May I Have Your Attention?

This morning, I was sitting in front of my fireplace with a cup of piping hot peppermint tea while a confetti snow fell over the mountains and canyon. In my hands, I held a book, a yellow highlighter and hot pink post-it notes. I heard the gentle sloshing of the water in the washing machine and the distant bark of the neighbor’s playful dog. I was practicing using my brain’s flashlight to focus my complete attention on each and every thing I have just described, one at a time.

The book I am reading is Peak Mind; Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day. I confess that I am so into this book that I find myself giggling, gasping and nodding in agreement with each and every page. This book with all its revelations about our brains and our attention has me captivated.

I stumbled into mindfulness and meditation six years ago in an attempt to cultivate self-awareness and an ability to stay in the present moment. I had a hard time articulating to others, in a succinct way, what I was discovering with both. I often used an analogy involving yoga or golf to attempt to explain how the small daily practices, done consistently over time, led to quite noticeable positive changes months later.

And now, in my hands, is the most incredible reference book I could ever dream of having — and it is so relatable, so captivating that I cannot imagine anyone not wanting to read it. Even if you have no interest whatsoever in mindfulness and meditation, the knowledge you will gain about your brain, and most importantly about your incredible superpower –ATTENTION — should be more than ample to spark your interest.

Your attention determines:

What you perceive, learn and remember;

how steady or how reactive you feel;

which decisions you make and actions you take;

how you interact with others;

and ultimately your sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. (Excerpted from page 4 of Peak Mind)

If that list isn’t enough to pique your interest, consider this: Your attention now has a commercial value. “If you aren’t paying for the product, you ARE the product.” As Dr. Amishi Jha states, more precisely it is your attention that is the product — a commodity that can be sold to the highest bidder. Did you know that we now have attention merchants and attention markets? And this forecasts the possibility of trading in human “attention futures” along with metals, oils, grains and currency.

I’m guessing that you might be paying more attention now…..

If our attention is so invaluable that it has become a commodity, perhaps that will be the wake up call that compels us to take control of what is rightfully ours and attend to it much like we would our physical health.

We tend to accept that, to improve our physical health, we need to engage in physical exercise. Somehow, we just don’t think the same way about psychological health or cognitive capacity. But we should! Just as specific types of physical training can strengthen certain muscles groups, this type of mental training can strengthen attention — if we do it. (Excerpted from page 15, the Chapter entitled A Mental Workout that Works, from the book Peak Mind)

Go back and re-read that list above in the blue background. Everything on that list is what we are striving for when we talk about personal development. It encompasses emotional regulation, self-awareness, good decision making, learning from past experiences, gaining knowledge and wisdom, changing behavioral patterns and cultivating gratitude. It all gets boiled down to one simple yet profound factor — attention.

Dr. Jha is a gifted writer who uses her personal experiences, decades of fascinating research and relatable metaphors to walk us through the operations manual of our complex brain, how attention gets hijacked, how we can de-clutter our minds and strengthen our focus so that we fully experience more of our lives.

“What you pay attention to is your life.” (Excerpted from page 26, Chapter entitled Attention is Your SuperPower, the book Peak Mind)

Just sit with that for a few minutes — What you pay attention to IS your life. Check your daily screen usage if you dare. Ponder that on average we have over 6,000 thoughts per day. Think about all the things you routinely juggle on a daily basis. Dr. Jha points out that the problem is not all the things that are vying for our attention every single day, it is that we lack internal cues about where our attention actually is — moment to moment. The solution? Pay attention to your attention.

Dr. Jha reveals that attention is both a superpower AND it is fragile. She identifies 3 main things that are “kryptonite” for our fragile attention: stress, threat and poor mood.

Stress: That perceived feeling of being overwhelmed can jettison us into time travel: rumination about the past or worry about the future. These only aggravate and accelerate the amount of stress we are experiencing.

“When you experience too much stress for too long, you get caught in the downward spiral of attention degradation; the worse attention gets, the less you are able to control it; the less you’re able to control it, the worse the stress gets.” (Excerpted from page 47, the chapter ….But There’s Kryptonite, the book Peak Mind)

Threat: Whether real or imagined, threat makes it nearly impossible to focus on any task at hand or even stay on track in a heated conversation. Our ability to direct our attention at will is gone. Threat vigilance increases (we are triggered to protect ourselves) and our attention become stimulus-driven (we are on keen lookout for anything that is threat-related.) No matter how hard we may try, the threat becomes the focal point of our attention. Think back on a disagreement you had where you felt that your integrity or intentions were under attack, and even now you may feel heat rising in your body. Was it hard to focus solely on the content of the disagreement?

“Even if you have the highest IQ on the block, here’s a truth about human brains: in some ways, they haven’t changed in thirty-five thousand years. If the brain believes it’s under threat, it’s going to reconfigure attention accordingly, regardless of whether what’s actually in front of you is a threat.” (Excerpted from page 50, chapter ….But There’s Kryptonite, the book Peak Mind)

Poor Mood: “Everything from chronic depression to how you feel after receiving bad news can constitute poor mood” explains Dr. Jha. No matter the source, the effect can send us into loops of repetitive negative thoughts. Performance of cognitive tasks that involve both attention and working memory worsen in the midst of poor mood. This worsening of attention and working memory affects accuracy, slows the speed at which the task is accomplished and inhibits varied responses to the task at hand.

Dr. Jha says that once we wrap our heads around the 3 components of kryptonite, might say — “ok, so, I’ll simply reduce my stress, be on the lookout for a bad mood and make sure I’m not feeling threatened by stuff that isn’t a real threat.”

There’s just one major problem – kryptonite is not only good at sabotaging our attention, it is SNEAKY!

“The fact is, we’re really bad at identifying forces that degrade attention, even when we’re immersed in them. We often aren’t able to recognize them for what they are. And further, without training to gain a stronger awareness of our own minds, we simply aren’t very cognizant of the effects. Excerpted from page 51, the chapter ….But There’s Kryptonite, the book Peak Mind).

Let’s stop right there for a moment and take in some good. Attention is our superpower and while it is fragile, it is also trainable! Did you just breathe a sigh of relief?

“It is possible to change the way our attention systems operate. This is a critical new discovery, not only because we ARE missing half our lives, but because the half we’re here for can feel like a constant struggle. (Excerpted from page 6, Introduction to the book, Peak Mind.

As I read Peak Mind, and share these insights with you in this post, I find myself feeling so incredibly grateful. I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that this book will change lives. This “critical new discovery” is combining the wisdom of centuries old meditative practices with groundbreaking neuroscience discoveries. It feels like the beginning of a new era of discoveries for mental health, Alzheimer’s, dementia, cognition, emotional intelligence and resilience.

In the past I did have a hard time conveying to others just how game-changing mindfulness and meditation can be. I’d talk about neuroscience and neuroplasticity and people would glaze over. I’d talk about being in the “present moment” and eyes would roll.

Even more challenging was being able to give someone a concrete plan for cultivating mindfulness and starting a daily meditation practice of their own. I’d suggest books or podcasts but in the end it really was a DIY approach.

Lastly, it was hardest still to really get across to others how transformational mindfulness and meditation had been in my day to day life: How I stopped ruminating and needless worrying, how I am able rather effortlessly to bring my full attention back to the present moment when I notice it drifting off. I am now able to be in the midst of a lot of negative energy and remain detached from it, rooted in my calm center and much more capable of observing with clarity. I have freed myself from old emotional triggers. I am more resilient, more rested, and definitely more relaxed. Even when I am dreaming, my mindfulness shows up! I am a strong testament for everything that Dr. Amisha Jha offers in her book, Peak Mind.

In her book, Dr. Jha offers the 12 minute daily exercise that will put you on a path to reclaiming your attention and all its superpowers. Over the course of just 5 short weeks, she will guide you through Core Training for the Brain. It’s the beginning of a daily and lifelong practice that will undoubtedly change the quality of your life in remarkable ways.

It’s exciting that a resource like Peak Mind is available. The more we know, the more we grow!

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES:

FINDING FOCUS & OWNING YOUR ATTENTION WITH DR. AMISHI JHA, PhD https://brenebrown.com/podcast/finding-focus-and-owning-your-attention/

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Inspired New Horizons

I am blogging about reinventing myself in my retirement years as an independent woman free to fully enjoy life's adventures, while practicing mindfulness and discovering my life's purposes.

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