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Have you ever found yourself struggling to stay focused during a meeting, on a specific work task, or in conversation with a friend? No matter how hard we try, we often find that our mind has a mind of its own. Unbeknownst to us, our attention drifts, wandering away from the task-at-hand.
Over my career as a researcher and brain scientist, I’ve been studying the science of attention and this is what I have learned: Attention is extremely powerful. What we pay attention to defines our lived experience. But as powerful as attention is, it is also vulnerable to distraction, so much so that we are missing up to 50% of our lives.
The good news is that there is nothing wrong with you. Your brain was built to be distractible, working exactly as the forces of human evolution have driven it to function. The even better news is that after decades of research in my lab at the University of Miami, were we’ve studied attention across boardrooms, classrooms, battlefields, and sports fields, we’ve discovered that there are effective solutions to train our attention to function better.
In my book Peak Mind, I discuss, in depth, what attention is, how it works, and most importantly how you can harness the power of your attention. Cultivating a peak mind is about training your brain to pay attention in order to gain fuller access to your life.
Attention is a complex brain system that can be divided into various subsystems that all work together to allow our minds to function effectively in our distraction-rich, fast-paced, and dynamic world. One of these subsystems is called the orienting system. We use it to select information and narrow our focus. I use the metaphor of a flashlight to help us understand how orienting works.
If we find ourselves in a darkened room, a flashlight can prove to be very helpful. Imagine using its strong steady beam, directing it to survey what is in the space around you so you can find your way. Wherever your flashlight shines becomes brighter and clearer, more details come into view compared to everything else that remains dark.
Just like that beam of light, our attention can be directed to benefit our ability to get more detail and clarity about our external environment, as well as the landscape of our own minds— from the meal we’re cooking or the conversation with are having with a friend, to a specific memory or plan we’d like to make for a future event. While we are focused on such things, other sights, sounds, thoughts, and memories fade into the background.
Honing our focus begins by finding our attentional flashlight, so we can direct it where it serves us best.
Try it now...
Find Your Focus
Take a moment to lower or close your eyes. Notice where your attention is right now, without trying to change anything.
Begin by noticing that your body is breathing. Remember you are not trying to control your breath; you are simply watching it as it flows naturally through your body.
Next, guide your attentional flashlight to breath-related sensations. Choose something vivid, such as air flowing in and out of your nose, as the anchor for your attention.
Now, practice shining your attentional flashlight on your breath, and keeping it there.
Any time you notice that your mind is drifting away from your anchor toward a sound, a thought, or something else, gently redirect your flashlight back to the breath.
Even if the mind wanders away repeatedly, keep returning to your breath, right here, right now, flowing in and out of your body. Focus, notice, redirect, and repeat.
Practice this for the next three minutes. I invite you to set a timer on your phone and let yourself settle in.
This exercise allows us to strengthen our attention by finding our focus, over and over again.
I mentioned that there are multiple subsystems of our attention that work fluidly together to allow our minds to function effectively. Another important subsystem, called the alerting system, is in many ways the opposite of the flashlight.
While the orienting system, the flashlight, is narrow and focused, the alerting system is broad, open, and receptive. This function is in use when you go ‘on-alert’, receptive to what is happening in the moment, broadly aware so that, when needed, you can intentionally direct your focus and take action.
Think of the last time you were driving or walking somewhere and saw a flashing yellow light on the side of the road. Perhaps it was near a construction zone or a school. When detected, we go ‘on alert’ receptive to whatever may occur next. Perhaps there are workers or equipment to notice, or children needing to cross the street. Whatever it is, we are fully attentive to it.
This alerting function of our attention can not only help us maneuver in the world so we are ready for whatever we may encounter, but it can help us notice what arises in the mind—specific thoughts or memories. Only when we are on alert and attentive to what is happening in this moment, can we notice if a troubling thought has gripped us, persisting in our minds, churning for far too long. When we are receptive to what is arising in the moment, we can choose to take action or simply allow the content to pass away, like the sound of a fire truck approaching us. The siren is loud, alerting us to its proximity, and then as it passes it fades away.
When we use the orienting function of our attention, we are creating narrow focus, there is a specific target for our attention. With alerting, there is no specific target we are looking to hone in on. Rather, our attention is open to receive all that arises in the moment, especially things that are salient. We can train this system as well, strengthening our powers of observation and steadiness.
Our attention is one of our most precious resources. It fuels our ability to think, feel, and connect. One of the greatest powers of our attention is that it weaves together the moment-to-moment details of our lives — the textures, colors, scents, insights, memories, decisions. What we pay attention to is our life.
Attention is not only a brain resource, but also a currency, one of our most valuable currencies. When we think about attention in this way, we can see it as a conduit for connection. We recognize that offering our attention is an act of care and one of our highest forms of love. Paying attention communicates to our loved ones, friends, and colleagues that they are important to us, and we create the opportunity for more meaningful connection.
By understanding the full power of our attention, we can train our brains to function more effectively and find focus in a world of distraction. Through this training, we strengthen our capacity to experience our lives more fully.
When my lab set out to find effective ways to train attention, we tried many things from mood inductions, brain training games, to devices and more. But what we learned is that more so than modern gadgets, it was an ancient set of practices, set forth by the world’s wisdom traditions, that was proving to be most effective at strengthening attention. These practices involved cultivating mindfulness, a present-centered, non-judgmental attentional mode. Participating in mindfulness practices regularly, over time, will change the functioning and structures of your brain.
In my book, Peak Mind, I describe a specific suite of mindfulness practices that our research studies have repeatedly found to benefit attention. They engage and strengthen concentrative focus and a receptive form of your attention. Each of the practices is outlined in detail for your continued engagement and reference in the practice guide portion of the book. I also introduce these concepts and offer you a chance to sample the practices in a new program on the Chopra App, Journey to Well-being: Healthy Mind, where you can practice and learn about your attention with me.
Our research suggested that there is a minimum effective dose required to strengthen and protect attention. It involves practicing for twelve minutes five or more days per week. In addition, it’s important to know that just like physical exercise, the more you practice the more you benefit. Start slow, do what is manageable and self-supportive for you, and remember it’s not a race; these practices are adaptable for you!
Cultivating a peak mind is not about perfection or striving to get somewhere else. It is about harnessing the power of this precious brain resource of attention, to use it when you need it most, in the ways that serve you best.
Declutter the mind and strengthen focus in Journey to Well-being: Healthy Mind, a five-part series with Dr. Amishi Jha, available now on the Chopra App.