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Choosing What We Grow

The power of intentional attention.

Key points

  • Our actions and our awareness are constantly shaping our habits and experience.
  • We can choose what we notice (and what we do) in order to influence that process.
  • It can be helpful to think of this as adding in, rather than subtracting away.

This post was written with Josh Bartok.

"Every single moment of consciousness is a moment of practice, whether we like it or not. We are practicing to become ourselves. The important question is really just how much we want to participate in the process." –Andrew Olendzki, Unlimiting Mind

Source: Josh Bartok, used with permission
Source: Josh Bartok, used with permission

In my previous post, I shared adrienne maree brown’s quote, “What we pay attention to grows,” and shared how I used that perspective to make my commute a more positive experience. Here I’m going to examine how that principle can (and does) shape all aspects of our life. As Andrew Olendski says above, everything we do with our body, mouth, and mind—and particularly what we bring our consciousness to—builds the habits that make up our experience. So: how can we make choices that enhance this process of “becom[ing] ourselves”?

One way this plays out in my own life is that when I bring my attention, again and again—through ruminating on or railing against—to people or situations that frustrate or hurt me, my sense of frustration and hurt grows. It comes to dominate more of my inner and outer experience, taking up more and more space. While it is of course helpful to notice these feelings and receive information from them, that doesn't mean that it is helpful to continually feed those feelings with my ongoing attention, rehearsing conversations or experiences again and again.

When I instead (or also) bring attention to people or situations that are joyful, or caring, or kind, my sense of connection, wholeness, and belonging grow and I am more able to live into and enact these values throughout my life. I am also more able to take skillful action to address areas of injustice and harm, the exact kinds of things that so easily (and unproductively) consume my attention. My expanded attention helps these valued experiences to grow so that I have even more that I can attend to; it’s like watering and fertilizing a plant’s first emerging shoots.

When I cultivate these experiences, I become more open and flexible in ways that allow me to be more effective when I do choose to turn my attention to experiences of harm and frustration. This practice allows me to be more grounded and balanced, which makes more space for me to choicefully take actions and offer responses, rather than impulsively reacting without any element of choice ever being involved.

How can we expand our attention?

What we attend to is a habit, and upsetting situations naturally grab our attention. So, if we don’t bring intention to this process, we will naturally notice and focus on things that are upsetting through the force of conditioned habit. The first step in expanding our attention is practicing noticing what we are attending to while we are attending to it. We can use different strategies to indicate times that we should check in to see what we are attending to:

  • Set specific times of day like morning, noon, evening, and bedtime.
  • Check in when we transition from one task to another or one setting to another.
  • Check in at times when we feel tension in our bodies or any kind of discomfort.
  • Check in when our moods are down or irritable.
  • Check in after the fact when we notice we have taken actions or said things we later regret.

When we notice that our attention is focused on the negative, we can consciously choose to gently expand the field of our attention. We can do this in numerous ways, such as:

  • Expanding our sensory awareness and noticing sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or sensations with curiosity.
  • Making a point of noticing moments of joy, connection, care, learning, wonder, gratitude, awe, or satisfaction throughout our days.
  • Making a list (mental or written) of things we appreciated, enjoyed, or felt grateful for at the end of the day.

Each time we intentionally guide our attention, we are strengthening those habits of attention and weakening the habits of focusing solely on the distressing aspects of our lives. So we can practice again and again and again. In this way, we can gradually grow the parts of our lives we have been ignoring by watering them with our attention–and in this way, whole gardens can begin to flourish.

As we do this, it’s important that we don’t try to push away the stressful things that grab our attention. Those are part of our lives as well, and trying to push away what cannot be pushed away won’t change that and it will actually make us more entangled with them. The pain we feel from life circumstances and events is real and should be choicefully honored as well.

For me, it’s helpful to imagine that I am widening my attention so that although I have all the stressful, painful, and frustrating things still, I am also taking in the things that feel rewarding or meaningful. And this has, for me, led to a richer, fuller experience of my life.

So: What do you want to water with your attention today?


brown, adrienne maree. (2017), Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico, California: AK Press.

Olendzki,A. (2010). Unlimiting Mind: The Radically Experiential Psychology of Buddhism. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.

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