Is your mind wandering?
Moment to moment, the flows of thoughts and feelings, sensations and desires, and conscious and unconscious processes sculpt your nervous system like water gradually carving furrows and eventually gullies on a hillside. Your brain is continually changing its structure. The only question is: Is it for better or worse?
In particular, because of what's called "experience-dependent neuroplasticity," whatever you hold in attention has a special power to change your brain. Attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: It illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain -- and yourself.
Therefore, controlling your attention -- becoming more able to place it where you want it and keep it there, and more able to pull it away from what's bothersome or pointless (such as looping again and again through anxious preoccupations, mental grumbling, or self-criticism) -- is the foundation of changing your brain, and thus your life, for the better. As the great psychologist, William James, wrote over a century ago: "The education of attention would be the education par excellence."
But to gain better control of attention -- to become more mindful and more able to concentrate -- we need to overcome a few challenges. In order to survive, our ancestors evolved to be stimulation-hungry and easily distracted, continually scanning their interior and their environment for opportunities and threats, carrots and sticks. There is also a natural range of temperament, from focused and cautious "turtles" to distractible and adventuresome "jackrabbits." Upsetting experiences -- especially traumatic ones -- train the brain to be vigilant, with attention skittering from one thing to another. And modern culture makes us accustomed to an intense incoming fire hose of stimuli, so anything less -- like the sensations of simply breathing -- can feel unrewarding, boring, or frustrating.
To overcome these challenges, it's useful to cultivate some neural factors of attention -- in effect, getting your brain on your side to help you get a better grip on this spotlight/vacuum cleaner.
You can use one or more of the seven factors below at the start of any deliberate focusing of attention -- from keeping your head in a dull business meeting to contemplative practices such as meditation or prayer -- and then let them move to the background as you shift into whatever the activity is. You can also draw upon one or more during the activity if your attention is flagging. They are listed in an order that makes sense to me, but you can vary the sequence. (There's more information about attention, mindfulness, concentration, and contemplative absorption in Buddha's Brain.)
Here we go.
- Set the intention to sustain your attention, to be mindful. You can do this both top-down, by giving yourself a gentle instruction to be attentive, and bottom-up, by opening to the sense in your body of what mindfulness feels like.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist and author of Hardwiring Happiness (coming in October 2013), Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom (in 24 languages), Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time (in 12 languages), and Mother Nurture. Founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom and Affiliate of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, he's been an invited speaker at Oxford, Stanford, and Harvard, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, FoxBusiness, Consumer Reports Health, U.S. News and World Report, and O Magazine and he has several audio programs with Sounds True. His weekly e-newsletter - Just One Thing - has over 74,000 subscribers, and also appears on Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and other major websites.
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