There is an element that is central to all contemplative practices, be it meditation, mindfulness, awareness or self realization.
Do you know what that element is? That element is ‘your attention’.
Any spiritual practice that involves working with your mind, automatically involves working with your ‘attention’.
- Traditional meditation involves focusing ‘your attention’ onto a single point.
- Mindfulness involves staying aware of ‘your attention’ for prolonged periods.
- Self realization, awareness or enlightenment begins when one starts to become aware of his/her attention.
Even though this might not sound very groundbreaking on the surface, understanding attention from a deeper level can bring up some powerful insights that can be life changing. This is because, your attention is an extremely powerful tool and the deeper you understand it, the more control you start to have on your mind, your body and your life!
So what is ‘attention’?
Your ‘Attention’ is your conscious mind.
It can be broadly described as the mind’s observatory. It’s a part of the mind that has the ability to focus-in on the various processes occurring in the mind.
To understand attention more clearly, let us look at a few analogies.
The best analogy for ‘attention’ is a torch light. Using the torch light, you can illuminate whatever areas you wish to see clearly similar to how you can use your attention to focus on various thoughts, sensations and environmental inputs.
Another analogy for ‘attention’ is a magnifying glass. A magnifying glass, helps you magnify parts of an area that you wish to see clearly. Similarly, your attention allows you to interpret and analyze thoughts/sensations that you wish to pursue further.
How does attention work?
At any given moment, your attention is split between the multitude of thoughts produced by the mind, bodily sensations and external inputs (such as a T.V. program). Some thoughts/sensations/inputs get a bigger share of your attention whereas others get a smaller share.
Right now as you are reading this article, part of your attention is focused on this article. Another part is perhaps focused on your thoughts telling you that you need to run a few errands later today. Yet another part of your attention is wondering if you got any messages on Facebook.
So you see, your attention can be divided or focused onto a single point (what we call an undivided attention). Imagine watching a movie that is extremely entertaining; most of your attention will be lost in the movie. In other words, you are giving the movie your undivided attention.
Taking control of your attention
Your attention is powerful, because wherever your attention goes, energy flows. In other words, whenever you are giving attention to something, you are giving it your power.
It’s not wonder why advertisers are always vying for your attention. The more attention a product gets, the more successful it becomes; as simple as that.
This is why, taking control of your attention can be life changing as you can then use it to focus on aspects of your life that you want to improve instead of wasting your energy on thoughts and limiting beliefs that do not serve you. You can even use the power of your attention to heal yourself and others.
So how do you take control of your attention?
To take control of your attention, you need to first become aware of your attention and then train your attention to remain steady and focused for a prolonged periods of time.
As an analogy, think of your attention as a wild horse. You need to tame the horse by putting on the reins and the blinders so it has a focused vision and does not get distracted easily.
Here’s a funny story to illustrate this better:
A monk saw a traveler riding a horse galloping briskly along an untrodden path. It looked like he was in a hurry. When he approached closer, the monk asked the traveler ‘where are you going?’. To this, the traveler replied, “I don’t know, ask the horse!” and galloped away.
The horse in this story is a metaphor for ‘your attention’. The traveler is clearly unaware that he can take control of his attention and is letting his attention control him instead of the other way round.
Becoming aware of your attention
On a general basis, your attention is on auto mode (subconscious mode). It goes wherever it is drawn to or towards whatever attracts it.
For example, you see a flashy billboard and your attention gets drawn to it. You quit thinking of everything else and focus on the Ad and what it says. Then again, you see the words ‘breaking news’ on T.V. and you get drawn to watch the news.
In a similar way, there are various thoughts, events and external/internal stimuli between which your attention remains divided without your conscious knowledge on a day-to-day basis.
But without your awareness (or conscious knowledge) your attention is completely identified with your thinking. It simply gets drawn towards whatever feels more ‘attention worthy’.
This state of mind when your ‘attention’ is completely identified with your thoughts can be considered an ‘UnConscious’ or ‘UnAwakened’ state.
So how does one become aware of his/her attention?
Becoming aware of your attention is as simple as becoming aware of what your mind is focusing on in this moment. Simply become aware of the thoughts running in your mind and the thoughts that you are focusing on.
Even though this can be easily achieved, the challenge is to remain aware of your attention for prolonged periods of time. Another challenge is to control your attention to remain focused on certain thoughts/activities for prolonged periods.
Both of these can be achieved by following traditional mindfulness and meditation practices to train the mind.
Training your attention
I am sure you have heard of the reference, ‘monkey mind’. The monkey mind does not refer to the myriad of thoughts that the mind generates; but instead it refers to your ‘attention’ and how unstable it is. It keeps jumping from one thought to another, just like a monkey jumps from one branch to another.
To train your attention is equivalent to training the monkey to stay still on the branch of your preference for a considerably longer period.
You can train your attention by engaging in practices that involve the following:
- Practices that require you to remain aware of your attention like mindfulness.
- Practices that require you to keep your attention focused on a single point like meditation.
Staying aware of your attention is what mindfulness is all about. The more you practice mindfulness, the easier it becomes for you to stay aware for longer duration of time.
Meditation on the other hand involves both – staying aware of your attention (being alert) and then focusing your attention on a single point.
Meditation is called ‘dhayn’ in Sanskrit which translates to ‘focus’ or ‘concentration.’
The more you meditate, the more control you develop over your attention. Therefore by practicing meditation, your mindfulness practices will improve and so will all other related practices be it body scanning, feeling your emotions or watching your thoughts.
There are various types of meditation that can help train your attention such as breath meditation, mantra meditation, or even meditation like Trataka that involves focusing all your attention onto the flame of a candle.
Breath meditation to train your attention
I find that breath meditation is by far the most powerful.
You simply focus all your attention to your breath and maintain it for as long as you can.
If your attention drifts back into your thoughts (which it definitely will because of habit), you gently keep bringing it back to your breath.
To anchor your attention better, you can try focusing on the sensations your breath generates. Feel the cool hair hitting the tip of your nostrils as you inhale and the hot air escaping as you exhale. Feeling the sensations this way allows you to better anchor your attention so it doesn’t drift back into thinking easily. Be alert and aware during your practice.
Initially, your attention will drift back to your thoughts a lot. One moment you will be focusing on your breath and the next moment you will find yourself thinking about some past or future events. Once your awareness returns, you will be baffled as to when that happened. It was so smooth!
The more you practice though, the more your awareness and control of your attention will increase and you will be able to focus for longer periods before drifting back into thinking.
This ability will also immensely benefit your mindfulness practice.
Your attention is the most powerful tool you possess. But its power is taken away when it is lost in your thoughts. Take control of it and use it to create the reality you desire.