Paying attention is not as easy as you might think
I vividly remember being in graduate school, working my way through a mountain of reading in preparation for my comprehensive exams. I’d been at it for hours. I glanced up to see what time it was and when I glanced back down, I was completely lost. Not only could I not find my spot on the page, but when I flipped back to the start of the chapter, I discovered I had no idea what it was about.
I thought with some astonishment, “I’ve been reading words, but not sentences.” I honestly don’t know what I had been thinking about, but it clearly was not the book I was reading. Has anything like this ever happened to you?
“PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT YOU PAY ATTENTION TO.” – Amy Krause Rosenthal, quoted by John Green in Anthropocene Reviewed
Reading this simple statement recently stopped me in my tracks. Even though graduate school is a tiny speck in the rearview mirror of my life, I still need and want to pay attention to my life. In fact, like many of you reading this, one of my priorities is to live a more mindful life. For us, this is especially good advice.
Yoga teaches us to use distractions as reminders to return to focus
Mindfulness requires heightened self-awareness, and I can think of no better way of knowing myself better than by paying attention to what I pay attention to. By noticing when we’re “all in” or 100% engaged, we learn what we care about – what makes us curious, what captivates our imaginations, what excites our energy and enthusiasm. On the other hand, by becoming aware of when our minds drift, we learn about what we don’t care about, what makes us feel insecure, anxious, or simply bored (clearly this includes that long ago textbook in grad school).
My first serious exposure to mindfulness was on my yoga mat. It didn’t take long to notice that when my mind wandered my physical alignment would shift – and never for the better. Over time, I began to use these subtle movements (shoulders creeping up toward my ears, my knee falling inward in a lunge, and so forth) as little loss-of-focus “alarms.”
Distractions can serve the same purpose in mindfulness practices
With more time and practice, I began to realize that the whole point of managing the position of my body was simply a way to practice caring about the “position” of my mind. My next step was to begin to pay attention to how my mind drifted off my mat. With a little effort, any of us can do this. We can become aware of recurring daydreams, patterns of fretting, habits such as pulling out the phone as a security blanket.
Just as physical shifts do on a yoga mat, these shifts in awareness can serve as inner “alarms” to notify us that we’ve checked out of “the moment.” Why is being engaged in the moment so important? It is because when we “pay attention to what we are paying attention to” our experience of life begins to change dramatically.
Living mindfully feels better
Rick Warren states powerfully (in his 1/20/2022 edition of Daily Hope) that managing your mind is “the key to peace and happiness. An unmanaged mind leads to tension. A managed mind leads to tranquility. An unmanaged mind leads to conflict. A managed mind leads to confidence. When you don’t control the way you direct your thoughts, you will experience an enormous amount of stress in your life. But a managed mind leads to strength, security, and serenity.”
Yes, mindfulness makes us better at what whatever we are doing (grad school reading, gardening, being with a friend, and so on). When we are paying attention, we are exponentially more competent than when we are not. But mindfulness offers more than mere competence. When we are mindfully engaged with or paying attention to whatever is happening, we feel better. We feel calm. We feel comfortable. We feel confident. Feeling better is a surefire way to keep us practicing.
No matter what you choose to do, choose to pay attention
When I realized I was 100% disengaged and just going through the motions in graduate school, I had to make a choice. I could shake off the cobwebs, flip back to the last chapter I could remember absorbing and start again. Or I could take a break and do something to reinvigorate myself – take a walk, watch a show, make a snack.
I don’t honestly remember what I chose to do that day, but I hope I chose the break. More than that, I hope I allowed myself to be “all in” – a show and some popcorn! As it does with everything, when what we choose to do is take a break, paying attention will make much more rewarding.