12/23/2013 11:13 am ET Updated Feb 24, 2014

Our Powerful and Fragile Attention

Do you ever wonder what it is you're missing when you're focused on your smartphone? Or when you're focused on a memory? Or anxiously anticipating something coming up in the future?

The way we use our attention shapes and controls our reality. Magicians and thieves know this; it's why they use a technique they refer to as misdirection. They do this by creating a stress or distraction that occupies our attention bandwidth, and gives them control of our attention to re-direct as they wish.

The simplest direction, such as a request to recall a memory, taps our attention bandwidth in a way that completely occupies and distracts us. Further, the slightest stress -- like a request for the time or directions -- can also distract us.

Our attention is, at once, both powerful and fragile.

Lucky for us, thieves are generally not lurking around every corner as we walk down the street, eyes fixed on our smartphones, fingers rapidly texting. If they were, our pockets would be emptied as we walk while we text or talk, or move through the world with our minds more focused on our to-do lists than on our surroundings.

Even without a pickpocket in our midst, every day we create stress and misdirection in our effort to effectively use our attention.

What if I told you that the way we are talking about attention is part of the problem? Our conversation about distraction, multitasking, and the stern command to focus, actually creates a level of stress, anxiety, and shame.

Headlines read: 'Dangers of Digital Distraction!,' 'Taming the Distraction Monster!,' 'Time to Unplug!' This conversation stresses us in a way similar to the techniques used for misdirection. As we consider how distracted we are, we shame ourselves with messages like: "I should unplug!," "I have too much to do!," "I'm distracted!," "I have to focus!"

All of these thoughts, all of this stress, compromises our attention bandwidth. We twist in the winds of our own misdirection. Isn't it ironic that even in our efforts to manage our attention effectively, we are instead contributing to stress and misdirection!

If we don't consciously choose where we want to direct our attention, there will always be something in our path to misdirect it. From the news, to pickpockets, to Facebook -- every choice we don't make is made for us.

If we want to harness the superpower that is our attention, instead of talking about distraction and a need to unplug and disconnect, let's talk about what it is we choose to connect to. Let's change the conversation. As we reach for what we prefer, we can stop stressing and shaming ourselves regarding what it is we're getting wrong.

A few years ago, in a conversation with a friend, I caught myself paying more attention to another, nearby conversation. Realizing I was missing the moment to connect with this friend, I created a "game" for myself to counteract the distraction. Now, as much as possible, when I make a choice to be in conversation with someone, I assign myself the task of noticing what I like about that person. This attunes my listening, and softens my attention into a state I call "relaxed presence." It opens me into a receptive, present moment state. I fall in love every day, all day long, when I do this.

And it's a gentle, sweet way to bring my attention into the present moment without a harsh direction that might contribute more to misdirection.

The way we use our attention controls and shapes our reality. The way we use it defines who we are, what we're blind to, and what we see. Direct it? Give it away? The choice is ours. Every moment of every day.