Understanding The Mind – Why is attention so important?

Our lived experience is a co-creation of the environment we are in and our faculty of attention. Now, we cannot easily change our environment at any given moment, because we are where we already are, but we can instantly shift our experience of a situation by how we attend it. You can prove this right now by first turning your head to the left, and now to the right – chances are you literally get two very different views of the environment you are in, even though that environment is exactly the same. And so it is in each situation – we can experience radically different perspectives on the life we are living right now, depending on what we attend to and how. This isn’t just with the faculty of sight – what we listen to, touch, taste and choose to believe will have a major impact on the quality of our experience. That gives us great possibilities for transforming difficult situations and making the most of pleasant ones…but there is a problem.

Our minds are wired to help us survive. This means we are impelled to pay attention automatically to whatever might threaten us or provide us with opportunity. The mind is constantly scanning around for what it deems most salient and trying to make sense of it, usually by thinking about it – and this creates the common experience of the wandering mind that you’re probably familiar with –our mind ruminates continually without our permission. Indeed studies have shown that minds are in a state of wandering nearly half of each waking day. This has many benefits, but also means our attentional resources get stretched and we can easily become very distracted or stuck on a kind of mental overdrive. And of course, the mind is wired to attend more to threat than opportunity – better to miss a tasty piece of food than a predator who wants to make us their tasty piece of food. That’s a great strafgety for survival but terrible for wellbeing because we’re much more likely to focus on the negative than the positive. And because we have minds that can project into the future and the past we tend to think about not just what’s going wrong right now, but about all the bad things that used to happen or the bad things that might happen next. This plays out in different ways, some of us are worriers, some of us focus on regrets, some of us are driven endlessly to prove ourselves, some of us are startled by the mind’s busyness into frozenness, unable to make decisions – but the basic make up of our minds is similar - we pay attention selectively, automatically, and with a negative bias. This, no surprise, doesn’t feel good – so while we might survive, we don’t thrive.

So, where does mindfulness come in? The good news is that humans have the capacity to be aware of our automatic reactions. If you’ve ever noticed that your mind wanders, congratulations, this is our stepping out of autopilot and into awareness – the part of you that can notice patterns of experience. And if we practice consciously slowing down and dropping into this awareness, we can begin to let go of our drivenness and re-orient our attention purposefully in a way that is more likely to lead to contentment.

This process of recognising distraction and re-orienting attention is a foundational mindfulness practice, You’ve likely tried it, noticing when the mind wanders away and bringing it back to a chosen anchor, such as the breath, or feet or sounds. The good news is that each time we practice this our pattern of being caught in reactivity is changing, we are letting go just a little bit of the tendency for attention to be hijacked unnecessarily and instead return to awareness, placing attention on something we have chosen. The more we practise this, the more we become able to spot when attention has been hijacked and bring it back.

This has the potential to make an enormous difference in our lives. If have more choice over what we attend to, we can start to affect our experience in ways that are beneficial. We can be less focused on unnecessary worries, and more able to recognise what’s going well, and what we need to do to transform what isn’t.. So while it might seem that not much of importance is happening when we practise meditation, it could be the most important skill you ever develop and refine.

See a video of this blog on Ed's YouTube Channel

If you’d like to learn more, there are a range of free meditation practices at my website mindfulnessussex.co.uk as well as details of how you can work with me to develop your mindfulness skills.

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