Why Take Charge of Our Attention?

Learning to focus our attention can help us regain control of our thoughts, behaviours, and lifestyle choices.

Take Back the Power to Pay Attention

The videos below discuss why we might want to cultivate our attention through mindfulness practice, as well as what risks we should be aware of. In mindfulness, this skill might be referred to as ‘Focused Attention’ or ‘Concentration.’ Mindfulness can be practiced formally (in seated meditation) or informally throughout the day (as in mindful eating, or walking mindfully), but in order to cultivate our ability to maintain attention, it’s ideal to choose a single object on which to focus. Often this object is our breathing, or another sensory experience.

Videos in this section explain the ideas behind different ways of practicing focused attention – if you’d like to try out some guided practices, see our Meditate page. Our contributors here also emphasize the importance of holding a compassionate attitude while doing this practice – it’s not about forcing yourself to pay attention, or berating yourself when you inevitably get distracted. Being kind to ourselves during practice helps us understand the lightness involved in mindfulness and the gentle way in which we can maintain our attention. 

But why bother? Well, there are many reasons you may want to strengthen your attention. Perhaps you are often distracted in your daily life, during class or even while spending time with friends. Perhaps your mental chatter is incessant and you’re finding it hard to relax. Maybe you just feel disconnected from yourself or the world, and you’re not sure why. In today’s “attention economy,” we are bombarded by digital information, videos, and other content from corporations whose sole aim is to grab our attention. It makes sense that many of us feel scattered, exhausted, or out of touch with our deepest selves. By honing our ability to attend to objects that we choose to attend to – our breath, our bodies – we are strengthening the skill of self-control, self-determination, and choice amidst a world that does little to assist us in that process. In this way, learning to pay attention to our embodied experience can end up helping us to create meaning and choice in our lives. 

More to Think About

How can you find time for mindfulness today?

In what ways can cultivating mindfulness teach us about the concept of ‘success’?

How might ‘focused attention’ benefit you outside of productive endeavours like school and work?

Take a few moments to try belly breathing as Dr. Dias described it. Do you find it challenging? Easy? What changes do you notice in your body and mind as you breathe?

How can understanding the brain and nervous system help us to regulate our stress levels?

In what areas do you find yourself most susceptible to the attention economy? Which apps do you use the most often, and why might this be?

In what ways are you already engaging in ‘attention activism’?

What more can you do today to be an ‘attention activist’?

Further Resources

The book  Mindfulness in Plain English by Venerable H. Gunaratana is a classic guide to Vipassana (insight) meditation for beginner meditators that explains how and why we meditate.

Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life – “In this book Thich Nhat Hanh shows us how to make positive use of the very situations in our daily life that usually pressure and antagonize us. The most profound satisfactions, the deepest feelings of joy and completeness lie as close at hand as our next conscious breath and the smile we can form right now. For him a ringing telephone can be a signal to call us back to our true selves. Dirty dishes, red lights, and traffic jams are spiritual friends on the path to “mindfulness”—the process of keeping our consciousness alive to our present experience and reality” – Plumvillage.org

In an important 2021 lecture, ” Creating Safe(r) Spaces for Mindfulness of Breath“, Dr. Nalika Gajaweera alerts us to the importance of race in mindfulness spaces: “In Vipassana meditation practice, the first common object is the breath. By allowing the breath to be the focus of your awareness, one lets the social world full of discursive thought, self-reflexivity and judgement move into the background. Yet, as intimate and solitary as this breath practice is, many individuals turn to communities of solitary practice such as sitting groups and retreat spaces, as safe grounds or anchors to turn their gaze inward and attend to the tacit, embodied dimension of their being. This presentation critically evaluates how for non-white people of color in North America who practice in institutional spaces that are predominantly white, such silence and safety is interrupted by race. By drawing on fieldwork conducted in California among mindfulness communities, Dr. Gajaweera explores assumptions about mindfulness that North American black and non-black people of color expose and problematize through their engagement with mindfulness. The presentation asks, how in the context of racialized history of the United States and institutional whiteness, how we might more fully appreciate the “noble” breath of meditation, not as simply empty and neutral, but rather as supersaturated with history and power.”

What is Mindfulness?

Dr. Weisbaum breaks down this deceptively complex question, pointing out the traditional history of mindfulness and its many modern definitions. She also emphasizes the importance of cultivating an attitude of compassion and kindness as central to being mindful.

On Focused Attention, a Type of Mindfulness Practice

How can mindfulness become a part of our daily lives? Dr. Weisbaum answers this question by looking at the ‘three pillars of mind training,’ one of which is Focused Attention. She explains why learning how to focus is important in quieting our minds, calming our anxieties, and strengthening our ability to choose presence. 

Making Progress in Meditation

Dr. Weisbaum discusses how neuroplasticity means that change is always possible. When practiced regularly, mindfulness can improve neuroplasticity and create structural and functional changes in the brain. 

Integrating Mind and Body

Dr. Dias discusses the way in which having a strong mind-body connection is crucial to the healing process of both physical and mental conditions. One of the ways in which mindfulness can assist in the healing process is through the limbic system of the brain, by slowing down how quickly we react to emotions. When we strengthen the mind-body connection through mindfulness, we strengthen the brain’s ability to adapt and change. 

Mindfulness-Based Practices

Dr. Dias explains some of the neuroscience behind mindfulness practices such as loving-kindness meditation. He also discusses the way in which belly breathing can engage the vagus nerve to help activate our parasympathetic nervous system, helping us to relax. 

Cultivating Attention and Flexibility

Dr. Dias discusses the importance of how we choose to use our attention. What we focus on impacts our well-being by either strengthening or weakening our mind-body connection. Our heart rate variability, for example, is a strong indicator of how well we handle stress. Focusing on our breathing can assist in building strong heart-rate variability. 

Living in an Attention Economy

Jay talks about how attention has become a commodity throughout recent history. Attention is now something that corporations profit from and try to engage as much as possible. The challenge for us is to participate in the world without giving all of our attention away.

Meditation as Attention Activism

Jay explains that meditation is more than just a spiritual practice, but also a political act. When we choose to place our attention somewhere healthy for us, we are resisting the influence of the attention economy. Jay adds, “It’s not a coincidence that more and more people in the world are interested in these practices at the same time that our attention economy is rearing its head. It’s a natural response to the circumstance we’ve placed ourselves in.”

A User’s Guide to Mindfulness: Knowing When to Use Mindfulness and When not

Listen to Dr. Katz give a talk to social work students regarding using mindfulness in their training and practice. She poses a very important question: Why do we make the assumption that mindfulness is always positive and reduces stress? She goes on to explore definitions and histories of mindfulness, noting that mindfulness is present in all spiritual traditions. She then explores mindfulness in the context of trauma, and the risks and rewards involved. To teach about this, she guides us in experiencing the body, as opposed to thinking about it. Finally, she makes suggestions about how to practice trauma-informed mindfulness.