Focusing on What Matters, Moment By Moment
We in the modern West assume that the normal mind is a healthy one. But a “healthy mind” is still subject to many types of distress, including depression, anxiety, frustration, restlessness, boredom, and resentment. Only when such imbalances are excessive are we advised to seek counseling and drug therapy. The implication is that unhappiness is part of life, and we’re to make the best of it and learn from it, while happiness comes from outside: from sensual enjoyments, possessions, other people, or God.
But many of the world’s contemplative traditions teach that the normal mind is afflicted in various ways; that since it so readily brings us suffering and anxiety, it can’t be deemed healthy. One symptom of a dis-eased mind is that the attention oscillates between obsessive-compulsive states (grasping onto thoughts and emotions) and slipping into stupor.
When the mind is subject to such attentional dysfunction, its emotional ground state is dissatisfaction, for which we take solace in outer and inner pleasurable stimuli. By refining the attention we can make the mind serviceable and thereby rediscover the sense of well-being that emerges spontaneously from a balanced mind. The contemplative traditions of the world have long known this, but our contemporary civilization seems to have forgotten it.
Creating Your Universe
The importance of the attention has not been overlooked in the modern world. The American psychologist and philosopher William James maintained, “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will.” The role of attention is crucial in determining the type of world we experience. When we fail to pay attention to some aspect of the world around us or of our inner lives, those facets of reality do not vanish. They continue to exist and may profoundly influence us. But the things and events we focus on make up the world we perceive and think we dwell in. This means, as James commented, that “Each of us literally chooses, by his ways of attending to things, what sort of a universe he shall appear to himself to inhabit.” In short, for the moment, what we attend to is reality.
The role of attention in education is obviously crucial since students who can’t pay attention won’t learn. So training the attention should be a primary emphasis, especially in elementary school, to help students learn and think more effectively. As James declared, “An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.” In his research more than a century ago, he found that geniuses of all kinds shared one mental trait, despite the wide range of their individual brilliance: They all possessed an exceptional capacity for sustained, voluntary attention. The advantages of this capacity are evident for all human endeavors, including athletics, education, business, the arts, and personal relationships. My wife taught Tiger Woods at Stanford University before he emerged as a superstar of golf. What most impressed her was his powerful ability to focus – a skill that has evidently contributed to his recent achievements.
Releasing Our Genius
Can this capacity for sustained, vivid, focused attention be cultivated, or is the faculty hardwired? Given the importance of this question, it’s remarkable that modern psychologists neglected the field for so long. With the recent increase of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it seems clear that our capacity for sustained attention can decline. But with mental training, can we actually correct attention disorders, as opposed to managing their symptoms with drug therapy?
For those with a “normal” capacity for attention, can training optimize our performance in whatever we do? To some degree, we may all have an innate genius for some activity, whether it’s parenthood, sports, business, art, mathematics, or science. If attention deficit or hyperactivity can obscure our native genius, it would follow that a highly developed capacity for attention would allow us to tap our inner resources more fully. James recognized the importance of these questions, but he despondently concluded, “It is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.” While finding ways to refine the attention has not been a theme of modern psychology, it has long been a central concern of many contemplative traditions. The exercises on the facing page is taken from these ancient traditions can be readily practiced, regardless of philosophical or religious beliefs. They vary in subtlety, from the accessible to the more challenging. Most, perhaps all, may be taught to children and even introduced in the classroom for a minute at a time as “sponge activities,” to soak up time between other scheduled activities.
Five Exercises for Refining Your Attention
1. While sitting, standing, lying down, or walking, focus your attention on your senses, especially vision and hearing, and observe the colors, shapes, and sounds presented to you. Observe with a quiet mind, attending just to sensory phenomena, as opposed to your conceptual and emotional reactions to them. This is mindfulness, or “bare attention,” in which you settle your attention in a purely witnessing, or observing, mode, instead of being carried away by discursive thoughts. This exercise is especially enjoyable in a natural environment, where you may be thoroughly present with the sights and sounds, tactile sensations, and fragrances of nature. Agitation subsides and you can savor the serenity of simply being present.
2. Walk slowly and let your attention come to rest on the tactile sensations throughout your body, carefully noting the sensations inside your body and in its contact with the environment. With each step, feel your feet coming into contact with the ground and rising from it, and be aware of the rest of your body as you move. This practice literally “grounds” your attention in the here and now.
3. Either sit in a comfortable chair with your back straight and your body relaxed or lie face up on a soft surface, such as your bed. Let your awareness come to rest in the field of tactile sensations throughout your body. Without trying to control your respiration, observe each inhalation and exhalation, noting whether it is long or short. Especially while breathing out, relax your body and mind more and more deeply, without losing the clarity of your attention. Let your mindfulness settle in this field of sensations, changing from moment to moment with each breath. Intermittently observe your own mind with your faculty of introspection, noting whether your attention has strayed into distraction or whether it is growing listless and dull. If you have become distracted, relax more deeply and redirect your awareness back to the field of tactile sensations. When you see that your mind is becoming dull, arouse your awareness by paying closer attention to the full in-and-out breaths. This exercise is especially effective in soothing the body and mind and stabilizing the attention.
4. Sit comfortably or lie face up, leaving your eyes at least partially open, and rest your gaze in the space in front of you, without focusing on any object. Direct your attention to the field of experience of your mind, where thoughts, images, and emotions take place. Note whatever mental events occur. Watch them arise and pass, without identifying with them, controlling them, or judging them. Rest your awareness without distraction, without being carried away by any of these discursive thoughts, and without grasping onto any of them. Just let them be. In this way you let your mind enter into free associations, and even while the mind is active, your attention remains still and vigilant. Focus on the events arising to your mind’s eye, but now and then check to see whether your attention is slipping away into distraction or dullness. As in the previous exercise, if your attention becomes agitated, relax more deeply, and if it becomes lax, pay closer attention to the comings and goings of the mind.
5. In either the sitting or the supine posture, gaze into space in front of you. Deeply relaxing your mind, let your attention come to rest in the simple awareness of being aware. In this exercise, there is really nothing to do. You don’t focus your attention on anything. You know that you are aware, and settle your attention in that knowing, with no other object. With this practice, you come to an immediate awareness of the nature of your own consciousness. In doing so, you discover a kind of stillness and luminosity that are innate to awareness. There is no need to still your mind or cultivate attentional vividness, for the very nature of consciousness itself is still and luminous. This is a method that leads to profound self-knowledge.
By practicing these exercises, you can gradually overcome compulsive mental scattering and lethargy and refine your attention so that you can direct it where you will, attending to those aspects of reality that you feel are important and worthy of your attention. Such techniques for training and refining the attention are deeply relevant to the cultivation of mental health, to the scientific exploration of the mind, and to the pursuit of genuine happiness by means of contemplative insight into the nature of consciousness. They open the door to an extraordinary sense of well-being that arises from a mind that is healthy and balanced. September 2019–