Stop what you’re doing right now and ask yourself – what are you paying attention to?
The words on the screen in front of you? Or some sound on the street? Maybe it’s a thought about something that happened yesterday? Or some lingering feeling that you can’t seem to shake?
Unless you are a Zen master, and your answer to these questions was “nothing but the present moment young Padawan”, then you’re probably caught up in a bunch of thoughts right now.
Our minds, if left to their own devices, easily gets caught in habitual patterns. These can be extreme patterns such as addiction and OCD. Or they can be much simpler, such as always getting annoyed in mid-morning traffic. Either way, these patterns occupy much of our attention day-to-day. And the scary thing is, we barely notice the effect it has on us.
“How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives.” – Sam Harris
What we choose to focus on, changes our experience of the present moment. When we’re not tuned in to this, we’re losing control of the most important part of our life. We’re operating on auto-pilot and it’s a gamble. Maybe we’ll have a good experience but it’s also just as likely that we’ll have a bad one. By not being deliberate with our attention we hand that power to random events, rather than owning it ourselves. To take that power back, we need to focus on seeing our thoughts for what they are.
Your new superpower
If you want a superpower then learn to be aware of what your mind is doing. Watch the patterns you get stuck in and the thoughts that keep recurring. You can improve the quality of your life tenfold just by making this your goal. People who have mastered the skill of observing thoughts, rather than thinking them, are calmer and more self-assured.
How do you go about breaking these habitual patterns? The answer is simple: just watch what you’re paying attention to.
Let me expand on that a little…
Meditation is the first and most obvious. If you sit on a cushion and pay attention to what’s happening right now, you’re meditating. Do this in day-to-day life and it’s called mindfulness. But what’s our aim when sitting down to meditate?
Charlotte Joko Beck, the modern American Zen teacher, said that meditating is about paying “meticulous attention to the anatomy of the present moment”. I like that because it describes exactly what happens when you’re a proficient meditator. You sit down and engage with everything the present moment has to offer. It’s that simple.
But maybe that’s part of the problem people have with meditation. Achieving this kind of simplicity means unravelling all kinds of complex habits. Breaking these patterns is not easy and paying meticulous attention to anything is a tall order these days.
Let’s say that meditation isn’t for you. Are there any other ways you can go about increasing your attention? I think there are a few methods for getting started.
Journaling is one way to reflect on what’s happened to you and the how you’ve been thinking about it. Doing this at the same time each day will give you much the same benefits of mindfulness practice. There are different approaches to journaling but what’s essential is that you write in a private space and keep it uncensored. That means you can brain dump exactly what’s been going on in your head and let your stream of thoughts reveal themselves on the page. Then you can take a step back and see what’s going on.
But perhaps you’re not a writer – if so, the Stoic philosophers might have something for you. These guys also developed techniques for increasing attention through self-reflection. They’re so convenient, that you can do in bed. Sextius would spend time each evening taking a mental inventory of his day, asking himself:
“What ailment of yours have you cured today? What failing have you resisted? Where can you show improvement?”
Most of us can find the time to do this. If you can’t do it in bed (I’d fall asleep too quickly), try it when you’re brushing your teeth. The Stoics were a practical bunch, so I don’t get the impression they’d be too fussy about the details. The important thing is to do it often and with commitment.
Creating seismic shifts
Whichever method works best for you to self-reflect, it’s hard not to spot recurring themes. You’ll notice how the same kind of comment gets your back up. How you feel flattered by the same kind of compliments. When you see these same thoughts and feelings cropping up, again and again, you become less attached to them. The emotional impact that they used to hit you with is eventually dampened. You get quicker at seeing these thoughts from a detached perspective.
You’ll move from having these thoughts to seeing these thoughts. And trust me – this is a seismic shift.
When you’re able to see your thoughts as just thoughts, and not the capital T truth, you no longer need to react to them. At least, you don’t need to react reflexively anymore. The choice is now yours to choose. The quality of your life is in your hands.
You can, of course, choose to respond to the angry and frustrated voices. If you realise a comment your friend made has given you angry thoughts, you might decide that you actually want to respond with that biting comeback that just popped into your head. I would argue that this won’t increase the calmness in your life or bring you much joy. But at least you would now be making a conscious decision rather than operating on auto-pilot. And here lies the power you hold over your own experience:
“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.” – Marcus Aurelius
Your attention, and how you choose to use it, will shape how you live your life.
My aim in life is to move toward a calmer and more peaceful state of mind. I’m trying to get a handle on the often messy and confused narrative that keeps playing in my head. By paying ‘meticulous attention’ to my experience, I’m choosing to take the path that leads to this kind of happiness.
So take a moment right now to consider once again: what are you paying attention to?