Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Mindfulness Attention Exercise for a Holiday Weekend

Part of the Thanksgiving tradition in the United States is the idea of spending a few moments consciously controlling what you pay attention. Instead of automatically griping about the details of life and the state of the world, you are asked by newspaper columnists and others to “count your blessings” — to focus one by one on things that are favorable or are going well. It is possible to turn that momentary exercise into a practice of mindful attention.

What occupies your attention all day long? It has barely occurred to most people to notice what they pay attention to, a necessary first step before you can start to consciously decide what to pay attention to.

I won’t repeat all the research that has been done on this question, which can easily be found elsewhere. It is enough to say that most people’s patterns of attention are highly repetitive. Repetitive thoughts are a sign of emotional insecurity, and so you may conclude that almost everyone is highly insecure about something in their lives, and whatever that topic is in your life, it is likely to occupy a disproportionate share of your attention.

It is hard to overstate the potential benefits of taking more control over what you give your attention to.

  1. You can substantially change your personality just by changing what you pay attention to.
  2. Rendering a strategy successfully depends mostly on paying attention to the right details. And yes, this includes that strategy for making a million dollars. If you don’t pay attention to the right things, you won’t get the million dollars.
  3. You will automatically become more popular if you are more consistent in paying attention to the people immediately around you.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

How do you get started? Here is one approach especially suited to a family holiday. Start by quietly making a list of things you have thought about more than once in the past hour. Try to include the things that are so obvious that you hesitate to write them down. The things that are so plainly evident to you may go unnoticed by others.

Then, separately, ask the people around to point out things they think you might have overlooked. You might just ask, “What’s interesting here that you think I might not have noticed?” Some of the things people point out will be things that you hadn’t noticed until they were pointed out to you. This works especially well with people who know your tendencies and blind spots, but it can work to an extent with random strangers also.

By comparing the two results, you can see that you notice some things and overlook others. The things you focus on obsessively are not necessarily more important than the things you fail to notice at all. This observation is a starting point for intentionally changing the things you focus in.