“Pay attention!” What happens in your head when you hear those words?
Childhood memories of parents, teachers and other Big People ordering you to do it probably aren’t your fondest memories. It almost always meant, “I’m going to tell you something you probably are not interested in or something you don’t want to hear. Listen anyway!”
Public address and warning system pronouncements and alerts that begin with “Attention!” are either boring, unintelligible, or scary…stuff that produces sinking feelings in the pit of your belly or a blank-out of white noise in your head.
In the military and other groups, “Attention!” is an order. There’s even a special, specified way to “stand at attention” that indicates to the leader-person that you are, indeed, alert and ready to receive your next order.
I suspect that whenever most of us hear the call for attention, there’s a kind of automatic shut-down.
For many of us, our attitude on being ordered to attend to something is summed up by Quora contributor Josh Manson’s comment in this 2015 thread that centered around defining the meaning of the phrase:
I am too broke to pay attention most of the time.
I’m too broke to pay my respect to anything.
I am ok with paying no mind to things that don’t concern me.
To pay means to give something of yourself to another. It is normally associated with money, so we don’t need to specify anything when it’s money we pay, it will be assumed. But to pay attention or pay respect is still giving something of yourself to another.
One question that springs to mind is this: “Okay, so I pay attention. What does that buy me?”
THE VALUE OF PAYING ATTENTION
As adults, the value of paying attention is likely to be self-evident. Somehow, we know, it’s the key to many things related to our lives.
- We have to pay attention to walk across a busy street.
- Our self-esteem and the authenticity of the way we walk develop according to the attention we give to our own thoughts and feelings, needs and values, beliefs and ideas.
- Our happiness and the satisfaction and fulfillment we feel as we meet the goals and aspirations we set for ourselves is enhanced by our attention.
- Our relationships and the communities we build are a lot more satisfying if we actually pay attention to each other and to the world around us.
- Our business affairs, our careers, and the work we do to develop various skills require our attention.
- Learning anything new demands our focused attention.
- Our finances certainly benefit from our attention.
- If we have health issues, we need to pay attention to our way of living in order to heal ourselves.
We can miss many of the moments of our life because we are not fully present for them and are moving around on auto-pilot, going through our daily routines, unaware of what we’re doing or experiencing as we ignore the world around us and multi-task our way through our days.
ATTENTION VS JUDGMENT
Okay. Now it gets convoluted.
In order to do this “paying attention” thing right – the kind that can change our lives — first we have to understand that there is a difference between “attention” and “judgment.” Very often the definitions of those two words get mixed up.
Attention is neutral. We just notice something. We “pay attention” to it and see that whatever we are noticing is just there and we are there with it.
Judgment, on the other hand, is what comes after the noticing. We humans are really, REALLY good at doing and fixing and solving stuff. Because we are bent that way, we tend to look at everything we see as something that needs to be assessed, critiqued, and then probably “fixed” or rejected or enhanced. We want to do something with this thing we noticed. We jump right in and start rearranging and moving stuff around.
We even do it to each other, which leads to all kinds of story-making, poetry, tragedy and comedy and such and all sorts of turmoil in our lives.
While “judgment” is certainly useful, it is not “attention.”
Attention is about noticing and being with something without trying to change it. Attention means taking the time to fully explore, to discover whatever there is to know about something, and to watch as things change by themselves with no interference from us.
Isn’t that starting to sound familiar? It’s like that stuff we’ve heard from all kinds of wise guys about “being mindful” doesn’t it?
It’s also a lot like what all those life-coaches and love counselors tell us about the most effective ways to enhance our relationships with others: Be open. Notice all those other people without judgment or criticism, welcome them, accept them, be patient, be kind.
The same advice applies to developing your relationship to your own self. (The best thing about being an adult is that we also have the capacity and the wherewithal to pay attention and to nurture our own selves as well.)
And the key to all of that is just simply to “pay attention.”
YOUR BRAIN ON “PAYING ATTENTION”
It’s an amazing thing. Numerous studies by neurologists and other smarty-pants scientists keep showing that the way we think and what we pay attention to does physically affect us and have tremendous impact on our lives. Those wise guys of old were right!
One 2009 best-seller book, BUDDHA’S BRAIN: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, by Rick Hanson, PhD with Richard Mendius, mixes neuroscientific breakthroughs with ancient wisdom teachings from thousands of years of contemplative practice and is filled with information about the practical tools and skills that help you deal with life in our complex and complicated modern world.
Hanson, a psychologist and a Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley California, is also the founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom. According to him, the scientists have found that “attention shapes the brain.”
What we pay attention to is literally what we will build into our brain tissue. Whatever we focus on affects how the neurons in our brains develop and wire themselves together.
The practice, he says, can strengthen our brains as well as help us focus our attention.
This 2011 YouTube Video featuring Hanson, “How to Change Your Brain” was uploaded by Greater Good Science Center. It emphasizes the value of mindfulness and paying attention to the development of your brain, even as it ages.
Experiences matter, he says, and the memories you make as you’re paying attention to the world around you can help you keep your brain strong even as you age.
Here’s a poem:
AW, GOOD GRIEF!
So I took the road less-traveled
Way-back-when, while in my youth.
I recall it was my “Seeker” phase.
(I remember I was all
“St. George” and “forsooth.”)
That day I stopped in this dark woods,
I don’t think I pondered deep.
I had no previous appointment,
No promises to keep.
I took off running like a shot
Past t’s to cross and i’s to dot.
Booking it faster than my fears
I ran on down the faintest track,
Blood all singing in my ears.
I abandoned that clear-cut highway that
Headed right into the tried-and-true,
The Mama-says-not world
That kept making my brown eyes blue.
(I don’t recall one glance back.)
I wandered and I wondered
What the heck this thing’s about,
Got tangled up with other folks,
Never did quite figure it out.
I’ve been up and down and sideways
On so many tracks and trails,
Traversed bits of this old mountain side
(Had to run sometimes and sometimes hide).
Puzzles sought and solved,
Conundrums all untied,
Companions who lived and died.
Those tracks and trails meander on
Through the thick surrounding brush,
Then over the great forest comes
A deep and poignant hush.
I look around and realize:
These things are wild pig trails.
Where am I?
by Netta Kanoho
Header Photo credit: “Huh?” by Morgan via Flickr [CC BY-2.0]
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