What is attention?

What is attention?

It’s guided by mental images. For instance, it can be guided by mental images of a circle overlaid on visual input or a mental image mapping out the body or the environment. This circle guides attention to mostly stay within the circle.

It’s a conscious noticing of what’s here, of (mostly) content of experience. It’s a taking in of what’s here in a more conscious way.

It can be narrow or wide, just like a light beam. It can be as narrow as the sensations at the very tip of the nose from breathing, and as wide as the whole field of experience.

It can be trained to be more stable, to gently rest on something for a long period of time. When attention is trained to be more stable, it benefits just about any activity in our life: work, learning, socializing, recreation, being a partner or parent, and more. It also tends to make us feel better since attention is less prone to get caught up in any random thought. We feel more centered.

Attention often goes to the content of thoughts, to the stories, rather than noticing thought as mental images or words. This is essential for our functioning in the world. It helps us navigate and operate in the world. And when it gets compulsive, it can also create a lot of stress.

Attention can feel heavy-handed or gentle. If it feels heavy-handed, it’s usually because of “shoulds”, ideas of how we should use attention. If it’s gentle, it’s usually much more comfortable and it feels easier and more restful.

Attention can go to space, the space all experiences happen within and as. This, quite naturally, tends to give a sense of spaciousness. It can make it easier to rest with sensations and imaginations that initially seem uncomfortable.

When attention widens to include the whole field of experience, including the space it all happens within, there is often a sense of relief. For instance, if attention is only on physical pain, this physical pain can seem to fill our whole world. When attention widens and also notices the boundless space these sensations happen within, the sensations tend to feel less dense. It’s similar to diluting a teaspoon of salt in a cup of water or a lake. The more water, the more diluted.

Attention is a gift. It’s a gift we can give to neglected parts of ourselves, and to others. Attention can be very nourishing when it’s gentle, restful, allowing, and kind.


Initial notes….

  • what is attention?
    • guided by mental images
    • a noticing of what’s here, content of experience
    • can be narrow or wide
    • can be on something that the eyes are not on
    • it’s a taking in of something in a more conscious way

Also, being visual creatures, it may be easy to think that if the eyes are open, attention goes to where the eyes look. But attention is independent of sensory input. It can easily go to something that they eyes are not on.

The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers. – Thich Nhat Hanh.

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