Mindfulness and Attention: How Being Here Helps WellBeing
Research shows multitasking makes us fracture our attention and our focus.
Instead of being able to do several different things at once, multitasking breaks our attention.
We don’t ever sit with what we’re doing in the moment. Our brains are unsettled as a result. This creates a lot of traffic in the mind and puts our system on high alert for All The Things we have to deal with.
Often in life, we’re so busy with distractions like our phones, our email, our thoughts, that we don’t even realise we’ve lost our ability to be present. We lose track of what we’re doing, who we’re with, even how we feel.
Tension and stress build up in our head and body. I notice I get tight and buzzy in the front of the head. I feel a little tight and jumpy in my body when I’m trying to do too many things at once – and when I say too many, I really mean ‘more than one’.
And that means I miss out on what’s happening in the present. Which means I'm missing out on what’s happening in my life.
Even now, in stressful situations, we can fall into the habit of Doing A Lot to make things at least feel a little like what we think is normal. But we don’t have to.
Mindfulness and Paying Attention
The point of meditation, and the point of any mindfulness practice, is to help your wellbeing daily life.
In meditation and mindfulness practice we spend a lot of time to how our breath feels. How our body feels. How our thoughts are going. We might notice sounds, the light, the surroundings.
When we get distracted – and we will get distracted – we notice it, let it go, and we come back to our breath.
Why is this so important?
Because we’re training ourselves, very gently, to pay attention to ourselves in the present.
Being present is a very important part of mindfulness practice. We often start with the breath because it's always there. It's free. It doesn't go anywhere.
But it's important to know why we're coming back to the breath.
If we can pay attention even for a few moments, a few breaths – even for one breath at a time – we lay foundations for better self care and self-awareness.
We’re also telling ourselves that what we’re doing right now matters.
Take a Moment
The more we can pay attention to one thing at a time, the better we feel.
Think back to the last time you were multitasking – watching TV, messaging, half in a conversation and half in a phone, half on your computer, half on a project. Notice how frazzled it made you feel.
We have times in life when we are genuinely busy. But if you’re doing All The Things to fill up your time, you lose the ability to really be with the people you’re with and the work you’re doing.
Remember the last time you were so ‘into’ something you were doing or a conversation you were having, that you were absorbed by it.
Maybe you lost track of time. Remember the feeling you had during and after that moment?
When we experience what’s happening right now, we can let ourselves sink into it. We can enjoy a conversation, a moment, even a day-to-day task.
Thoughts drop away. Distractions don’t seem to matter. Maybe you even find yourself so caught up in what you’re doing that you love it.
Take a Breath: How to Take Your Mindful Off the Cushion
We can start to bring mindfulness up off the cushion and into our lives by taking a moment to notice our breath. Try it now as you’re reading this.
You can take a breath and notice where you are right now.
You can notice the things that are around you.
The clothes you’re wearing.
You can take a breath and notice how you feel. Maybe the tension in your shoulder (or is that just me?). The feel of your clothes on your skin. Sunlight.
One Zen teacher very much enjoys the feeling of the air, the breeze, brushing on his hands as he stands outside and then takes walking meditation.
This is a simple series you can do any time you want to check in with yourself. The first step in checking in is realising where you are and what you’re doing.
(Realising, by the way, is a very interesting word. It means both
becoming fully aware of something that’s already there
bringing something to existence.
So when we go through the steps to realise we’re in the present moment, we’re taking active steps to make it happen.)
And you can ask yourself, very simply:
How am I?
What am I doing?
What am I feeling?
This is a big part of present-moment awareness: simply being here and being aware of what that’s like.
Doing One Thing At a Time
Take something you do as part of your normal day. As you go about it, try to notice each action you take, one thing at a time.
As you go about your day, notice this one thing you’re doing, whatever that thing might be.
You might pair that noticing with your breath. That’s an easier and reliable option because the breath is always there for you to pay attention to if you need to give your attention an anchor.
You can take a breath and notice how you move.
You might pay simple attention to how you walk into the kitchen.
You might pay attention to how you make your breakfast. Do one step at a time. Notice how you breath moves in and out as you make your breakfast.
Notice any thoughts that pass through. Don’t try to manipulate them or push them away. Just let them be there and let them pass away.
Pay attention to how you eat. Eat slowly, one thing at a time. Take time to notice the flavours, the sounds of eating, how the food looks.
How would it be to pay attention to the one thing you’re doing in any given moment, through the day?
Of course it won’t be that easy. You’ll find yourself distracted, going off with your thoughts, feelings, your phone, the pull of multitasking. This is an issue for all of us – ask me how many tabs I have open at any given point and I’ll cringe a little bit.
But paying attention to what we’re doing right now, and how we're doing it, is a great way to bring mindfulness into the day, not just onto the cushion.
You can also take some time to look into teaching yourself how to monotask.
But the good news is that you'll see benefits right away. Daniel Goleman reports that three ten-minute sessions of mindfulness practice were enough for people to report improvements in mood and focus, and a decrease in drifting mind.
As an Exercise:
What would happen if you had a mindful hour?
Set aside an hour. Maybe set a timer on your phone.
Spend that hour doing some tasks with as much present-moment-awareness as you can.
It’s okay to make it easy on yourself to begin with. You might start your hour with ten minutes of mindfulness practice, noticing your breath, your body. Then bring your awareness with you from one moment to the next, starting with paying attention to how you get up from the seat or the cushion.
For the rest of the hour, go about your day or your tasks with that same level of awareness.
If you’re sending emails, notice the whole experience of sending the emails: how your fingers feel on the keypad, how your eyes feel, how your shoulders feel, your thoughts and feelings.
If you’re gardening, pay attention to each single thing you’re doing. How it feels. How your thoughts are. How you feel about what you’re doing.
Importantly, notice any time you feel an impulse to do something else. Pay attention to that feeling, then let it pass. And continue with what you’re doing.
When you’re pulled away, just notice. And go back to what you were doing.
In difficult times, we can use all the help we can get to stay connected to ourselves. Try this for a few days and see how it helps you.
As we pay more attention to what’s in front of us, we discover that there’s a lot more to enjoy, especially when we’re not looking away from the present for some distraction we think will make us happy.
And that’s when we might find that we could get some satisfaction from where we are right now.