On Attention

Life is a string of moments we experience until we die. If our experience of life is what we (mentally) attend to in every moment, then our ability to control what we attend to is one of the most important—if not the most important—factor in determining our quality of life. I don’t mean quality of life in the sense of having clothing, food, and shelter. I mean it in the sense of experiencing a wholesome life, a life we believe is worth living.

Attentional training goes back thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians used “kemetic yoga” to achieve higher levels of concentration. Greeks practiced “melete”, the exercise of disciplined thought. Tibetans used a form of meditation known as “shamatha” to focus one’s attention on the breath.

Fast forward to today, and there is an epidemic of attention deficit. The same college students that had to take Adderall to study for their final exams are now taking Adderall to work their newly minted jobs. Others are taking Modafinil or over-the-counter nootropics. Then they go back to watching an hour of 15 second TikTok videos and wonder why their focus sucks.

Some of us are already aware of social media’s impact on our focus, but what should do after we lay down the smartphone? The answer lies in training our attention.

There are different ways to train attention. Shamatha is still a popular meditation practice today. “Deep work”, a phrase coined by Cal Newport, trains us to be able to work for several hours a day in a state of uninterrupted focus.

If you don’t think you need to train your attention, try meditating on the breath for 10 minutes, or try taking a 10 minute walk and thinking about a single idea. If you find your mind wandering off the breath, or thinking about something other than that idea, then you could probably use attention training.

When we can better control what we mentally attend to in life, we can choose to focus on thoughts, emotions, ideas, words, and actions that improve our quality of life, rather than things that detract from it. Do you need to let go of an ex-spouse? Are you trying to find ways to get through a demanding job? Are you even aware of your own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are contributing to self-sabotage? Unless we have strong attentional skills that allow for self-reflection, discernment, and problem-solving, we will continue to move through life inattentive.

We all have a limit to the number of moments we experience in life. Why not be as attentive as you can be in each and every moment?

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