Paying attention is a catch-all phrase that really means to bring to conscious awareness – to set in front of the mind’s eye – a particular object of experience (a thought, feeling, image, sensation, etc.) and hold it there. Simply paying attention can be much harder than it sounds, and paying attention in a certain way only adds to the complication.
The process of paying attention to world is just stacked with layers of unconscious processes. Before an image of a chair, for instance, is even registered as a chair – before it is actually seen – our mind has already given it a once (or twice) over… To say we ever actually see anything is conditioned on the event of our minds already responding to it. That means that we perceive the world first (we see, hear, smell etc.) and then we notice that we perceive the world!
This is an astonishing feature of consciousness. Our minds are always orienting us to the environment through the filter of our motivations, deciding what the environment means to us, and taking (at least) preliminary action through priming (and sometimes activating) subsystems of motor responses before we even notice what we are experiencing! In fact, it would not be overstated to say that we only perceive as a consequence of non-conscious sensory compilation and construction! [Maybe I am abusing exclamatory punctuation in this post, but I don’t think so…]
Some of the motivations that “drive” us are basic (hunger, thirst, etc.) while others are more abstract (furthering our careers, impressing our spouse, etc.); and meaning from the world that our minds derive for us may seem deterministic, but they are in fact based on our disposition, past experiences, and future expectations. The motor responses that are set into action may also seem totally out of our hands, but we have the power to regulate them. The regulative capacity that we are all endowed with is a keystone of choice in mental life – we should take care to practice utilizing it.
As we attempt to capture our own attention in order to place it on what we want (hopefully on what is best for us), one of the most noticeable things is that it is like trying to train a newborn puppy to sit politely at the dinner table. The more you pull, the more it pulls; the more you demand, the less it obeys. Handling this situation with grace is delicate to put it mildly (it can be infuriating!), but changing the view one has about what “control” is can be helpful.
Simply watching the behavior of your own attention can be a very informative experience. It can also be very interesting. Feeding that feeling of interestedness rather than feeding distraction and chaos is really a better goal than an attempted authoritative attentional “control”. Whether out of deference, respect, or helplessness, attention bows its head to interest; it is calmed and domesticated through the enticing power of interest. This is why we learn better when novelty, emotion, and the unexpected are a part of the process.
To train the mind to find the behavior of attention interesting, all you have to do is observe – but observe with an evenness of mind; with equanimity; without trying to hold onto the pleasant or push away the unpleasant; just note what is observed, nothing else. If you are reading, meditating, working, or anything else that takes concentration and the mind wanders, simply note “the mind is wandering” and move it back to what you want. If it happens again, respond in the same way. Notice over time how this process comes about, how it is experienced, and how it dissipates: focus, notice distraction, disengage from distraction, refocus, repeat… This won’t fix the problem, it will make the problem a non-problem.
Distractions seem to thrive off of non-attention; they lurk in the shadows of attention… This sounds counter-intuitive, but the only way we can be distracted is when objects of distraction have the chance to distract us! This means that we take power away from distraction when we notice then disengage from them; and we feed them with our own will when we fight them or pretend they are not there.
Finally, we can come to the point where distractions are welcomed – not because we are bored with what we are doing, but because only then can we exercise the freedom of choice to turn our attention to that which we want. This will not annihilate distractions, but it will render them empty of influence. The newborn puppy probably doesn’t want to sit at the table anyway… get out of your seat, pick it up, give it a smile, and set it down outside.