I guess you know, a good diet, regular exercise and a good sleep every night can keep you reasonably healthy. However, not many people are aware of another important element of a healthy lifestyle which is balanced attention. In this article I will explain why you should take care of your attention and how it can keep you healthy.
But first, I would like you to realise that your attention is:
A good mother keeps her baby in the centre of her attention. A good teacher pays undivided attention to his/her pupils, and a good worker fully concentrates on a task. You recognise a good, caring doctor by feeling how s/he pays attention to you and your problem. Have you ever been to a nursing home? Full of elders forgotten by their families. What they dream of is someone who would simply notice them and spend some time with them.
Your caring, undivided attention is often the best gift you can give to someone.
Have you ever dreamed about fame, being popular and recognised? Most of us admire people who attract our attention like actors, musicians, politicians, famous scientists. For many, it is an indicator of personal success. Many dream about being popular and many of us believe fame can bring happiness. This common belief is often up against many reports of real celebrities being very unhappy, addicted to drugs or even committing suicide. I would say that the biggest desires of many people are money, power and… the attention of others.
A SOURCE OF ENERGY
Can you remember music stars or sports performers saying how lifted and energised they felt in the middle of a scene or stadium performing to crowds of people. They often describe shivers of energy going through their bodies. Have you heard about elderly couples passing away one shortly after another, feeling as if they would be ‘unplugged’ after their loved one passed away. Would you feel down, unworthy and miserable if no one cared about you? It is enough to just spend some time with your friend to feel better. Just to be noticed and appreciated, you do not even need to talk. It means that you can energise another person just by paying attention to her/him.
Think for a moment, what do people who are called celebrities have in common? For example, Paris Hilton, Kate Moss or Victoria Beckham. What gives them the status of celebrity? What are they really paid for?
Well, in my opinion, it is an ability to pull in your attention and keep you focused. The more people focus on them or on whatever they create, the better they are paid. Every viewer, listener or supporter counts. It is because the more people’s attention they attract the better they are paid by those who want more adverts. It means, your attention is a product and it has its price.
Your attention is one of the most important resources you have. It is available to you every moment of your life, including THIS moment. You should take a good care of WHAT and HOW you attend and there are important reasons for it.
Why does it matter WHAT you attend ?
Everything you focus on shapes your personality. It includes your first toy, your parents, school mates, everything you hear, smell, touch, taste or look at. It does not have to be a big shift. It might be a gradual process, small changes which add up after days, months or years. For example, a short encounter with a vicious dog can make you fearful of dogs for the rest of your life, growing up in a quiet neighbourhood can make your life in a city difficult or your attitude towards the opposite sex can be directly linked to your first kiss.
It happens moment after moment and it has never stopped happening.
I am sure you have heard about positive thinking, stopping negative self-talk or a film The Secret. These are methods which delve into the same idea and encourage you to focus on good things in the hope it will change you and your life in a good way. They almost say ‘you can create yourself and your world by consciously choosing what to focus on’. This is why you should be in control of what you focus on because it becomes a part of your personality, a part of you.
However simple it appears, it is often not so easy. The choice of what you attend is, in truth, often taken away from you by people who want to influence your thinking, feeling and behaviours. They are called marketers, promotors, spin doctors etc. They know how to re-direct your attention to benefit them (or their clients) not you. They usually try to sell or hide something from you. Good examples here, are widespread advertising, or a common belief that the tragic events of 9/11 involved two buildings, while in truth three sky-scrapers were demolished (buildings number one, two and seven).
I hope it is clear for you now that you should take care of what you focus on. One could say ‘what you attend you become‘. Make a conscious choice before you pay attention to a person or to a piece of information.
You should also remember that your attending time is limited to your waking hours. When you mechanically attend everything which is pushed in front of you, it makes your attention shallow and erratic, and your personality follows.
Why does it matter HOW you attend ?
Most people associate paying attention with focusing. You can focus on something you see, hear, smell, taste or touch. In fact, it is a very common, but not the only style of attending. You have a choice to focus on a flower and see its tiny details or you can diffuse your attention and see the flower together with the whole background behind and around it.
Focusing requires dividing everything to smaller pieces, which we are able to attend one by one. It help us to deal with ‘stuff’ and to push things forward. When we focus we can see things clearly and we know where we are heading. It makes us efficient and productive. Focusing belongs to ‘the reality of doing‘.
Diffusing lets us relax and see the big picture. We are not focused on anything in particular. We simultaneously attend everything and nothing. When we diffuse we can fully connect ourselves to the world because our internal chatter (thinking) stops. There is only pure awareness. Diffusing brings stillness and the sense of presence. It belongs to ‘ the reality of being‘.
According to Dr Fehmi, a neuroscientist and psychologist from Princeton, these two styles of attending have opposite effects on our mind and body. When we are focused we stimulate our ‘flight and fight’ response. When we diffuse our attention we activate the ‘rest and digest’ part of your physiology. According to Dr Fehmi most people overuse focusing and live in a never ending ‘alert mode’ most of their lives. This is why he recommends learning how to diffuse an attention, and balancing both styles.
You can diffuse your attention every time when there is nothing important to focus on. In this simple way you can regulate and balance your mind and physiology.
Dr Fehmi says, the best way to diffuse our attention ‘on the go’ is in becoming aware of the empty space which is always around you. Space has no colour, no smell or texture so there is nothing to focus on in space. Another simple way to diffuse is feeling sensations coming from both hands at the same time. You can always stay aware of space around you or feel your hands doing whatever you want to do. There are many moments in your day when you do not have to focus and you can practice diffusing (walking, eating, commuting to work). Though I would definitely advise against practicing it while driving a car !
You may find it difficult initially because we are so accustomed to continuous focusing. That is why you should practice mind exercises which are designed to help you learn how to diffuse your attention when you want. There is a choice of these exercises on Dr Fehmi’s and my website. The main difference between them is that my exercises are shorter (10-15 min) and there are designed to introduce people to diffusing and to bring a quick/noticeable change.
The next step in attention training is to learn how to focus while staying diffused. It is called attentional flexibility. However complicated it sounds, it is quite simple to do. It also has many practical applications like dissolving physical pain, releasing anxiety or boosting creativity. I am sure that learning how to make an attention flexible could change many people’s lives for the better.
You can check for yourself how diffusing attention feels from here.
Flexible attention is an ability to alternate between narrow attention (focused) and diffused attention (broad) or to apply both at the same time.
Narrowing makes us specific but requires dividing reality into smaller pieces (objects). Diffusing allows us to see the big picture and connect (immerse) with its elements.
Pain, anxiety and problems make the attention narrow and objective. We can self help ourselves by diffusing and immersing our attention.
Continue to this post.