When I grow up
I wanna be famous
I wanna be a star
I wanna be in movies
When I grow up
I wanna see the world
Drive nice cars
I wanna have groupies
Humankind is a very successful animal. Some two hundred thousand years ago, the entire human race consisted of a few thousand people living in Southern Africa. In the ensuing years, we have made full use of our adaptability and survival skills, and have spread to every corner of the globe on the way becoming the world’s dominant species. Our current population is heading for eight billion. Much of this success is due to our ability to survive against the odds.
The systems developed by the process of evolution to detect, and then react to danger, have stood us in good stead. However, these systems, designed to pick up the early signs of danger, can be very unhelpful in the digital age.
Many function out of our conscious awareness. They monitor the outside world, and direct the conscious mind to focus on any stimulus that might indicate danger. Such stimuli also arise within the mind, and if we are not careful these thoughts can trigger a response that is both unwanted, and out of proportion to any threat.
There are six steps to developing a more mindful approach to how we improve our focus and attention.
The first step is to become aware of how we currently focus on the world around us. If we are to develop a sense of control over our experience, it is vital that we decide where to let our focus rest. When our focus is drawn to the negative aspects of our world, we become anxious or depressed, and struggle to function in our everyday environment.
What we focus on becomes our reality
At times, the negative aspects of our experience are vitally important – no one would suggest that we should ignore genuine dangers. What is being recommended is that we should redirect our focus away from these negatives, especially when it is unnecessary or unhelpful to lpay attention to them, and instead focus on the positive elements.
When we allow our focus to fall on the things that are going well, we become more capable of functioning in ways that are helpful for creating happiness, and well being in our life. Whatever attracts our focus, whether through conscious choice, or unconsciously, through the systems developed to help us survive, becomes the likely recipient of our attention.
During our evolution, humans have survived in a multitude of dangerous environments, one result of this selective training is that we have become adept at changing our focus from one potential danger to another, and doing so very rapidly. This hard won ability underlies the modern tendency to distractibility. A combination of digital overload, and excessive stimulus, drags our focus all over the place and this results in the condition known as Attention Deficit Trait.
We are better off when we pay attention to what is happening in the moment, and attend to the reality of our current experience. Too often, however, we give our attention to our thoughts, and their associated emotional responses. These thoughts tend to have negative emotional connotations, and this can trigger a fight or flight response to an “imagined” situation.
Thoughts which are based on our past experiences, future fears, or a combination of both, can be demanding of our attention because they exert a strong emotional pull. When we pay attention to such thoughts and their associated emotions, we cannot focus on those that are based in the reality of our present experience.
This is where our abilities to pay attention, and to be aware come into play.
ATTENTION and AWARENESS
When we pay attention, it means that we have consciously decided to keep our focus on one trigger, and then we do our best to remain focussed on that stimulus. Our ability to attend is closely related to our ability to be aware.
Attention is the ability to apply sustained focus.
To pay attention in this fashion, we need to be aware when our focus wanders, and then to bring our attention back. Awareness, particularly self-awareness, is seen as one of the hall marks of a conscious mind.
Our ability to apply sustained attention is limited. The good news is that it can be trained to last longer. Worryingly, one article published recently, suggests that the human ability to pay attention is suffering in the digital age. Twenty years ago the attention span of the average westerner was recorded as 12 seconds, when repeated this year it is down to 8 seconds.
The same criteria applied to goldfish gave them an attention span of 9 seconds. Do the maths.
One good way to train the mind to attend more effectively is the practice of mindfulness.
Being mindful requires us to place, and hold our attention where we want it to rest. Mindfulness involves the deliberate process of using awareness to notice when our mind wanders, to bring it back to the object of our attention. It is a process that is performed without judging ourselves, or the events that are unfolding around us. We do this on purpose, through the conscious direction of our awareness.
This is a process of seeing things as they are, without adding our own commentary or opinions about the meaning of what we are experiencing. We become aware of how we feel, think, and act under certain conditions. It is working to develop awareness of what we are doing, as we do it, and not allowing ourselves to coast along on autopilot. It is a process by which we actively shape our mind.
The first element of this process is to observe our experience as it unfolds.
When we are mindful, we set out to observe our moment by moment experience. We notice what happens in both our external and internal worlds. We do our best to simply see what happens without adding an extra layer of commentary to our experience. First, we become aware of a stimulus in our environment, then we name it, and then, more often than not, start to categorise it as well.
We hear a sound, decide that it is being made by a car, and then add our opinion – that it is being driven by a maniac. It is the third part of this process that causes us the greatest problems, knocking our mind out of balance by the addition of an extra layer of information that is often wrong, and nearly always irrelevant. Because we react in ways that are biased by our unconscious mind and past experience, we are unlikely to consider that the car is rushing to the nearby maternity hospital. Two possibilities that have opposite effects on our emotional experience.
When we observe our experience, as part of being mindful, we start to catch these extraneous thoughts and emotions earlier and earlier. This allows us to practice the next step, and to allow these thoughts to pass without indulging them.
Throughout human history, many philosophers have pointed out that it is not events that cause the greatest distress to people, but it is how we think about them that causes us to be unhappy. If it rains this may, or may not, be a problem. To a farmer whose crops are in danger of dying from lack of water, it will be wonderful; if it is the day on which we chose to get married, a catastrophe. If it is the farmer getting married it might be both.
Too often we seem to respond, almost automatically, to events around us. If someone does not wave to us in the street it is obvious that we must have offended them in some way, or that they are just plain, bloody rude. We fail to notice that they did not see us, and manage to forget that they did say hello, ten minutes later in the supermarket. Through the practice of mindfulness we can catch our own personal, self-defeating thoughts, deny them oxygen, and watch them dissipate.
When we unhook from this running commentary we can be present in the here and now, enjoying the conversation in the supermarket, and not beating up ourselves, or our friends, for some imagined slight or wrongdoing.
As we do this more and more, we are able to respond to the current situation, leave behind the unwanted stimulus that has become the centre of our focus, and return our attention to the place where we wish it to rest.
When we notice that we have become distracted, we are able to start again in our mindful approach to life. It for this reason that it is called a practice, because we do it over and over. With each repetition we get better at being mindful, and can gradually leave the unhelpful, automatic thoughts and feelings behind. We can live more freely, experience less stress, improve our concentration and earn higher grades.
If we can become more mindful people, we will be healthier, less prone to the diseases of the modern world such as depression or diabetes, we will find that our relationships are more rewarding, find greater enjoyment in our work, and so so with greater satisfaction and greater productivity, and what is more, we will even live longer.
Andy Warhol famously believed that everyone should be famous for fifteen minutes. It is clear that not everyone who finds themselves in such a place would agree with him. However, if we can spend fifteen minutes every day being FAMOUS, we will garner much greater benefits for our health and happiness than will come from a brief period as the darling of the paparazzi.