understand the nature of attention, how it works, and start to own your own attention more consciously and focus it more deliberately, then you also can turn your attention inward for introspection. There’s a world within that you have access to at any time, if you make the time.
Learning to manage your own attention will help you discover what you are like, as you watch yourself and take more conscious note of how you think, feel, and behave. When you get to know yourself better from this type of self-study, you will gain deeper understanding of your specific individual nature, becoming more likely to trust your own judgment rather than helplessly relying on others to tell you who you are or who to be. Perhaps you will become less of a victim to the powers in our modern world who are always wanting to dominate your attention (Harari, 2018).
Paying Attention as Self-Defense
If you take a look at what’s in your inbox and in your social media feeds, you can notice that corporations and advertisers are listening to you and watching you. They can read what you are writing about (which is what you are thinking); they can hear what you are talking about; they know what you are fantasizing about and what you desire. They know your purchase history and everything you tune into and focus on. They know where you are putting your attention and how much time you spend attending to things in the environment (Harari, 2018). It’s surely a problem if these impersonal entities know more about your attention, how it works, how much time you are focused on particular things, and thereby your inclinations, habits, fantasies, and behaviors than you do!
It’s downright frightening that artificial intelligence can control your attention—where you look, what you look at; how it manipulates your perceptions and feelings about what you’re paying attention to, and nudges you in particular directions while fooling you that you made your own choice— if you let it (Illing, 2018). So, how can we find peace in a world where artificial intelligence knows more about us than we know about ourselves (Thomson, 2018), in a landscape where algorithms influence who you associate with, how and what you think, where you shop and what you buy, or anything else? (Harari, 2018). How can you make sure that you can choose who influences you? What’s your best defense? Get offline, get with yourself, and study your very own humanity. Begin with examining your own attention to understand its value and thereby what you value—what matters most in your life.
If you are knowledgeable about the nature of attention, pay attention to your own attention more, and are deliberate about where you choose to put your attention, you’ll not only know who you are and what defines you, but this will be your best defense against manipulation and unwanted influences. You cannot control the powers of AI, but you can control your response to it by knowing who you are (Harari, 2018).
A Crisis of Attention
“Besides the benefits that improved management of attention brings to the individual, several social critics and philosophers argue that our society’s decreasing attention is leading us to a new ‘cultural dark age’ in which individuals no longer have the deep, sustained focus necessary for synthesizing and assessing information or expressing complex thoughts. Instead, we live in a world of ‘Present Shock’ in which everything happens now, information is conveyed via memes and tweets, and we no longer have the skill or wisdom to separate the signal from the noise. One could argue that the crises and general malaise we’ve experienced in the West during the past thirty years is, at its core, a crisis of attention. We’re either paying attention to the wrong problems or too distracted by the next “controversy” to solve the issues at hand. Bottom line: If you want to improve yourself and the world around you, the first step is to learn how to harness your attention. It’s the locomotive of human progress.” — Art of Manliness
Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled. And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.
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.
What is Attention?
The world is an incredibly busy place with loads of stimuli competing for your attention. The more stimuli there are competing for our involuntary attention, the harder our voluntary attention has to work to stay engaged with the task at hand…voluntary attention is… just like willpower, we have a finite amount of it, [but]… also similar to willpower in that research has shown that it can be strengthened with certain exercises and practices.
Your conscious awareness of your own attention and how it works will strengthen it and help you manage it more intentionally!
Consider: Over the course of your life, what do you want to have spent most of your precious, limited attention on?
Further, if you break your life down to years, months, weeks, days, or hours, then each moment becomes incredibly meaningful. Our attention in each moment matters.
‘Everyone knows what attention is,’ wrote William James in his Principles of Psychology (1890). It is the taking possession by the mind in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought…It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state…Attention is important to learning. Learning is most efficient when a person is paying attention (Shiel).
“the ability to focus on certain stimuli or thoughts while ignoring others, which in turn shapes how we perceive and experience the world around us” (McKay, 2014).
- Limited: the length of attention as well as how much we can pay attention to is limited
- Selective: ignoring stimuli to focus on others; filtering; happens almost unnoticeably
- Open/Broadly focused: “big picture”
- Narrowly focused: sharp, specific, meticulous
- Voluntary: conscious; requires effort, willpower, and intentional concentration by choice
- Involuntary: unconscious; our attention is grabbed by stimuli in environment; noticing
If you want to learn more about who you are, then knowing what attention is and what your own attention is like is essential.
Attention or Judgment?
Many people confuse attention with judgment. There is a distinct difference between the two. Read the following excerpts from an article called “Paying Attention: We May Think We Understand the Art of Paying Attention” (Shapiro, 2012) from Psychology Today. According to the author, “We may think we understand the art of paying attention but many times, unfortunately, we mistake attention for judgment. We think about attention as a ‘critical’ function.”
Shapiro asserts that “Attention is not critical. Judgment is. Attention is neutral. We begin to pay attention to something and then we start to judge it, evaluate it, categorize it and, yes, generally ‘criticize’ it. But judging, while certainly useful, is not attention.” The author continues to suggest that we too quickly dismiss simply paying attention for its own sake, to remain there in that single moment, and that we too quickly act–– to “categorize and take action… [and] we judge something [to] assess whether or not we need to “fix” it, reject it or enhance it, and move on. In other words, we are motivated to change it in some way.” Shapiro suggests that resistance is involved and that “Whatever it is right now is generally not OK or not enough and has to be altered.” And when we jump too soon to “fix,” we abandon the moment to take action, perhaps missing out on learning more.
I noticed as both a yoga teacher and schoolteacher that most people struggle to slow down enough to simply pay attention, especially when there’s discomfort involved. We struggle to just “be,” replacing these moments too rapidly with doing, fixing, and productivity. The author gives a good analogy: “Healing an injury requires the practice of paying attention, of being with something fully, of focusing upon it over and over again without pushing it away or trying to change it. It is in paying attention that we will discover the tiny threads of healing and transformation that are developing moment to moment.”
The article continues to describe attention as “noticing and being with something without trying to change it. Attention takes the time to fully explore, to discover whatever there is to know about something, to watch as things change by themselves without our trying to ‘fix’ anything. Attention is patient and attention is kind. No rush. No burden. No criticism.” So how to apply this definition of attention? How can we “let go of judgment and simply pay attention? How do we practice being with whatever is happening and learning from it?” The author’s wonderful advice is what we practice in yoga, which is to: “‘Welcome Everything; Push Away Nothing’…[which] might sound odd at first. Why would we “welcome” something unpleasant? The word “welcome” confronts us, asking us to look without judgment and criticism, to invite ourselves to be open to whatever comes, to simply pay attention…”
Shapiro’s article about paying attention as an “act of loving kindness towards ourselves” is insightful and potentially transformative. It ends with another beautiful analogy associating attention with love: “If we love a child, we pay attention to her. We watch this child thrive as we give her our attention. We know this works. In this way we are not different from the child. We too will thrive with attention and as adults, we have the capacity to give that attention to ourselves. Let’s practice simply paying attention, not rushing to judgment…” Paying attention to yourself isn’t selfish; it’s an act of love. Practice understanding attention, paying attention to your attention, and attend to yourself lovingly.
Read the entire article at Psychology Today and reflect on it. Write about how you understand the difference between attention and judgment in your life.
Meditation, Reflection, Writing
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.
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?
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?
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!
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.)
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 or anxious?
Try to notice when you are voluntarily controlling your attention and when your attention is captured involuntarily (by a sound, sight, etc…).
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. 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!
Listen carefully to a podcast of your choice or one listed in the References at the end of this book. 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.
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?)
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! See Part 3: Challenge.)
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.
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 experience.
NOTE: If you repeat this often enough, notice how your relationships improve, your grade point average and your performance at work improves. One of the first things I noticed after I began practicing Bikram Yoga 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! I am still a work in progress, and so are you!
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. In Bikram Yoga class, we say “eyes open and mouth closed,” useful advice not only for yoga practice but for daily living!
You may notice over time that you are increasing your ability to be present in the moment. 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 and will be contagious for the people around you. As my Australian Yoga Teacher friends would say, “Good on you!”
“Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”
There are no “rights” or “wrongs” about how your attention functions. Just notice your own attention and get more familiar with how it behaves to learn more and more about ways to harness it for your wellness. When you become the authority of your own attention, you will be less likely to allow others to dominate or control it.
Notice your own attention throughout a day or several days. Act as if you are a journalist following a stranger to write a story about their attention: where it goes and how it is managed intentionally or not. Use your journal (or whatever tool is handy) to make notes throughout the day. You can reflect back over your day or every few hours, but memory isn’t as accurate as intentionally keeping track continually and writing about your attention over a period of hours or a day or two.
This will be challenging since our attention switches and moves frequently. You are trying to notice periods of extended attention versus relatively brief periods, rather than tracking moment to moment. This audit can be repeated often. There’s no wrong way to do it. You will learn merely from trying (and failing) to do these activities.
Use your written notes and memory to honestly and accurately answer the following in your self-study journal:
Where is your attention pointed most of the time? (If you kept track of how long you pay attention to things, you can write about that.)
To which objects is your attention directed regularly or most often?
What captures or grips your attention in the environment? Any ideas about why it grips you?
Are the things that you are paying attention to healthy or harmful to you?
Describe for yourself, in detail, why each is helpful or harmful or a combination.
Is there a pattern or repetition involved in what you pay attention to?
Evaluate, and ask yourself: what’s serving me and what’s wasting my precious attention? WRITE IT DOWN! (Make a two-column list, Venn Diagram, or use the sample chart/logs given below)
How much and how often were you distracted? What kinds of distractions cause you to lose your focus? Hypothesize about why. Don’t be harshly critical and judgmental. Be objective and pragmatic to learn more.
Based on your attention, what captures and keeps your sustained attention?
How do you control your attention? How do you keep the spotlight on something continually, without intermission or interruption?
What things that you find your attention on so often matter most to you?
What does your attention tell or teach you about what you value?
Did you find yourself judging yourself (negatively or positively) while conducting your audit? If so, write down the judgments.
Note the difference between attention and judgment. (Feel free to review the first activity about the difference between attention and judgment on the previous pages).
Attention & Values
When you own your own attention and control it, you will become more consciously aware of exactly what it is you are aiming at, focused on, believe in, and live by. Attention is linked to your values, thereby directly linked to your priorities, goals, actions, and habits (Roll, as cited in Bilyeu, 2018; Peterson, as cited in Dose of Truth, 2017).
“Find Your Passion” or “Study Your Own Attention”
Part 1: Establish your baseline knowledge about yourself and your attention by writing a quick list of what you think you pay attention to the most in your life. Spend only a few minutes on this and move on to part 2.
Part 2. Watch yourself for a day, a week, a month and keep a list of the things you pay attention to. This is similar to the previous Attention Audit Activity. Make a written list on your phone or in your journal, or use the example form given, but WRITE your observations down (as if you were a scientist collecting data). You won’t be accurate with your data if you rely on only your memory. The log is to collect information about yourself. Keep track once an hour, or at the end of the day, and at periods that work for you throughout your day(s).
Don’t make it a chore so much as a curious activity that you are doing because you care about yourself and you want to learn more about yourself. Your ultimate motivation for spending the time doing this is to be healthier and well by knowing yourself better.
Understanding your own attention and the things you pay attention to will help you define what you are aiming at in life— what may or may not give it real purpose. To know what matters to you (your values) will be especially important when you are struggling with problems in your life (see Part III, Challenge, “Know Your Why”). You have to have something to get out of bed in the morning for, something that makes sacrifice and struggle worthwhile, so that it doesn’t merely destroy you (Peterson, 2018). You need something to live for—a “why” to bear any “how,” in the words of the famous philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.
One of the benefits of studying your own attention to learn about what you are aiming at is that you will be able to come back to this lesson, use what you have learned to help yourself, change your focus, choose the best goals and aims possible for your wellness (see Part IV, Choice), and thereby manage your problems to improve your life!
Your Passion & Purpose is Already Inside You: Look There!
Make studying your own attention and learning about your values fun. Keep your sense of curiosity, compassion, and humor toward your self-study and what you discover about your attention. By paying attention to attention, you may find that your passion, love, and interests find you more often than you seek and find them!
Example: Attention Data Graphic Organizer
|Thing(s) I pay attention to||Time of day/length of time
Part 3. Your list/log/chart should show the things you pay attention to.
Using your forms and your notes, evaluate your findings.
Look for patterns and repetition in your log/notes.
Which things in your life get the most attention?
Which things get the least amount of attention?
|Things in your life getting the MOST attention||Note which things makes me feel either bad/weak/worse or makes me feel good/strong/better||Things in your life getting the LEAST attention|
|Sample: playing video games||Good for a while, but then bad later because I spent too much time and not enough on other things I enjoy or should be doing that make me feel good|
|Makes me feel good, strong because I feel independent; but also a little bad because we are losing a connection; maybe relationship is weaker.||Sample: spending time with my family|
|Wrestling and all things related– watching videos and reading about it and talking with fellow wrestlers.||Makes me feel strong, better. I learn more about it from watching videos and reading books about it too, This is my passion and important to me. It makes me happy even though it’s challenging, and I have to give up spending my time and attention on other things I might also like to do.|
Part 4. Reflect and Write about your findings:
What do you think about your data? What conclusions can
How do you feel about where you are and are not spending your valuable attention?
Are you judging yourself or learning with compassion and curiosity about your attention?
What was the collection of the data process like for you?
Did the activity confirm things you already knew about your attention (see your baseline response in Part 1)?
Did you learn something new about where you place your attention?
Did you learn that you thought you knew yourself but now realize that there’s still more to learn? (There always is and always will be!)
Do you see any places/time where your attention was being manipulated by others? If so, could you act to change that?
How might you control and/or make choices about where to put your
Do this evaluation of attention periodically, repeating the process to learn more. Over time, you will see long-term patterns occur. You can consciously choose better where you’d like your attention to go and therefore who you will become! (See also Part 4: Choice)
Writing About Attention
Choose to respond to as many or as few prompts as you like, or feel is necessary, to know yourself better by reflecting on the nature of attention and your attention.
What is attention?
Free-write about anything related to attention. Let your mind wander and consider anything and everything related to attention that you are aware of.
Write about what you know about attention from your own personal experience (this can be your baseline assessment).
Consult the definition of attention given in Part I of the Self-Study Resource Guide and provide examples from your own experience for each of the following:
- How is your attention limited?
- How is your attention selective?
- How is your attention voluntary?
- How is your attention involuntary?
- How is your attention open or broad?
- How is your attention narrow or sharp?
What is the definition of judgment?
How does your attention differ from your judgment? Give examples from
your own experience of each to make the distinction clear.
Why take ownership of, manage, and understand your own attention?
Why is managing your own attention important now more than ever?
How can you take ownership of and/or manage your attention?
What are some activities you can do to strengthen the length and quality of your attention?
Reflect on your efforts to practice paying attention. Where, when, and why
did you practice? Write about your experiences, even if they were not from
What are the physical, mental health, emotional, and other positive benefits
from becoming consciously aware of your own attention and managing it?
When can distractions or shifting your attention be a good thing?
What’s mind-wandering? Is it a good thing or a bad thing or both?
Where is your attention directed toward a large majority of the time?
Who or what is competing to get and keep your attention the most or most
Are you more conscious than unconscious about controlling your own
attention? How can you tell?
How many involuntary distractions must you overcome to voluntarily pay
attention to what really matters? Give examples.
What did you learn about attention from the activities you completed?
What did you learn about attention from writing about it?
How will you plan to manage your attention on a regular basis now that you completed the activities in the Self-Study Resource Guide?
If you discover that you struggle with attention and focus, consider
consulting a therapist, your doctor, or a professional who specializes in ADHD for additional insight.
Write (as much as you want) about your experiences related to this entire section on attention, about defining, observing, and managing attention, as well as how it differs from judgment.
How can understanding your own attention by studying it carefully benefit your relationship with yourself?
How can understanding your own attention by studying it carefully benefit your relationship with others?
What do you notice about your attention when you focus it inward on yourself as opposed to externally— to all the stimuli around you (people, outer world?)
How do you know yourself better by knowing more about your attention and where it is focused?
How is your attention related to your values— that is, what matters most to you and guides your thoughts, choices, and actions?