We become what we pay attention to. Whatever we focus attention on shapes our minds and neural pathways in the brain, which mediates how we relate to our experience of the world. Apart from when we’re asleep, the quality of our attention plays a profound role in every part of our lives. Sometimes we concentrate our attention so well that we lose ourselves in a task and at other times our attention drifts and we forget what we’re supposed to be doing.
Although we may have never really considered it, we like to assume that we’re masters of our own attention, that, as the CEO of our experience, we intentionally move our attention through conscious choice. Although we do have the capacity to do this, the truth is that our attention is often directed for us, either by internal or external events that distract our focus away from what we’re doing.
Attention is a limited resource that’s affected by the way our brains filter and process information. We may think that we’re processing everything we come across, but actually, the brain filters out a huge amount of sensory input before it gets processed. In vision for instance, objects in the periphery of our visual field are not processed very much, which makes economic sense from an evolutionary design perspective. Why use energy processing stuff that’s not used?
Although we seem to experience a continuous stream of attention, psychologists point out that this is not actually how attention works. In experiments, they found that there’s a blink, or temporary gap in our attention when we notice something important that needs processing by our brain. In one experiment, when people were asked to spot a target word on a card that followed another target word, the second word would often be missed, as their brain was busy noting the first word. Another example from vision is that our eyes move around in small rapid movements, called saccades, which transfer parts of the image to the central high-resolution area of our retina. These are then combined through attention, memory and the visual cortex in the brain into the experience of one continuous image.
We live in an over-stimulated world with our smartphones, messaging and social media. Whether or not it’s technology that distracts and shortens our attention spans is still under investigation. A recent study on digital lifestyles found that our average attention span reduced from twelve to eight seconds over the past fifteen years. By the way, the attention span of a goldfish is reported to be around nine seconds. Although smartphone users in the study were very quick to select information, their ability to concentrate was diminished. So, it looks like we’re losing our ability to hold our focus, which is ironic, given that many of us now work in complex and dynamic environments that require sustained concentration.
Research has found that mindfulness meditation improves the efficiency and stability of attention, as well as giving better control. When compared to non-meditating control groups, people who practised mindfulness meditation showed increased task performance, as well as changes to how their brains are wired.
There are two main modes of attention that are used in formal mindfulness practice: focussed attention and open monitoring.
- Focussed attention often uses a single object like the breath and is about developing attentional steadiness and stability.
- Open Monitoring is about acknowledging and noting whatever enters our experience. This is a useful awareness practice the helps us understand how our attention operates.
When we’re practising mindfulness, at one level we’re refining our attention skills, which helps improve emotional regulation and cognitive flexibility. With better attention, we can notice an emotion as it arises, before we start acting on it. We’re also better at concentrating and holding our focus.
Ultimately, our lives are what we experience and we experience wherever our attention happens to be in the present moment; so, it’s in our interest to attend to our attention. As well as training our attention through formal practice, we can all ask, “Where is my attention now?” and observe the quality of our attention with openness and curiosity during the day to really enhance our attention skills.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps
- Then play the second audio to explore focussed and open attention. There are extended periods of silence during this practice.
Suggested weekly practice
- See if you can establish the routine of a daily 10-15 minute meditation based around focussing your attention on your natural breath to help refine and stabilise your attention.
- Pay attention to your attention, prompting yourself the question, “Where is my attention now?” with openness and curiosity
- Find out what the main distractors are during your day and find solutions to lessen their impact. For instance, are you in the habit of stopping what you are doing to answer every email as it arrives?
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