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bits of serendipity to inspire and motivate
fuel for your own continuous learning
tips and tricks you can try today
|Focus of Attention||RAPT: Attention and the Focused Life||Technology and Attentiveness||What is Your Focus Now?|
Focus of Attention
With neon signs that take up the side of a whole building, vendors and musicians on every corner, traffic racing through the streets, and faces from seven continents, a stroll through Times Square was a night of entertainment all by itself. But trying to find the restaurant where my friend was waiting, I walked right past it - twice!
I realized it's actually easier to ignore the frantic details up close and focus on what's happening across the street instead.
With the distant view as a temptation, we easily overlook the people and opportunities closest to us.
Attention and the Focused Life
by Winifred Gallagher, Penguin Books, 2010, ISBN 978-0-14-311690-5
With its black cover and bold yellow print, Winifred Gallagher's book, Rapt, caught my eye immediately. But what drew me to pick it up and eventually read it was the subtitle and the promise of an increase in clarity and purpose. Did I achieve that? Well, not yet, in all honesty, but Gallagher's book offers ideas about why I haven't and how I might in the future.
Rapt is an exploration of our attention, what attracts it, what holds it, and how to use it to be more purposeful. Gallagher approaches attention from two directions. She writes about the role of "bottom up" attention for survival and its purpose to alert us to danger and opportunity in our immediate environment. Bottom up attention relies upon novelty to pull our focus in a particular direction. It helps us identify and prioritize what's important in the moment from staying safe to finding a mate or keeping a job.
Gallagher also spends time explaining the way in which our "top down" attention can help sustain energy and, in so doing, shape the way we experience our circumstances. This top down control of attention is what determines the quality of our lives. Choosing to focus attention on a person's positive intentions rather than the last time they offended you, for example, has a strong impact on how you are likely to view them in the future. Additionally, it's also likely to color your experience with the next person you run into.
One of the interesting features of attentionis the variety of ways it plays out in our lives - mostly below our awareness. With chapters on relationships, productivity, decision-making, creativity, motivation, health, and meaning, the book offers explanation and insight. Some examples:
Using the qualities of attention, a characteristic we usually take for granted, Rapt offers a helpful window to the workings of our mind.
many things to think about
no matter what I do
bought a dictionary
wake up in the morning
I went to see a therapist
there's much too much to think about
During the past few months, the concept of attention has gained a lot of traction in light of the rocketing popularity of social media and its ability to insert itself into our lives at any moment.
As the 99-Word Story illustrates, it's not just high tech gadgets that cause us to lose control of our attention. Too much focus on one thing becomes an obsession. Dan Bern's song Jane (see sidebar) is a humorous example of what can happen when our attention circuits fixate on a single topic.
On the other hand, the inability to filter out unwanted stimuli can be just as debilitating. The 2009 film Sherlock Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie and staring Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes, features a character who is unable to ignore sensory input. While this gives Holmes the ability to notice details and extract clues from them for his investigation, it also becomes a source of overwhelming stimulation that drives Holmes to binge drinking and drugged blackouts lasting days at a stretch. Watch the film with special attention to a short scene in which Holmes, while waiting for Watson and his fiancé, is nearly overburdened by the stimuli in what most would describe as a stately, polite restaurant setting.
For me, the question becomes one of being intentional about how and to whom we focus our attention. What role do we assign for technology in our attentiveness? Do we focus on the tweets and IMs we are receiving or to the person in the room with us now; the glitz and dazzle of Times Square or the important information under our nose?
Then, once we are aware of our present focus, what are we thinking about? Will our thoughts enable us to make a difference in the moment or will they perpetuate a cycle of distracted worry, fear, or stress? Being attentive can help us choose.
(The word cloud above is based on the lyrics to Jane by Dan Bern. Click the image to hear the song. The word cloud was created at http://www.wordle.net/ See additional word clouds based on the same lyrics HERE.)
is Your Focus Now?
To gain more awareness about your own level of attention and your ability to filter out what's unnecessary or to create a flow state of focus, you might try this experiment.
Place your watch on your opposite wrist. Wear it that way for several days or a week. Now, every time you check your watch you'll be reminded to check your attention too. Whether you want to know the time or you simply notice the naked feeling on your other, empty wrist, you can make a mental note of what has been occupying your thoughts.
Each time you are reminded to pay attention to your own level of attention, here are some things you might do:
When practicing this activity, you are tapping into Gallagher's notion that our bottom up attention (looking at your watch) can continually refocus your higher-function top down attention.
Some mystics tell us we create our own reality. Whether that's true or not, we do at least create our own experience of it. If you try this experiment, please what you create!
"It's hard to keep the world's attention for more than half an hour, and I've managed to do it for more than half a century. But in a world that is becoming more and more surreal, it is going to be more and more difficult to shock."
-- Salvador Dali
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