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Pay attention as if your life depends on it (because it does)

Every moment of every day we’re confronted with an infinite array of stimuli to pay attention to — sights, sounds, objects, people, the running commentary in our heads, how we feel, the aches and pains in our bodies.

How do we decide what to attend to?

This is no small question, for the answer determines the quality of this moment. It determines the quality of our lives.

As R. D. Laing says "The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice."

While it may seem counterintuitive, our life has less to do with "what happens" to us and more to do with what we attend to; for what we attend to governs our responses and gives meaning to our lives.

The bad news: most of the time we unconsciously choose what we pay attention to.

Before arguing with the Powers That Be about this fact, recognize how overwhelming life would be if we had to consciously process all stimuli. There is simply too much information coming at us in any given moment to attend to all of it. The unconscious ability to scan our environment and decide if a stimulus is harmful, beneficial or neutral — and respond accordingly — is very helpful! This is true at the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual levels of our being.

Attachment relationships and significant life experiences all have a powerful effect on how and what we learn to pay attention to. These experiences become neurologically hard-wired as habitual patterns of attention and response, governing how we experience our bodies, ourselves, and relationships.

For example, if we’ve grown up with wounding in our primary interpersonal relationships (and in my experience, we all have wounding!), our attention has been shaped to try and avoid this wounding. As children, we may have learned to be on the lookout for disapproval, criticism, abandonment, and rejection in an effort to stay on our parent's good side. Once it becomes a habit, our attention will automatically and unconsciously be drawn this way in the future so we can avoid threatening or unpleasant situations and people.

Unless we intentionally direct our attention where we want it to go, we’ll find ourselves drawn toward what we expect, what we’re used to noticing, what we’re taught to notice, what we fear, and what we want to avoid. This is how our attentional patterns keep us prisoners of the past. We create self-fulfilling prophecies and get stuck in life patterns that seem to keep happening. Unwanted repetitive physical patterns, thoughts, emotions, and relationships are driven in part by how we pay attention. We ignore or overlook information that could enhance our sense of feeling safe, successful, connected, and satisfied.

The good news: we can consciously select what we pay attention to. We don't have to be driven by outdated attentional habits that served us in the past but don't serve us now. We can learn to orient to new stimuli. As we change what we pay attention to, different responses become available to us and new meanings emerge.

The first step is to slow down and become curious about our experience in any given moment. It helps to be nonjudgmental observers of ourselves, approaching ourselves with compassion and openness. Notice, where is your attention naturally drawn? Is it to the furrowed brow of your coworker that signals disappointment? The ache in your back that signals what feels like unending pain? Repetitive, obsessive thoughts about your relationship? Often our habitual attention patterns will change just by becoming aware of them.

The second step is to purposely direct our attention to something new. Being able to break rigid attention patterns is crucial for new learning and adaptive behavior. We want to direct our attention to information that makes us feel good and safe instead of bad or unsafe. Is there a smile on your coworkers face that signals approval? Is there a part of your body that feels strong and capable?

As we learn to focus our attention on cues we’ve never noticed before, we can foster a more competent, empowered, enjoyable life.

I'll leave you with several lines from Mary Oliver, who sums it up best in her poem "The Summer Day:"

I don't know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?


Tell me, what is it you plan to do

With your one wild and precious life?

Habitual attention patterns take time and repeated focus to change. The goal is not to be harsh and demanding with ourselves in this process, but to approach ourselves and our patterns with curiosity, compassion, and ease. And through our attention, we will live our one wild and precious life.

Action: Take a walk and notice what you pay attention to. Don’t try and change your attention patterns, you're simply gathering data. Do you look for potential threats? People who appear scary? People who appear friendly? Do you notice nature — flowers, birds, clouds, trees? Do you notice objects — buildings, cars? Are you lost in your thoughts, your emotions, or physical pains? Do you try and interact with your environment or stay in your own bubble?

Reflect on this and notice what made you feel good or safe, and what made you feel bad or unsafe. What do you want to pay more attention to?

Next, take another walk and deliberately pay attention to what you want. The goal is to challenge your habitual attention patterns. Reflect on what happened. Was this easy or hard for you?

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