– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

“Sit up and pay attention!” Remember those words? For many of us they probably reflect the total of the education and guidance that we’ve received about how to pay attention. And it wasn’t a bad start, were it said just a little more kindly.

The thing is that today’s culture is saturated in technology and habits that further undermine, as opposed to strengthen, our ability to pay undivided attention. This undermining may begin in earnest when we introduce TV and videos to our babies. No wonder, as Jon Kabat-Zinn has said, we live in ADHD Nation.

We all know what we’re like when we don’t pay attention – we’re only able to do things automatically, we get distracted easily, and it’s like we can’t hear or see or plan or know.

Notice that when someone gives you a phone number to hold in mind you can’t do anything else that requires attention. We can still do automatic, skilled things, but not much else. If we’re distracted the number just goes.

Attention is like a spot-light that lets us see, a mental workspace for planning and creativity, the vital energy that animates our intentions. Attention researchers have determined that attention is like the mind’s director, asserting that a goal remain in an active state while pushing away any interference.

What happens if we don’t pay attention to what our own minds are up to?

The evidence indicates that attention is critical for regulating our emotion and stress. Remember that emotions evolved as reactions to threats and losses and are essential to survival. The thing about human emotion is that it turns on in a snap but then it can stay turned on and on and on. And we commonly react to our reactions (I’m an idiot to be so worried).

Furthermore, our human mind-brain can vividly imagine future and past situations. We can run epic simulations and plan accordingly, a tremendous ability to be sure. The big trouble today is that our minds have a strong inclination to wander off and get lost in the simulations of past regrets and future worries. Major psychological problems, including depression and anxiety, can follow from the runaway use of this natural ability.

Because attention happens at the moment of intersection of the past and the future, where life is happening, attention is key to regulating this overused simulation process. Paying attention is a way of seeing what’s on our mind; not to avoid it but to know it. And seeing can open up new ways of dealing with something.

What is a thought? When we don’t pay attention to a thought (This appointment today will be terrible) it can have a power and scope of control that can warp our behaviour and shackle us to a perspective that feels as firm as cement – the thought feels like reality. But when we pay rich attention to what we’re thinking, what does the thought become? It can be become as robust as nothing, evaporating under attention, losing its power to direct and bend us.

Being mindful of our mind can reduce our stress significantly. And what problems might follow if we don’t pay attention to our bodies? To our children? To our partners?

In hindsight it’s quite remarkable that our culture had not hit on the idea of teaching paying attention to kids, teens, adults and oldsters alike. Many varieties of mindfulness training are now appearing and the research examining the application of mindfulness to emotional and physical health is very exciting. Funny that the core of the training is to “Sit up and pay attention.”