Being told to pay attention is one of the most common things we will hear in our lives: from our parents, teachers, partners, even our devices demand our attention with constant notifications and alerts. And yet we can often lose focus on our work or someone who is speaking to us, resulting in a feeling of disappointment in ourselves. We might think that there is something wrong with us and respond by re-doubling our efforts to focus on that one thing and block out everything else around us. This is a problem that many people face when trying to meditate. They settle down in a comfortable position, close their eyes and try to focus their attention on their breath as it flows in and out of their lungs. The inevitable outcome of this practice is that their mind will wander again and again away from the breath, and every time they try to force focus back to their breath they will become increasingly frustrated until finally, they proclaim to the world, “I can’t meditate!” But have we ever stopped to think about how we are paying attention, and is it possible that there is a wrong way to pay attention? Well, the answer is no, not really. There is no right or wrong way to pay attention, but there are multiple ways of paying attention
A different way of paying attention
When our attention is directed at only one objective or task we might say we are displaying focussed attention, whereas when our attention spans across multiple focus points we would identify that as open attention. Different circumstances call for different styles of attention, and yet unfortunately as human beings we find ourselves paying focussed attention far more than is actually necessary. Earlier, when we described the troubles some of us have when trying to focus on our breath in meditation; the extreme effort that we put into paying attention when our minds wander off task is an example of focussed attention. This focussed attention can be helpful for certain tasks but is largely harmful to our long term mental health and wellbeing. Before we dive into the pros and cons of focussed and open attention it is important to understand the way our brains react to different types of attention.
The four types of brainwave activity
Studies using EEG (electroencephalogram) have revealed four variations of brainwave frequencies. These frequencies, which are measured in hertz (Hz), detail the level of activity in the brain as an electrical representation. According to these studies our brainwaves can either be:
· Delta (0.5-4 Hz), which is the lowest and occurs when we are asleep.
· Theta (4-8 Hz), which is present when we are deeply relaxed/daydreaming, or falling asleep.
· Alpha (8-12 Hz), when we are relaxed but still aware of our surroundings.
· Beta (13-50 Hz), which is the frequency we live most of our lives in.
As was mentioned earlier, there is a place for focussed attention in our lives, however, an extended amount of time spent in the mid to high beta range of brainwave frequency will lead to feelings of stress and anxiety as the sympathetic nervous system is being constantly engaged, keeping us in fight or flight mode. Evidently, there are other ways in which our brains can function so we can both focus and relax. So why can’t we seem to engage this type of attention?
The curse of focussed attention
In today’s fast-paced and highly competitive world it is often heavily encouraged to be hyper-focused on our goals, and we are rarely rewarded for relaxing or taking a break. Because of this, we have trained our brains to maintain an impossibly high level of focus with very little respite. We employ focussed attention to power through our work or studies, however, once we have either completed the task or become distracted from it, we will instantly divert our focussed attention onto another activity in avoidance of the negative thoughts and sensations that may arise after a fight or flight reaction. We can turn to our phones, televisions or music to distract us, and although this makes us feel better in the short term we are still employing focused attention on our chosen distraction. As mentioned, this works in the short term as it can alleviate our anxiety and we may even feel like we have regained control over the negative sensations we are trying to avoid – however we have only stalled our interaction with them. The problem with using focussed attention as a coping mechanism is that eventually the negative thoughts or emotions will become more imposing in our minds than the distraction, and we will either have to face up to them or be pushed into more extreme and potent forms of distraction, like alcohol or drugs. We are also not giving our bodies a chance to return to the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls our bodies rest and repair functions.
The saviour of open attention
I’m guessing your question now is, “so, what’s so great about open attention and how do you use it?” Attention is all about effort, how much effort we put into our attention and where we direct it. With focussed attention, we know that we are directing our attention in full onto one thing. Open attention, however, requires us to spread that attention across, well, everything. I am aware that this description may lead you to think that open attention will take a substantial amount more effort than focussed attention – you are asking your mind to stop paying attention to one thing and pay attention to everything! Allow me to reassure you, this is a completely different kind of attention. It’s more of an awareness. So rather than forcing your mind to pretend like the world around you doesn’t exist, you’re asking it to just be aware of it. You don’t need to engage with everything around you, in fact you can still keep the majority of your attention on that really important presentation for work, or your breath during meditation, but by allowing your attention to notice sounds, smells, objects and sensations out with that you can alleviate the pressure on your mind to maintain its focus on just one thing.
Open awareness exercise
Here’s an exercise you can use to strengthen your use of open attention. Next time you take a walk, with the purpose of going somewhere or just for enjoyment, try to spread your awareness across each of your senses. Focus first on what you can see directly in front of you, and then allow yourself to become aware of the objects in your peripheral vision. This may take some time, but once you’ve done this try to next become aware of the space between you and these objects. Our minds are not trained to perceive open space so, again this may take a little while but remember this isn’t about forcing your attention onto specific things, it’s about allowing your curiosity to wander beyond what’s directly in the forefront of your vision. As well as spreading your visual awareness, you can also tune into your other senses. For example, notice the sounds around you, can you hear other voices, the sound of the wind rustling leaves? Can you notice any smells? And what about the feeling of the ground under your feet, are you walking over brittle twigs or cobbled streets? Once you’ve gotten the hang of this practice you’ll notice that you haven’t started walking into lamp posts or completely forgetting to walk, rather it becomes clear that we are perfectly capable of dispersing our attention while still completing our primary task.
This practice is extremely malleable and can be applied to any activity. Try it while meditating, when you’re asked to focus on your breath see if you can also allow your attention to drift to the sounds, smells and sensations around you. This is sometimes a tricky technique to master, luckily MindOwl can offer you some assistance. In our courses, we really look into attention and how open attention can help you in your meditation practice, and your life at large. By expanding our awareness and attention beyond what’s directly in front of us, what we were previously directing focussed attention towards becomes less intimidating. We can still complete the task, continue the example of focusing on our breath during meditation, and avoid overwhelming our minds by solely focussing on just our breath. If you’ve found that you struggle with concentration, open attention is a unique way of spreading your focus so you can complete the necessary task in front of you without overwhelming your mind and causing it even more stress.
Expanding awareness exercise:
MindOwl Founder – My own struggles in life have led me to this path of understanding the human condition. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.