Pay Attention

Mindfulness. In case you have not noticed, mindfulness is a hot topic. I teach it in DBT. It is featured in magazines. They say we all need it. I NEED it. My low vision aids are too expensive to sit down and walk away from!

So what is mindfulness? Dialectic behavior therapy tells us mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way, to just this moment, without judgment. Now you know just about as much as you did a moment ago, huh? Feel that way myself sometimes.

A recent buzz phrase is “ let’s unpack that!”. OK. Let us unpack that and see what it means.

Attention….this topic may go a little long, over several posts, because now I have to define attention and distinguish it from awareness.

The example I use to distinguish attention from awareness, and even from mindlessness or inattention, is this: you are walking to your table in a restaurant and someone has left her purse in the aisle. If you are mindless of it, you fall over it and have no clue what happened. If you are aware of it, you walk around it. If you are attentive to it, you can speak knowledgeably about the style, color and material of the bag. Those are mindlessness, awareness and attention.

We spend a lot of time either mindless or, at most, aware. When you are driving, if you are still driving, you pass all sorts of things that you never really ‘see’. You – hopefully – slide around the kid riding his bike on the berm. Was it a boy or a girl? Was it a red bike or a blue? You don’t know because you were aware but not attentive.

So if that is awareness, what is attention? The definition I was given online was this: notice taken of someone or something. The regarding of someone or something as interesting or important. Please note the interesting or important part. Attention is a special state of mind that focuses upon a limited range of experiences. We see this range of experiences as special and we want to focus our consciousness upon it.

DBT uses the analogy of street lights versus a flashlight. The street light makes us aware of much but the flashlight allows us to focus our attention onto something special.

It is with this focusing of attention that we become mindful. Only problem is, this is easier said than done. I read somewhere the average person has about 6,000 stray thoughts a day. This translates to one stray thought every 11 seconds or so. Makes you tired just thinking about it!

People who do not know how active a mind typically is believe it is possible to enter a state of calm and trance at will. They try a mindfulness exercise for 10 minutes and when they don’t instantly reach a state of Nirvana, they give up. This is not at all how mindfulness works.

My analogy for this problem is simple. Your mind/attention is a puppy. In order to train this puppy you will require a lot of patience. You will put that puppy back on the paper what seems like 100 times a day. You have to keep at it and eventually you will succeed.

What is the mental equivalent of kindly, gently and persistently putting that puppy back on the paper? Let’s save that for the next post.

Next: Just Breathe

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