As I was walking this morning, I began paying attention to where my attention was going…. Mostly, it was wandering. Looking at the trees, at other people on the path, planning the day, remembering what happened yesterday, contemplating the focus of my blog…
We do this “meandering” a lot, but we are actually focusing on one thing at a time – even though the stream of “things” may be moving pretty fast! (People often talk about multitasking, but the scientific consensus is that the brain can’t actually do that – multitasking is a myth.) This leads to that leads to that other thing… and on it goes. There is a “stream” of moving attention, unless we find ourselves stopping – either by choice/commitment, or because our attention is “drawn” to one particular thing/experience/topic….
Would it be fair to say that our attention tends to wander?
Is it also true that we often tend to avoid certain topics – by choice, or unconsciously?
Becoming aware of our patterns of attention – where we tend to focus and what we tend to avoid – can be a powerful exploration.
Avoiding some areas of attention?
I was talking to my mid-30’s son a couple of days ago and brought up climate change, which is a subject that is drawing my attention these days. I asked if he thinks about it, because many people his age do. He said no, he doesn’t – by choice. It’s just too much.
And yet… some psychology research suggests that it is difficult to focus on what is good in our lives, that our minds tend to keep circling around what is bad, painful, difficult, in the present or the past or both. Rick Hanson, a psychologist, suggests that our brains have a “negativity bias.” Humans, he suggests, have evolved to be fearful — since that helped keep our ancestors alive — so we are very vulnerable to being frightened and even intimidated by threats, both real ones and “paper tigers.” (https://www.rickhanson.net/how-your-brain-makes-you-easily-intimidated/) But he doesn’t leave us there: he has researched and written extensively about the neuroscience of happiness, how we can rewire our brains to “take in the good.”
So what is your pattern of attention?
Variations in Attention Patterns?
Paying attention to what we pay attention to is actually a valuable practice. There are, of course, individual variations – personality style, conditioning, trauma, environmental context, among others. Do some of us tend to focus more on the future, or on the past, and if so, why? If we live alone, there may be familiar patterns. If we spend a lot of time with other people, perhaps that draws our attention in a greater variety of directions. If we have lots of free time on our hands, our patterns of attention may be more fluid than those of someone whose attention is required by challenging situations and tasks. If we practice some form of meditation, does our attention wander less? Do we have more choice of where our attention focuses – and are we more able to rest in what I call an “open awareness” (with no particular focus)?
Is it possible that some patterns of attention serve to keep us from wandering too far afield, perhaps from dropping into unfamiliar or frightening territory? As a grief counselor, I know that someone who is grieving tends to be drawn into the landscape of loss. Someone who is facing a life-threatening illness (their own, or that of a loved one) may be preoccupied with what the future holds. Life brings us experiences that we cannot control. But are there areas of life that we intentionally or unconsciously avoid?
The Challenge of Larger Fields of Attention
Do some of us try to steer clear of stressful, frightening thoughts about larger issues and situations which leave us feeling disempowered – political and environmental, for instance? I would say yes. And some of us are more successful at avoiding particular territories than others. So how does this fit with the “negativity bias”? Could there also be a kind of “positivity bias”? Because otherwise “it’s just too much”?
What do we do with our fearful or angry thoughts about these larger contexts? Do we have people we can share them with? They may find their place in spiritual guidance, but so far in my experience, they don’t often become much of a focus in counseling. So far. That absence may also be due to the traditional focus of counseling – on individuals, close relationships, families. What if we clearly invite those larger domains into our field of inquiry, support, and growth?
I don’t have answers at this point – I’m still exploring. But I invite you to ponder your own patterns of attention. Are they mostly automatic? Is it possible to make more conscious choices about what we include in our focus? Why would you expand the scope of your attention?
How do we live in this world?