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Jan Birchfield, Ph.D Headshot

Paying Attention to How We Attend

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The way that we pay attention is integrally related to the reality that we perceive as "true." By the time we have grown into adulthood most of us live within a certain repetitive and narrow band of attention; boredom and a certain degree of numbness is the result. Often, we can sense a kind of spaciousness outside of our habits of attention but rarely do we feel capable of accessing this.

Our attention is habituated on many levels: We have a repetitive range of emotion that we continually return to, a narrow and habituated way of using our vision, a narrow range with which we attend to auditory input, a belief system that narrows our perceptual field and a way of processing intellectually that reinforces our view of the world. Often a "midlife crisis" or other kinds of struggles in adulthood are, in part, crises related to this narrow way of attending. We become bored with ourselves, longing to access a more spontaneous way of being in the world. We assume that our boredom has to do with the exterior world, so we buy a new car or get a new haircut. We are often unaware that our boredom arises from a self-created prison of habituated attention. We lose touch with the fact that the way we are attending affects the degree to which we feel connected to the world around us and to life itself.

Les Fehmi is a forerunner in the field of biofeedback and he has studied how we pay attention for over forty years. He contrasts two ways of attending when he describes a pride of lions relaxing together on the African savannah. They are breathing slowly, their muscles are relaxed, and their attention is diffuse and wide open. An injured animal comes into their sight, and suddenly the lions move from this relaxed state to an intense, single-pointed focus. Their muscles tense and their heart and respiratory rates increase. The lions have shifted to an emergency mode of paying attention. Once the injured animal has become dinner the lions quickly return to a state that is wide open, alert, and relaxed.

Most leaders and, indeed, most Americans are rarely in this open and relaxed state. Like the lion in emergency mode, the vast majority of us are in a chronic state of focused attention. This is great for certain kinds of problem solving and during an actual emergency. However, when we habitually attend in this way we limit our perceptual field and we live in a constant state of stress.

Many of us are actually addicted to this way of attending. In school, children are often expected to narrow and focus their attention throughout the day, and those that cannot are often viewed as having Attention Deficit Disorder.The relaxed, alert, and wide open state, which is conducive for such things as creativity, picking up subtle information from our environment, accessing intuition, and gaining a broad, visionary perspective, is less valued.

We all know that it is critical that leaders, in particular, keep a broad and deep perspective on the reality that is unfolding around them. The most effective leaders move back and forth with flexibility and ease between a narrow and focused state to an alert and open one. For long-term sustainability, it is best that the default mode of attending be relaxed and open. There are some leaders that do this automatically but these are few and far between. For most leaders this capacity requires development. Here are some simple ways to explore this:

  1. Close your eyes and follow the rhythm of your breath as it moves in and out of your body. Do not manipulate your breath; just observe it. When you discover that your attention has wandered, gently, without judgment, bring it back to the breath. Do this for five minutes. When you open your eyes, soften your gaze and notice your attention. It will naturally be more relaxed and open.
  2. When you are holding a narrow focus your eyes are not relaxed. Whenever you think of it, relax your eyes.
  3. Look at the view in front of you and take in whatever is within your field of vision. Chances are good that your natural gaze is more narrowly focused. Now, soften your gaze, bringing a broader peripheral vision into your awareness. Relax your eyes. Expand and widen your view, taking in the entire field that is in front of you. Now, shift your attention to the space that is between objects, allowing space itself to become foreground and the objects in space to become background.
  4. The next time you are in a meeting take a moment to notice how you are attending. You may be listening carefully to whomever is speaking or focusing on your agenda. Then, pull the lens of your focus back and soften your gaze. With this softer gaze, notice the entire group field, without focusing on anything specific. Hold this perspective for a few minutes, and see what you find. Notice things like the quality of the group field, the mood, the level of energy, or your own deeper intuitive response to the issues at hand. This is a particularly good practice when you are learning to focus on content (what is actually being discussed) and process (how things are being discussed including the quality of the dialogue).