Attention is the ability to selectively focus our conscious awareness and cognitive resources on something. By bringing our attention to an object, we can process meaning as well as store it in memory. The differences between attention and awareness have been explored by philosophers for centuries. A simple way to explain the relationship is to use the analogy of a torch in the dark. If conscious awareness is the torchlight, attention is where the torch is directed. Attention can be focused and narrow, like when a jeweller mounts a precious stone in a ring, or broad and open, for example when driving a car. We can also focus on our inner experience like thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, as well as what’s going on in our environment through the senses.
Attention is important; it’s fundamental to how we interact, learn, and make sense of ourselves and the world, as well as build good relationships. In theory, attention is one of the most precious inner resources we have that is in our direct control. In practice, our attention is conditional on how aware and awake we are at any moment. In today’s world, we are surrounded by information that’s designed to attract and grab our attention. On top of this, we also have unintentional automatic thoughts to tempt our attention away.
How well we attend to something is task-dependent, so can vary. Research shows that excessive use of technology like smartphones and social media can decrease attention spans and reduce cognitive abilities. The daily stream of alerts, notifications, and other updates interferes with our ability to maintain focus and sustain our attention on what we are doing. This frequent switching between tasks impairs concentration and productivity.
We have far more demands on our attention to process information than our ancient ancestors and are the first generations in human history to be increasingly tethered to devices like smartphones tablets and laptops. We have become heavily reliant on these devices in many areas of our lives; to stay connected with others, for entertainment, to follow the global news cycle, and for work and personal tasks. Many of us have become very attached to our smartphones and feel the need to be constantly connected and always “on”. This is not helped by the many apps that are designed to keep our attention engaged for as long as possible.
On a personal level, we need to become the master of our attention and not its servant. From when we are born, our brains adapt and become wired to learn about and interpret the world we focus on, so we literally become what we pay attention to. With mindfulness practice, we get better at noticing where our attention is over the day. For instance, sometimes our attention will be focused on the task, then thinking about the meeting tomorrow, then vaguely drifting on nothing in particular.
When we practise meditation, we can notice how fast our attention switches from say, focusing on the breath one moment, to running through a shopping list for dinner in another. Without warning, our attention shifts with the speed of a fast edit in an action movie. Our attention is more likely to be distracted when our level of awareness drops and the part of the brain involved in automatic thoughts, called the default mode network, takes over. The default mode network activates when the brain picks up that not much is going on. For instance, we can easily find ourselves mentally drifting when brushing our teeth or taking a shower in the morning.
There are some practical steps we can take to reclaim our attention. We can turn off obvious distractions like social media notifications and set aside dedicated time to read and respond to emails, rather than being distracted by them as they appear during the day, We can also take regular breaks between activities, if possible, to relax and rebalance before starting the next task.
Reclaiming our attention by building our attention skills is essential for mindfulness. There are two related formal practices:
- Focused attention meditation: Observing the breath, noticing when your attention drifts off in thought, and bringing your attention back to the breath is a foundational practice of mindfulness meditation. This is useful for improving your attention skills.
- Open attention meditation: Rest in an open, peaceful, relaxed, and alert awareness as you notice and acknowledge wherever your attention goes. This is useful for gaining insight into how your attention works.
Mindfulness is about working skilfully with present-moment experience. To do this successfully you need to know where your attention is. If you accept that the present moment is the only time you can experience being alive, if your attention is distracted somewhere else, are you really fully alive at that moment?
Suggested weekly practice
- Notice where your attention is by asking “Where is my attention now?” Be curious about the things that tend to distract your attention and use the simple breathing practice to build your attention skills.
- Acknowledge and appreciate that although you are not always the master of your own attention, there are things you can do to improve your focus.
- Consider your reliance on devices and maybe set some boundaries, spend a day on a digital detox, and prioritise offline activities to reclaim your attention and well-being.
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 first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore and experience focused and open attention to improve your attention skills and gain some insight into how attention operates.