Attention

Mindfulness Is Mind Training

You can develop the skill of keeping your attention where you want it.

Posted Oct 30, 2018

CC0 Creative Commons
Source: CC0 Creative Commons

The human mind is a gifted and convincing storyteller.

On any given day, when you’re brushing your teeth in the morning at home alone in your bathroom, are you really in your bathroom or are you somewhere else? And are you alone, or are other people there with you? How much of your attention is actually focused on brushing your teeth versus the anticipated events of the day ahead or something else completely unrelated to what you’re doing in that moment? 

How many times have you been driving and missed your intended turn or exit, or came close to missing it, because you weren’t paying enough attention to the here and now? How many fender benders and other more serious traffic accidents occur because drivers are mentally somewhere else rather than focused on the present moment? Not being present-centered interferes with attention and performance to the point where it can become a form of impairment.

Our minds are like an untrained puppy, running all over, not listening, rapidly stopping and starting, changing direction repeatedly, chewing on things, making messes, startling easily and even more easily getting distracted (squirrel!), searching for the next interesting/attractive/pleasurable object, and leaving puddles and piles where it’s not supposed to.

The human mind continuously produces thoughts and images, the majority of which have nothing to do with our present-moment circumstances. These thoughts and images grab our attention and run with it, dragging us from one thought to the next, often in rapid-fire succession. This unremitting mental activity regularly takes the form of stories our heads tell us, seductively drawing our attention away from what we intend to focus on and what we are doing. 

Many of these stories are compelling tales that pull us back into the past—to events from earlier today, yesterday, last week, last month, last year, or many years ago; or they propel us forward into the future to things that might or (in all likelihood) might not happen—later today, tomorrow, in two weeks, in six months, or years from now. They invariably distract and detract from our ability to pay conscious attention and respond skillfully to our current circumstances, whether we’re holding a conversation, driving, interacting with our kids, shopping, reading, cleaning the house, working on a project for our job or school, or writing a book.

This phenomenon occurs with such stunning regularity that for many, if not most, people, it’s standard operating procedure. Most of the time, we don’t even realize we’re engaged in it. It happens automatically and unconsciously. We are somewhere other than here and now, and it disconnects us from life in the present. When this disconnect happens, wherever we are physically, we are somewhere else mentally and emotionally. And, whomever we’re with, we may be mentally and emotionally with other people altogether. 

When we aren’t paying conscious attention to the present moment, we are effectively sleepwalking, even when we’re wide-awake. When we’re focused on the past or the future, we are cut off from the possibilities inherent in this moment—unable to see and experience it for what it is, separated from the opportunities it presents. Whenever we’re unconsciously in the grip of the there and then, it’s impossible to be skillful in the here and now.

Mindfulness practice trains the mind to come when you call it, to sit and stay. After a time (often an impressively short time) it will naturally wander off, and when it does, you can notice, call it to come back, and it will. Through mindfulness practices, you can develop greater present-moment awareness, along with the ability to direct—and keep—your attention where you want it. The more you anchor your attention in the present, tuned in to the realities of your current situation, the more opportunities you have to make wise choices and engage in intentional and skillful responses to the ebb and flow of life.

There are many ways in which staying in the present—in this moment, right here and right now—promotes health and healing. It frees you from the prisons of the past and fantasies of the future. It bestows respite from being trapped in the emotions associated with past events, such as resentment, guilt, shame, and regret, as well as those linked with the future, primarily anxiety and fear.

Everyone has a past, and it’s okay and even healthy to visit it from time to time in order to better understand it, put it in perspective, and learn from it. And obviously, looking at and planning for the future is important and positive. But when you spend so much time in the past or the future that your conscious focus is consistently diverted from the here and now, it becomes problematic. Besides, until someone learns how to change the past, it’s as good as it’s ever going to get. It’s impossible to change what happened yesterday or know with any certainty what will happen tomorrow.

Fortunately, the potential for learning, growing, and healing exists in each and every moment. Even though you may have spent the last few minutes somewhere else—in the past or the future—as soon as you become aware of it, you can make a conscious choice to shift your attention to the present.

In 12-step circles, it’s often said that recovery occurs one day at a time. Life also takes place a day at a time. In truth, it happens one moment at a time. Life is unfurling in this exact moment, right here and right now. Present-centered awareness makes us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually available to utilize the possibilities inherent in this moment and the opportunities for learning and growth it presents. Mindfulness and the related practice of meditation are among the most effective pathways to stay in the moment.

If mindfulness is unfamiliar to you, the following simple exercise will give you a practical sense of the experience of it. If you’re conversant with mindfulness, as you know, there’s no such thing as too much practice. 

Focus your attention on your breath. Consciously observe the natural flow of your breathing. Follow your breath as it comes in on your inhale and goes out on your exhale. If your mind starts to wander, gently bring it back to the sensation of your breathing and what you see, hear, or feel.

  1. Look around and notice three things you can see; closely observe their size, shape, color, and texture.
  2. Listen carefully and notice three things you can hear. While your initial reaction may be that there aren’t three different sounds within your range of hearing, if you focus your attention (closing your eyes may help) and quiet your mind, you’ll be able to find them. Tune in to the quality and volume of these sounds
  3. Notice three things you can feel in contact with your body (your feet on the ground, your clothing on certain parts of your body, the sun on your face, the air against your skin, your back against the chair, etc.). Connect to the nuances of these tactile sensations.

In and around 12-step meetings, people describe the process of recovery as simple but far from easy. Mindfulness is also fundamentally simple in concept and practice; however, it is lightyears away from easy to accomplish. Remaining present-centered is an ongoing challenge. Even people with years of practice (myself included) frequently stray unintentionally, however briefly, into the past or the future. 

In fact, because the ongoing parade of thoughts our minds produce is so hypnotic, it’s almost impossible to “stay” in this moment constantly. Consequently, training the mind requires consciously recognizing when you drift away from the here and now and using that awareness to return to it. The work lies not so much in staying in the present moment as in returning to it—over and over and over again. In this way, the journey is the destination.

Copyright 2018 Dan Mager, MSW

Author of Roots and Wings: Mindful Parenting in Recovery and Some Assembly Required: A Balanced Approach to Recovery from Addiction and Chronic Pain