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Adventures In Self Discovery To Transform Your Life


Chapter 5
Paying Attention


“Bright blue sky. Sparkles of sunlight on pine needles. Two goldfinches arguing over the bird feeder. Last sip of coffee. I really should have told the boss I was not willing to make changes in that report. He’d get upset, but... Blah. Blah. Blah. Where’d those finches go? Uh. Bird feeder’s empty. Coffee’s gone. Better go back to work.”


How much of what’s happening around us slips by unnoticed as we pay attention to the dramas in our heads? Or dramas on TV or a video game or a book for that matter? What is going on?

Pay Attention!
I know what attention is but I can’t tell you exactly what it is.

“Everyone knows what attention is...It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”

William James

Then he went on to write 16 more pages on the subject.

Attention is our most powerful tool. Attention is the way we bring our awareness to a focus and direct our actions. We can focus attention on our body, the outer world or on our inner thoughts, images and voices. Attention focuses on what matters most in the moment. Our attention gets drawn to anything that is large, loud or that changes. We notice and react. The real power that shapes our experience is our attention.

Attention is your most precious resource. The quality of your life depends on how and where you direct it. Your attention can be open to all your experience or focused on one thing. Try opening your attention to everything. Try concentrating your attention on one thing, say the period at the end of this sentence. Exclude everything else. I think of attention as the spotlight of awareness. It can go anywhere. Look at your right hand. Look up. Turn your attention to your left foot without looking at it. Remember a happy event. There is a sound that has been going on around you for some time which you haven’t noticed until now. You are managing your attention.

Your attention is always engaged with your experience. It's content changes in several important ways.

• Normal – moving around frequently from world to body to thoughts.

• Present – you are aware of what's happening in the moment. You direct the focus and intensity of your attention to what's important.

• Focussed – the borders of awareness narrow to exactly what you intend every moment. • Seeking – you have an unmet goal and a path that absorbs attention from time to time.

• Inner – a deep inner experience of consciousness.

• Pure – the experience of simply being without words or a 'self' involved.

Our brains are built to keep track of what’s going on around us and within our bodies. This takes place automatically and below conscious awareness. When something happens that we should know about, attention snaps to.

Look out for that tiger!.....bus!......mugger!

We notice. If interested, we pay closer attention, maybe take an action. As long as you are alive, your brain will bring feelings, thoughts, images and voices to your attention. You will automatically be alert for threats or for opportunities. Your whole being will focus on any that catch your attention.

Noticing is first and it is automatic. Our bodies scan and notice everything, against the background of memory. Anything that changes or that is new gets brought to attention. Noticing is here and now and leads to noticing more. Everything you notice is important.

Focusing attention requires narrowing your field of interest, not paying attention to something else. What we turned away from is still there. We are just not noticing. Attention has limits. Working memory can only hold so much.  Our babble of worries and fantasies shrink the space available for clear focusing. Not noticing is shutting off immediate experience, being somewhen else.

Attention gets drawn to whatever changes; movement, sounds, a change of light, a thought. When we are not focused our brain chatters, short, usually trivial, reflections. I find I have no control over what thoughts arise. Stuff just seems to drift up and catch my attention. The brain is built to to keep an active flow of something in our attention.

My attention moves without my willing it. Sometimes it is attracted by change, sometimes by my interest. I can choose to pay attention or move it elsewhere. I can choose the focus of my attention each moment.

You can stay open to what you notice or you can allow a curtain of memory and words to fall between the new and the known. When you slide a word over something that you are noticing, noticing shifts. You put a layer of meaning over your experience. Now you imagine you understand and can turn away from noticing. The sound of water on rocks tells us the stream is running. The flow of thoughts through our heads tells us our brain is running, no need to pay attention, just let them run on.

Here's an adventure (13) that will blow your mind. Take a short, slow walk, 100 feet anywhere. Look at everything, everywhere. Notice what you usually don't notice. Sounds, smells, wind, the feel of the ground. Look at shadows, reflections. Look at people. Look everybody in the eye, smile. Walk backwards. Experiment with being alive in a different way.

Attention Is The Source Of Your Power
Attention is the most valuable aptitude humans have. Babies scream for attention to get their need attended to. Parents 'give' or 'pay' attention to nurture the child. Parents 'demand' attention to get their child to act. People give attention like a gift and demand it like a crucial need. People will do anything to get attention. Witness Lady Gaga. Attention is the root of relationship, the source of all power. Money, power, sex, fame, status and security all depend on attention.

There is an economy of attention as there is for food or money. Attention is more powerful than money. Power depends on demanding attention then commanding action. You have no power unless and until another person pays attention and acknowledges it. Fame is accumulating attention, then feeding it. When nobody pays attention, you are a nobody. When everybody pays attention, you rule.

People are driven to seek attention. Paying attention to someone is a gift. Getting attention is deeply satisfying, a reward for your being and actions. “Look at me!” Receiving attention is a sign of status. Celebrities feed on attention. You can even get attention and your photo in the paper for showing up at a celebrity event. Attention is addictive. It drives its slaves to ever greater efforts to get attention. It drives those who fail to despair, even suicide.

In a group, attention moves around to reinforce the role and the value of each member. Status gets measured by attention. We experience attention hogs as cheaters that need to be restrained or punished. A leader's status depends on receiving and rewarding attention. Having power often leads to a failure to empathize. Acting superior separates and alienates underlings. Withdrawing attention strips power from a leader.

Paying attention to another person's feelings opens us to empathy and understanding. Trust depends on fairly sharing attention. Deep friendship depends on mutually shared attention. Friends trust that it will always be there. Full attention from another human is experienced as love. Listening without judgment or evaluation is a gift of love. The removal of attention is experienced as a loss, abandonment. Being ignored is like being shunned. How you direct your attention shapes your life and the lives of the people around you.

Your life is what you do or don’t pay attention to now. You can stop reacting to the past, by focusing on what you want next and become a creator of your experience. You cannot always be happy but you can stay focused in a positive, productive way and enjoy what comes next.

“To fill the hour––that is happiness.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Attention To What
My experience includes an outer world, my body and an inner space of images, speech and feelings. I am usually aware of everything around me. My attention gets attracted by words, images and feeling as they appear in my inner world. What gets attention comes around again. It's easy to get stuck in your thoughts. The trick is to keep control of attention and still stay open to new experience.

Paying attention excites some parts of your brain and suppresses others. Paying close attention will put an item into short term memory. Repeated or held attention will start to build it into long term memory. Negative thoughts can grab and hold attention even though nothing much is going on. Too much demand overloads attention and limits our control. We take in some kinds of information and shut out distractions. As our mind wanders our senses dim. A tight focus brings an intense, narrow sense of what's going on. The richness of life is  directly experienced by our body.

We focus on just the parts of the world that fit our needs, goals and plans of the moment. Thinking about how we're doing or ought to be doing switches attention away from action. We may stumble when performing an action. Nothing much going on is an invitation to turn attention inward. We'll focus on stories and problems, real or imagined. When we are not focused on something interesting, we drift back into the ongoing flow of the next-in-line thoughts and feelings.

The Power of Attention
Attention is the architect of our experience. It attaches to ideas, things and memories. Each time you get something or make something important you attach a bit of attention to it. You create a mental tension, a need to stay attached. Your attention is like a million armed octopus. Each tentacle is an attachment to something you made important and linked to memory. Each attachment defines who you are and also limits your experience in some way.
Your life is what you are paying attention to right now. Such as;

• working

• telling yourself a story

• fantasizing about the future

• playing with a concept

• deep inner absorption

• watching television

• checking your smartphone

• talking to friends

• driving to work

• watching a sunset


The quality of your experience is a function of your attention. A baby is aware of more stuff, more intensely than an adult. She hasn't yet closed down her experience with the filters of attention. The narrower and more intense you make attention, the less of the world you experience. Train yourself to do something well and you no longer need to pay attention. It becomes automatic.

Creating Your Self
Our power lies in choosing where to place our attention. When you are paying attention, you turn aside from distracting thoughts or feelings. You direct your attention toward where you want it to be. Your greatest power is to observe what is actually going on around you and in your thoughts and feelings. This simple pause starts the powerful process that creates an observer. You can detach and see how stuff works or you may change your point of view and move on. You can find yourself aware in the moment of what’s going on around you. Or, you can be totally focused on what you are doing and aware of only that.

Keep paying attention and a story will grow out of what you experience. Your brain will do this for imaginary experiences as well as real ones. Your inner theater is stuffed with these dramas that you use to give yourself pleasure or worries. When your attention turns inward to these stories, sharp focus on the moment gets lost. The inner dramas tend to overlay and distort reality. Acting on them often ends in disappointment or disaster.

The constant stimulus of a high speed, noisy, busy life is addictive. It makes us feel alive. Attention jumps from one thing to another. We are seldom able to stay focused for more than 3 seconds. Each shift in attention comes with a little hit of feel good chemistry. We come to need it and believe that the only good time is a busy time. The reverse of that process is learning to let go of the objects of attention and just be here. This allows you to create a space in your life that is full, yet not driven.

Mind wandering is an important skill. Letting the focus of attention just drift from feeling to feeling, thought to thought can be a source of creativity. Experiences blend and merge until something original emerges. Being a space case allows the Einstein in you to emerge.

Choosing is making the shift from attention to intention. It takes willpower to control the spotlight of attention. We consciously select what thoughts to think about, what actions to take or not take. This may be all we can consciously control. What happens if you just watch?  Let your thoughts and feelings arise without following or reacting or getting carried away by any of them. Let your attention be total and without direction. Can you do it? For how long?

Attention!!

Here is an adventure (14) to set yourself up for an open experience.


• Start with what’s happening now.

• Be aware and watch.

• Choose when to shift your attention.

• Bring your attention to your thoughts and feelings, the voice in your head.

• Bring your attention to your body.

• Bring your attention to the world.

• Allow your attention to be open to all that’s happening now.

• Accept what is happening. This is it.

From time to time, during the day, experiment with allowing your experience to be just here. There is nothing that needs fixing, no state to achieve. There is nothing that needs to be different, no need to think about something. Just experience. Being in your body with full awareness frees your relationship to your body and to the world. Pleasant feeling can emerge on their own, unpleasant ones are free to drift away.

Paying Attention
Attention is the most powerful tool we have to both understand and to change ourselves. When you pay close attention, you are separating the stream of experience. Now, there is experiencing and an observer.

The challenge is to be aware of witnessing and then aware of your process. You can mentally step away and observe all that’s happening without judgment. You now have a choice about what to think about or to act on. If you were living in past memories, you are letting the present moment go by unnoticed. When you have a head full of ideas about what life should be, you’re not paying attention to what life is. Instead of wanting and worrying, you can step aside and just watch the wanting and worrying going on. Allow it to be without trying to act on it. You will find yourself reinterpreting your experience.

This is a big one. Now that you are paying attention, can you change your behavior? Can you be aware of choosing to do something, to make something happen? Try it. Are you making choices all the time or are you taking actions without noticing? What did you just do without consciously choosing to do it?

Work With Attention
Explorations in attention can take many forms. Some of these you may already know from regular use. You watch television while playing a computer game, talking on a cellphone and texting friends. This is the familiar infotainment form. On the Web, the average attention span is 8 seconds, page view scans last as little as 4 seconds. Can you do all this and still be aware you are doing it? I doubt it. Multitasking is an illusion. When you switch your attention, you interrupt your train of thought. Your working memory loses information. You have to go back and recreate it when you restart that project. Takes time, sometime minutes.

Television grabs your attention with a crisis or climax every few minutes. This holds your attention and sets you up for the commercial. You are being manipulated for money and you gave your permission. Video games grab your attention by creating a series of tension/release cycles that keep you involved. Your smartphone seems to demand and reward your attention frequently enough to be addictive. You come to prefer living in an artificial world. You are a stimulus junkie. The majority of Americans are stimulus junkies and dramaddicts. Become aware of what you are doing to yourself. Pay attention all your waking hours.

Everybody wants your attention. Whoever controls your attention controls you. Whoever gets your attention wins and gets paid. You pay for whatever you clicked on and ordered. Attention is money. Attention is power. That's why Facebook and Google struggle to get your attention. They need to sell you to someone who wants your dollars. Capturing your attention makes you their slave. To free yourself, turn your attention away from what they want you to buy toward the life you want to live.

Noticing is about paying attention with all your senses and feelings. Your pinpoint of awareness picks out a detail. Could be anything. Notice and move on to the next thing that comes up. Let it go without a name. Naming freezes experience and captures it in the frame of memory and culture. Your culture tells you what to notice, gives you permission, tells you what to call it, what to do or not. Without a name your attention stays open to a new and maybe unnameable experience. There is always more to notice.  Noticing more enables you to expand out into the universe.

There is some limit to the brain’s processing power. As thinking uses more processing capacity, your awareness of total experience shrinks. The more intensely we are thinking, the less we are hearing, seeing, feeling. “Damn. How long has that kettle been boiling?” To clear your field of awareness, you can choose to focus on just one thing, like your breath. Bringing attention to a neutral thing, like breathing, calms and steadies your inner experience. 

We are happiest and most effective when we focus in the moment and work steadily on an important project. Can you think of an example? When attention focuses  totally, you lose touch with your surroundings. Complete absorption in a task takes you into an area of stillness and concentration. This screens out awareness of the world and allows you to enjoy productive work. Time stops and you live in an ongoing present. You feel whole and complete. This name of this state is ‘flow’ and comes with its own joys.

Managing Attention
Nature is incredibly information rich. When you are paying attention, there is enormous activity and detail all around us. We tend not to notice. We take it for granted. We put a name on it and move along. We are busy all the time, paying little attention to what is happening around us now. We  worry about what didn't happen or what might be next. We move from one screen to another in search of an answer or a hit of pleasure. We are seldom simply being here.

You can only do one thing at a time with your attention. Here is an adventure (15) to sort it out on a time scale.

• Get a pad of Postit notes and pencil. Sit at an empty table.

• Make a note for the first thing that comes to your attention and that needs doing or thinking about. Tear it off and stick it on the table. Let it leave your attention.

• Turn your attention to the next thing that comes to mind and make a note. Keep going until nothing else comes up.

• Arrange your notes into activity groups (call, meet, do, buy). Then location groups (home, office, think about)

• Pick out the “must do” from each group. Separate “can do now” from “tomorrow” and make your “tomorrow” list.

You now have a map of your life’s potential spread out before you. You can let go of the jumble in your head. From a long list of ‘must-dos’ there are usually only two or three that you can act on right now. The rest spread out over time and your abilities. Pick the one that will actually make your life work better right now and do it.

Often that action could be just sitting quietly and enjoying the moment.

The goal is to be here, paying attention to what gives you pleasure or needs action now. You have maps of everything that is not here so you don’t have to worry about them just yet. You can step back and think from a larger perspective about what’s important and what’s next. You will always have more to do than is possible. You can make a few good choices, get them done and experience satisfaction. The rest will take care of themselves. Always have.

The Flow Of Experience
The sum of our experience is a reality we create for ourself. We watch and the universe changes. Our body moves and feels different. Stuff seems to happen in our head, always changing. We can create imaginary events and behave as if they are real. Our bodies do not always know the difference between our outer experience and our inner theater. We see through screens of imagination. We tend to view a changing world through our unchanging stories. It’s easy to lose touch with reality. We are sane when we know the difference between what we are imagining and what is actually going on now.

Here is an adventure(15) in seeing unpleasant experiences as passing mental events. To do this,

• Bring your awareness to some problem or difficulty.

• Accept it as already there and OK.

• Bring your attention to your physical sensations and feelings.

• Breathe into the experience.

• Let go of tensing.

• Return to the breath.


Your brain patterns will change and will now unfold in a different way. The difficulty becomes more workable whenever it comes up again. You can handle intense sensation and discomfort by focusing attention right into these areas. This will short circuit avoidance mechanisms. It disrupts the links between body sensations, feelings and thoughts that can lead into spiral bummers.

Just This
Freedom comes from paying attention without complicating thought processes. Leave out the ‘I’ and ‘me’ and ‘mine’ and the distracting stories and demands. Trying or thinking too hard is counterproductive. Some things that work:

• relax and open your mind to playful exploration.

• rest your attention by taking a break in nature.

• allow your attention to move to whatever catches it.

Instead of chasing after thoughts and feelings, give yourself the gift of your own attention. You can keep your life simple by doing one thing at a time and making sure you are present for it. You can give yourself the gift of self-acceptance. You can give yourself some time each day with no purpose.

It is possible to rest in an open and aware state. Thoughts come and go without drawing attention away from your total experience. When some ancient issue or fantasy starts up, you can let it drift away without getting caught up. If you do get distracted, you can slide right back to the moment. The ongoing experience I like best is just being. Enjoying now is the real adventure.

Desires, goals, plans and worries are clouds that obscure our pure experience. Can you have both? Yes, just not at the same moment. Plain awareness is the natural unperturbed background. Thoughts come and go. Like a baby, you become vividly aware of everything around you at once. There is a particular kind of clarity and joy that comes with this experience.

Another powerful adventure (16) is just to...

Throw open your attention to all that’s happening now and let it flood in with joyous expansion.

This is what a baby does, being aware of everything at once. You are now allowing yourself to be present. You are focusing on what’s happening now, accepting everything as it is. Your goal is to stay open in full awareness. You will not be distracted by random thoughts and feelings. Make mind wandering a choice rather than a default. The more you are aware and paying attention, the more amazing life is. You are simply experiencing and you are concentrated in the flow. You become one experience: just being. Now becomes timeless, it has no parts. Experience expands, senses sharpen, colors brighten. You are the universe.


©2012-2015
Keith Gilchrist - not for distribution or reproduction
4,182 words 13 pages 1.22.17 adv 10-16 Beta 1


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