A key skill of mindfulness is being able to purposefully pay attention to your present moment experience. This means being aware of not only what is going on around you but also your thoughts, feelings and body sensations.
With our eyes pointing forwards however, intentionally looking at our inner states is not something many of us have grown up doing which means we are unlikely to be particularly skilled at it.
This is why courses in mindfulness include meditation practices that help train and sustain attention whilst developing greater self-awareness.
The trouble with our attention
Whilst at school you were likely told to pay attention. I certainly was. Surely then you know how to do it?
The trouble isn’t with your knowledge but with attention itself. Let me explain...
To navigate through our day and keep ourselves safe, our senses are constantly taking in information from the external environment.
This data is then considered against our prior experiences to make sense of our world. As so much is taken in and our brain has limited processing power, we only notice a small amount of what arrives.
In other words, our attentional resource is constrained.
For example, whilst reading this you are mainly attending to the words on the screen and your understanding of the concepts they create whilst being vaguely aware of what is going on around (sounds) and inside of you (an itch perhaps).
But you would potentially struggle to read this and listen to a song at the same time. There would be a conflict over which to prioritise.
What’s likely to happen is your attention would cross back and forth between listening to the the music and reading the words here.
To really take in what I have written you would have to concentrate your attention here on the screen and pay little attention to the song.
This is why it’s not a good idea for presenters or newsreaders to use heavily worded slides; with our habitual mode of looking outwards we would unwittingly read the slide and not listen to what was being said.
Whilst you may not know what it means to purposefully pay attention, you do know about not paying attention. We call it distraction.
In order to focus your attention on these words, you are also ignoring distractions. If you didn’t you may easily be pulled away.
For example, an unexpected noise may take part or all of your attention away from this text. Depending on what has occurred you may not return for some time.
In case that happens I am marking your place with italix.
Low boredom threshold
You could say that our attention has a low boredom threshold. If something is not sufficiently interesting, our attention will wander away.
I am sure this has happened to you.
There you were listening to someone and then what happens? They ask you what you think and it is in that moment that you realise you have not been listening after all.
You say, “I’m sorry, my mind was somewhere else”.
What happened to you?
There was something more interesting in your mind or in the environment than what the person was saying.
Don’t feel too bad, we are naturally drawn to novelty, it is part of our survival instinct. But do work on it, the other person can be left feeling unheard.
True communication can only occur if we are present with each other.
Read my article about listening attentively to learn more
Attention training aka meditation
Bringing that all together, it’s clear that what we pay attention to is not always under our control. In fact researchers have found that mind wandering occurs 47% of the time (1).
The good news is attention can be trained and you can become its master.
Whilst meditation is generally associated with Buddhism, one of its primary roles is to develop attentional control.
Mindfulness courses use a variety of meditations to develop and manage our attention. Think of it like exercise for the attention muscle.
Basic meditation consists of 6 steps
Step 1. choose an object on which to focus your attention, let’s say sensations of breath
Step 2. find the sensations in the body, maybe the rise and fall of the chest (this is known as the anchor for the practice)
Step 3. hold onto it by focusing your attentional resource on it.
Step 4. notice distraction/mind wandering
Step 5. acknowledge this has occurred
Step 6. begin again at 2.
When you purposefully concentrate on your anchor your attention remains on your object; however as soon as your concentration lessens, you will slip your anchor and the mind will wander away.
When you notice this has happened, you note where it wandered to (gaining insight into how your mind operates) and then return to the object and begin again.
In a 10 minute practice that might happen 100 times.
No biggie, each time it happens you are developing the ability to notice mental activity as well as learning how to own your attention.
Some compare the practice to aiming an arrow at something and then pouring your attention down its shaft onto the object.
I like to think of it like using a garden hose. You point the hose at what needs watering and you pay attention otherwise the water will end up not where you want it.
Tip! Close your eyes or soften your gaze; that's one less sense to be distracted by.
10 minutes of practice is all it takes
Although meditation is not mindfulness, those who are mindful tend to have a meditation practice.
As well as keeping the attention muscle primed and ready for action, regular meditation has many advantages.
As little as 10 minutes of meditation has been found to increase the ability to pay attention (2).
What are you waiting for?
Imagine what you could do if you could stay on task and ignore distractions longer!
Take a moment now to find sensations of breath in your body and attend to it as it moves in and out of the body.
If paying attention to the breath is an uncomfortable anchor for you, focus on the sensations of where your feet touch the ground.
Start small, one minute of practice is fine and over time build up to 10 minutes.
Got questions? Feel free to use the comment box below
Take care of you.
1. Bradt, S. 2010. A Wandering mind is not a happy mind [Internet] Harvard Gazette
2. Goleman, D. 2017 Don't Believe the Multi-tasking Hype: Train Your Brain to Focus Better [Internet] The Big Think