Pay Attention

Pay Attention

Is your mind wandering?

The Practice:
Pay attention.

Why?

Moment to moment, the flows of thoughts and feelings, sensations and desires, and conscious and unconscious processes sculpt your nervous system like water gradually carving furrows and eventually gullies on a hillside. Your brain is continually changing its structure. The only question is: Is it for better or worse?

In particular, because of what’s called “experience-dependent neuroplasticity,” whatever you hold in attention has a special power to change your brain. Attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain – and yourself.

Therefore, controlling your attention – becoming more able to place it where you want it and keep it there, and more able to pull it away from what’s bothersome or pointless (such as looping again and again through anxious preoccupations, mental grumbling, or self-criticism) – is the foundation of changing your brain, and thus your life, for the better. As the great psychologist, William James, wrote over a century ago: “The education of attention would be the education par excellence.”

But to gain better control of attention – to become more mindful and more able to concentrate – we need to overcome a few challenges. In order to survive, our ancestors evolved to be stimulation-hungry and easily distracted, continually scanning their interior and their environment for opportunities and threats, carrots and sticks. There is also a natural range of temperament, from focused and cautious “turtles” to distractible and adventuresome “jackrabbits.” Upsetting experiences – especially traumatic ones – train the brain to be vigilant, with attention skittering from one thing to another. And modern culture makes us accustomed to an intense incoming fire hose of stimuli, so anything less – like the sensations of simply breathing – can feel unrewarding, boring, or frustrating.

To overcome these challenges, it’s useful to cultivate some neural factors of attention – in effect, getting your brain on your side to help you get a better grip on this spotlight/vacuum cleaner.

How?

You can use one or more of the seven factors below at the start of any deliberate focusing of attention – from keeping your head in a dull business meeting to contemplative practices such as meditation or prayer – and then let them move to the background as you shift into whatever the activity is. You can also draw upon one or more during the activity if your attention is flagging. They are listed in an order that makes sense to me, but you can vary the sequence. (There’s more information about attention, mindfulness, concentration, and contemplative absorption in Buddha’s Brain.)

Here we go.

  1. Set the intention to sustain your attention, to be mindful. You can do this both top-down, by giving yourself a gentle instruction to be attentive, and bottom-up, by opening to the sense in your body of what mindfulness feels like.
  2. Relax. For example, take several exhalations that are twice as long as your inhalations. This stimulates the calming, centering parasympathetic nervous system and settles down the fight-or-flight stress-response sympathetic nervous system that jiggles the spotlight of attention this way and that, looking for carrots and sticks.
  3. Without straining at it, think of things that help you feel cared about – that you matter to someone, that you belong in a relationship or group, that you are seen and appreciated, or even cherished and loved. It’s OK if the relationship isn’t perfect, or that you bring to mind people from the past, or pets, or spiritual beings. You could also get a sense of your own goodwill for others, your own compassion, kindness, and love. Warming up the heart in this way helps you feel protected, and it brings a rewarding juiciness to the moment – which support #4 and #5 below.
  4. Think of things that help you feel safer, and thus more able to rest attention on your activities, rather than vigilantly scanning. Notice that you are likely in a relatively safe setting, with resources inside you to cope with whatever life brings. Let go of any unreasonable anxiety, any unnecessary guarding or bracing.
  5. Gently encourage some positive feelings, even mild or subtle ones. For example, think of something you feel glad about or grateful for; go-to’s for me include my kids, Yosemite, and just being alive. Open as you can to an underlying sense of well-being that may nonetheless contain some struggles or pain. The sense of pleasure or reward in positive emotions increases the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which closes a kind of gate in the neural substrates of working memory, thus keeping out any “barbarians,” any invasive distractions.
  6. Get a sense of the body as a whole, its many sensations appearing together each moment in the boundless space of awareness. This sense of things as a unified gestalt, perceived within a large and panoramic perspective, activates networks on the sides of the brain (especially the right – for right-handed people) that support sustained mindfulness. And it de-activates the networks along the midline of the brain that we use when we’re lost in thought.
  7. For 10-20-30 seconds in a row, stay with whatever positive experiences you’re having or lessons you’re learning. Since “neurons that fire together, wire together,” this savoring and registering helps weave the fruits of your attentive efforts into the fabric of your brain and yourself.


Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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