Paying Attention

I grow weary under the onslaught of information that pervades our wifi world. It is no longer possible to fully participate in work or play, professional or personal relationships and growth without using a screen. Passively (as in television viewing) or interactively (smart devices and computers) we are bombarded with information – images and messages in cascading collage fed incessantly onto the screens we rely on to participate in all aspects of life. Many of us are taking “media breaks” in an effort to counteract the deluge. The breaks, however, are only temporary because modern life demands screen-based interaction.

Attention is a sort of 4 dimensional peripheral vision. Our attention receives information from our senses – our 3D lives – and also receives the thoughts and emotions of our interior lives. Attention can be drawn, directed, focussed, and trained, but we seldom make disciplined use of it. Our attention is demanded and we are paying attention – but are we aware of how and where and why?  We are attention spendthrifts, paying attention without consciously managing how the payment impacts us.

There is an unfortunate faddishness to the term “mindfulness” as it is often co-opted and applied to quick-fix promises and product marketing; but, in essence, mindfulness meditation is a discipline for training attention.

 Often, training attention begins by placing it on a single, limited sensory experience and practicing returning it there when we realize it has wandered. (Many mindful-mediation practices will direct participants to place their attention on the sensation of their breath as it moves in and out.) Daily practice of this attention training exercise opens an awareness that our attention acts as a filter, a way of receiving and organizing information. It also teaches us that we can take control over how our attention is directed and focussed, what gets our attention, what quality of attention and how much we’ll pay.

Meditation and mindfulness are often touted as “stress relief” practices. I agree with this, up to a point. I have found that training my attention has not “reduced stress” so much as it has altered my relationship with stressful stimuli. It has opened in me an awareness and space for making choices about how I interpret and respond to information and messages. I am less likely to unthinkingly accept the meaning assigned by others to information received via my senses and more likely to evaluate my interior thoughts and emotions before responding with intention (rather than reflexively). Mindfulness meditation is not a tranquilizer for muting awareness of stress. Training our attention helps us be more disciplined in paying attention.

More disciplined spending of this all important resource requires slowing down, questioning our own instantaneous reactions, and focusing a closer look at what is triggering our emotional and mental engagement. If we don’t take dominion over our own attention, then it will become the tool of others who seek to manipulate us. If we do not put ourselves in the driver’s seat, the vacancy will be filled by someone else. They will feed us their views, maps, directions, illusions and create our world and lives for us. Or, we can look again, take back the power to decide what the input might mean and make our own choices.

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