“Attention works much like a muscle—use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.” Daniel Goleman
Attention, from the Latin word ‘attendere’ means to ‘give heed to’, ‘to stretch towards’, as if we are reaching our minds towards something. Think about this: whatever you pay attention to, both good and bad, you are stretching your mind towards.
Neuroscience supports this, highlighting that our minds act like a hoover, hoovering in whatever we spend time focusing upon. Drawing our chosen awareness into our neural pathways. Consequently, being very vigilant about the placement of your awareness is paramount.
In addition, we have a ‘negativity bias’ in our brains which is continually scanning for bad news and putting a pessimistic spin on our life events. This means that we can easily be concentrating on the unwanted aspects of our experience: the pain, the suffering, the judgements and the complaints. So again, being highly mindful of the spotlight of our focus is an essential life skill to keep us happy and healthy. As Daniel Goleman puts it in the quote above, our focus is something we must train, like any muscle in our body that we want to develop. We can either control it…or it controls us!
We are all familiar with the very powerful control our attentiveness can have over us when we are filled with worry and anxiety. We are thinking repeatedly about areas of concern in our lives: challenging relationships, issues at work, financial problems, the health of a loved one. And we seem to be very good at focusing at this time. The net result though is that these issues get hoovered up into the long-term memory banks of the brain, making us more prone to such stresses in the future.
So, what can we do about this predicament? How can we help ourselves? Here are my suggestions:
- Practice deploying your attention on what you want. This vital ability underlies everything you could ever want. I find it helps to, daily, write down what I want to keep my attention on, so that it remains forefront in my awareness. Without that reminder, my mind easily takes me onto a focus on what I don’t want. I find it helpful to phrase my focus as a question that I ask daily. Asking “how can I…?” gives me the opportunity to be creative about my train of focus. For example, “how can I improve my health?”, ‘how can I improve my focus?”, or “how can I improve this relationship?”
- Focused concentration is easily trained. One of the key skills that every mindfulness student learns is that when the mind wanders, we just gently guide it back onto our chosen area of awareness. Practicing single-mindedly keeping your centre of attention in one place, and returning to that place every time your mind leaves it, is the tool for training concentration. You don’t have to be in a Buddhist monastery to do this. You can choose your breath, an area of your body, the sounds around you or something you can see as your core of attention, anytime, anywhere. The vital ingredient is practice!
- End rumination and embrace solutions. During challenging times, we are prone to rumination. It feels like we cannot help it. Just like a cow chewing its cud, we chew it over, swallow the thoughts, regurgitate them and then chew them over again. Not attractive! Instead train yourself to think about, and ideally write down, possible solutions. And the way forward. Then keep the solutions at the core of your awareness and act on the ideas you receive.
- Have a daily mindfulness or meditation practice. The more proficient you are at focusing your mind through a daily practice, the easier it is to focus on the good and the solutions in your everyday life. It, too, gives you the ability to quickly recognise when you are deliberating on the negative, and it gives you the inner muscles to move the nub of your attention elsewhere.
Given that our attention, or the lack of it, pervades every areas of our lives, I believe that it is worth cultivating this under-rated capacity. To quote Yoda “your attention is your reality”. Your mind will act like a hoover, trained or untrained, so why not educate it to take in only what you desire? I am sure you will see many examples from your own life, of how this shift of awareness reaps many benefits. Goleman describes our focus as “the hidden driver of excellence”. Why not encompass it?