Paying attention makes you more productive and efficient, I’m sure most people would agree with this statement. But can it also cause harm? And if so, what would be the remedy for it?
Can you remember your parents and teachers telling you — ‘watch what you are doing’, ‘stop daydreaming’, ‘listen to what I am saying’? We learned from them to believe that focusing is the best way to attend the world. We carry this belief throughout our busy lives, making a lot of effort to pay attention and to avoid distractions.
Yet, have you ever realised that focusing is intertwined with ignoring. In order to focus on something we have to neglect the rest and push it out of our conscious awareness. In other words, from the early stage of our lives we have been trained not to notice a big part of our reality which is constantly present, the background.
WHAT IS THE BACKGROUND ?
According to The Oxford dictionary, background is the part of a picture, scene, or design, that forms a setting for the main figures or objects.
I suggest modifying this definition and assume that the background is everything which is out of the focus of our attention. Consequently everything that is inside the focus and is consciously attended, forms the foreground.
You can imagine attention as a ray of light which illuminates a piece of your reality (something you see, hear, feel, etc). The more focused you are, the brighter is the light, and the more details you can notice. The rest of the reality forms the background and becomes somehow blurred, or stays completely invisible for you.
An example of the background is the white space on a screen you are looking at now. You are not noticing the white space while you are reading this text. You focus on lines of text, leaving the white space out of your conscious attention.
The same can be applied to the 3D reality we live in. A physical object (the screen in front of you, a chair you sit on, your body, etc.) can become your foreground when you focus your attention on it. The empty space which is around physical objects, is the background. You move your focus from one object to another, ignoring the empty space between them.
The same can be used as a metaphor to our life. Most people pay attention to things which seem important to them. They focus on problems, commitments, ‘to do lists’, hopes and goals to achieve… but there is always the background which is out of the focus and is often left unnoticed. Have you ever thought about what stays out of your focus? And what would change if you included it into your awareness?
WHY HABITUAL FOCUSING CAN BE BAD FOR YOU ?
Most of us are dependant on focusing. I am quite confident you have noticed the white space on the screen only after I mentioned about it. You look at objects, ignoring space between them. The empty space is around you at this very moment – when you are reading these words – but I am sure you still find difficult to include it in your awareness.
Similarly, in the background of our lives there is nothing to look forward to, there is nothing to lose or gain. All actions and excitements are in the foreground. The background is a lot less exciting and often simply boring. However, only people who depend on focusing find the boredom uncomfortable.
I believe unawareness of space and sensitivity to boredom are the greatest indicators of how badly we are addicted to focusing. Sadly, most of us do not realise it.
Sadly, because habitual focusing has very nasty consequences.
First, we must agree that staying focused on important matters helped us to develop our civilisations and science. However, as well as being efficient and productive, focusing our attention can make us exhausted, because it requires a lot of energy to sustain.
This is because when we become dependent on focusing, we continuously live in the stress mode without realising it. This is also a reason why we respect people who are able to perform while staying focused for long hours, like doctors, engineers, lawyers and teachers. We know it is very hard and they often commit a lot to do it, exposing themselves to a burnout.
PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL PAIN
It also explains why we become drained of energy, staying involuntarily focused on physical or emotional pain. Pain, anxiety, obsessions and compulsions are examples of tricks that nature uses to make us focus on issues which are stuck in the background. We have no choice but to include them into our awareness.
The more unwilling we are to notice them, the harder they compete for our attention and the pain or anxiety becomes stronger. Yet, it is continuous involuntary focusing which makes us tired, depressed or convinced that our life is not worth living any more.
NOT NOTICING WHAT IS REALLY IMPORTANT
Sometimes our focus becomes so narrow that we find it hard to add anything else to it. It happens when we try hard to make progress and to move things forward. We can be so focused on a problem or a goal that we push everything (or everyone) else out of our awareness and we stop noticing it.
Sadly, it can happen to our children, loving partners, our health, our real passions, or every day life, and we are not aware of passing years. When we are very focused, we can also miss opportunities which are emerging out of our focus.
FEELING OF SEPARATENESS
Unawareness of space makes us believe that reality is filled by separated objects and there is nothing between them. We see everything (including our life, body and partners) as an object. We can have it or lose it. We fear death (vanishing as an object) so we strive to look young, fit, strong and there is the whole industry attached to this fear. Ignoring the common background and focusing on differences, enables us to declare war or to provoke arguments, to trigger jealousy, rage or hate and sometimes makes us feel very lonely.
The fact is, that the simple act of including space into our awareness can help us to realise that everything is already connected and gently vibrates in ideal harmony.
Could it be so simple?
Were you aware of space while enjoying the sunset at a beach, or standing on hills and looking at the horizon. Somehow you felt blessed and euphoric admiring a big panoramic view in front of your face. There was a lot of space around you but you did not notice it, did you? Could it be space which made you feel so free and expanded?
WHAT IT MEANS TO DIFFUSE ATTENTION ?
I suggested earlier that you can imagine a narrow focus like a ray of light which illuminates a part of your reality.
Imagine you are in a dark forest and you direct this light at trees in front of you. You see them clearly but the rest of the forest stays dark. Now, imagine making this ray of light wider and wider and seeing more trees and other objects in front and around you.
Then imagine that apart from seeing, you start hearing all sounds. You are aware of everything, what you see and hear at the same time.
Then if you kept diffusing your attention you would simultaneously start noticing sensations coming from your body like hunger or maybe slight excitement.
Then you could include into your awareness smells, flavours and your thoughts which are present at that moment.
The last element of your reality which would probably have stayed unnoticed would be the empty space in front and around you. This is because it is invisible to you.
However, you must agree, space is as real as everything else.
Once you become fluent in keeping your attention diffused you will discover that there is no difference between you and the rest of the reality. There is no foreground and background. Everything becomes one. This is when the magic starts and you are not in emergency mode any more, and your mind and physiology become ideally balanced.
Practicing diffusing attention helps us to start noticing what is happening in the background of our life and discover that there is always a lot of love and harmony around us. It can really help when we approach difficult times. Also physical pain and anxiety, once attended together with the space around them, can diminish or lessen significantly.
When you know how to diffuse your attention you can notice more connections between many elements of your reality. These connections are always present but they are invisible for those who ignore the background. It helps you to find new solutions and to be creative.
HOW CAN YOU DO IT ?
You can practice diffusing your attention in every moment of your life. You can do it whilst reading, eating, waiting, moving, dancing, loving, when you are in pain or anxious. In all these situations you can exercise a capacity of your attention.
You can practice diffusing your attention in three stages.
BECOME SIMULTANEOUSLY AWARE OF MANY SENSATIONS WHICH ARE AVAILABLE TO YOU
It may sound like multitasking but it is not that. It is not about redirecting your attention from one object to another but diffusing it. Say you are reading these words while noticing sounds around you (hum of the fridge, or birds singing outside the window). You can add to it the feelings coming from your hands or taste of the tea you are drinking now. The main trick here is to stay aware of all these sensations at the same time. Truly, you can add on as many sensations as you like.
BECOME AWARE OF SPACE AND SILENCE ONLY
The second stage is becoming aware of space and silence only as a universal background. For example, you can become aware of the white space on this page and ignore the letters. Similarly you can become aware of the space around you (also the space behind you). You can listen to the silence between spoken words and notice silence between your thoughts. With time you will notice there is a lot of space and silence in your life. Once your mind quiets down you will start appreciate these moments and there will be many of them every day.
PRACTICE SIMULTANEOUS AWARENESS OF THE WHOLE REALITY (FOREGROUND AND BACKGROUND TOGETHER)
The final step is practicing simultaneous awareness of the foreground and the background. It can also be practiced and mastered. You can try this short exercise now to get an idea of how it could feel.
Can you become aware of space which is between you and the screen you are reading from now? Do it now, please. Keep reading and become aware of space between these words and space between the lines of words? Do not stop reading and become aware of space in front and around the screen at the same time. There is also some space behind the screen. Become aware of it and feel your shoulders gently dropping now. Become aware of space on both sides of you. There is a lot of space around us all the time but we tend to ignore it. Stay aware of space on both sides of you and become aware of space below and above you. Feel the muscles around your eyes softly relaxing. Stay aware of space and keep reading.
In this short exercise you have diffused your attention between this what you saw (lines of text), your body (shoulders, eyes) and space around you. I hope if felt nice. I know, for most of us it is not easy to diffuse attention just like that. After all, we have trained ourselves to narrow focus for many years. Fortunately, when regularly practiced, it becomes quite easy and brings a noticeable change in a very short time. It helps to deal with unwanted feelings and pain. You can become more creative and fall asleep whenever you like. I also believe it is a very good style of meditation.
The best way to start practicing diffusing your attention is trying the exercises we recorded for you.
Continue to this post.