There are three interrelated factors of attention that can help us transform our experience of daily life.
Bringing intentionality to these factors will give us a sense of agency over what otherwise may be unconscious, automatic processes that adversely affect our inner state and how we feel and act in the world.
1. Directing Our Awareness and Attention
At any time, we can become aware of where our attention is focused. We could say to ourself, “I am aware that my attention is on a sound of a dog barking…” Our attention could be on something that we see. It could be on a thought, a feeling, or a body sensation.
Christine Caldwell in her book Bodyfulness talks about the difference between awareness and attention. She describes awareness as “a background state of consciousness where largely automatic body-based oscillations occur that monitor our inner and outer situation.” She describes attention as more active, “requiring conscious, even muscular effort, bringing certain stimuli from the background into the foreground.”
We call the various objects of attention the content of our awareness. We can also put our attention on our awareness itself. Awareness is like a vast pool that requires an inner letting go a sensing into, rather than a muscular effort of an active paying attention.
When we put our attention on awareness itself, we can sense the source of attention rather than the object or content our attention is focused on.
Once we become aware that our attention is fixed on some particular content, we can claim our power to move our attention to something we chose to focus on. In other words, we can chose to play what will be in the foreground and what we would like to have in the background.
In this way we will strengthen our ability to be aware of the direction of our attention as opposed to getting lost in the content. Too often, falling into states of anxiety or depression is like getting lost in difficult weather.
Metaphorically, the lightning storms of anxiety or the dark clouds of depression can take us over entirely. But if we direct our attention consciously, a shift can occur and our awareness can broaden.
Instead of getting lost in the clouds, we can sense the sky that the clouds pass through. In that way, we might broaden our sense of self to be more like the sky itself, than the particular weather patterns that move through the sky.
We can certainly chose to inquire about a particular cloud. We can explore the feeling and embodiment of it, write about it, sound it, talk about it, or feel into it. But we are able to do this from a broader perspective of being the sky that holds the cloud. Thus we don’t get lost in the cloud. In this way of inquiry, we may also experience a movement of the cloud, perhaps even revealing a ray of sunshine in the process.
When we develop our capacity to stay with our attention, we cultivate a power of choice. Then we don’t just automatically get caught up in our thoughts, feelings, objects, or other content. It is especially empowering to simply observe our thoughts and stay grounded in our present-moment awareness.
2. Differentiating From Thoughts and Feelings
As we get better at identifying with our awareness and developing our power to direct our attention, we will strengthen our ability to differentiate ourselves from the thoughts and feelings that are the content of our awareness.
Again, we can self-identify as the sky instead of the patterns of weather that move through the sky. We can develop the capacity to be with our experiences in a way that we don’t have to get swept away by them every time the weather changes.
This capacity is about containing and expressing feelings, questioning our thoughts, especially the negative ones that typically accompany depression and anxiety.
Differentiating ourselves from the thoughts and feelings that move through us increases our ability to contain or express these thoughts and feelings.
Knowing we are the sky through which thoughts and feelings rise and set, we will become more facile in handling them and getting their deeper messages. This enables us to exercise more resourceful options rather than simply getting swept away by thoughts and feelings to the point that we are completely at their mercy.
3. Pendulating Our Placement of Attention
Our nervous system pendulates naturally. Think of a pendulum as something that swings back and forth between two extremes. Our natural need is to be able to go into a state of excitement and high energy and then to come back to a state of rest and relaxation. It is like day and night. We need action. Then we need rest.
Our society in fact doesn’t put much value on resting, so our nervous systems tend to continuously stay in the mode of hyperarousal and excitement. Out of the natural balance that includes the resting state, this can eventually keep our systems in a loop that results in increasing anxiety.
Alternately, if we are in a depressed state, our nervous system can get stuck in the low energy mode of hypoaraousal and shut down.
When we learn to move our attention from one thing to another, we can further increase our sense of agency over inner states and begin to restore balance. Directing attention mindfully we can learn to pendulate from intense content to more resourceful content, from a collapsed state to a more energized state.
If we practice moving our attention again and again, we will strengthen our ability to pendulate between more depressive content and more resourceful content, or between more anxious content to more relaxing content.
For example, we can always potentionally shift our attention from a depressed thought looping in our minds and choose to place our attention on a flower. Similarly, we could shift our attention from anxious thoughts streaming through our minds and put our attention on feeling the earth beneath our feet or feeling the warmth of the sun on our skin.
Feelings don’t have to always be the guide. We can claim our ability to become the guide. You will increase your sense of agency as you exercise consciously moving your attention. And many times, engaging in this active attentional shift may also be the beginning towards understanding and shifting your inner state.