There are so many things to distract us in our world; both external and internal input and chatter. I think that is why we are hearing more about mindfulness and being in the present moment. Because being able to be truly present in what we are experiencing is the only way we can focus, learn, and do all our activities with quality. Dave Ellis’ book Human Being has some great chapters on focusing attention. He believes your ability to “be here now” can boost the power and quality of all your activities. When we are in the now we can take a walk, and really just take a walk. You would not worry about making the rent or mortgage payment or about buying your child’s next pair of shoes or about those unfinished projects at work. In short, you could really start showing up for life. Whenever that happens to us we feel fulfilled and complete.
The power of focusing our attention is so obvious that we overlook it hundreds of times a day. The great thing about this practice is that we can do it any time, any place. Consider this: Everything we have in our lives right now—our jobs, our relationships, our possessions—results from where we’ve placed our attention. We took action to gain these things, and to take any action at all we had to have first focused our attention. The overall quality of our lives may just be a reflection of our ability to focus our attention. And the concept is simple: do what you’re doing when you’re doing it.
We all have the ability to focus our attention. You may not be using it enough right now, but you can develop it systematically. You can turn down the volume of distracting external or mental chatter. All it takes is practice. There are many ways to practice focusing our attention, and they involve taking a few minutes each day to somehow be fully present in the moment. Five techniques you can use right away are mental noting, simply noticing, involving your body in the process, handling distractions, and being in the moment with one activity.
Mental noting: To practice mental noting, just take some time to fully pay attention to a favorite activity—exercising, walking the dog, reading a book, or anything else. If distracting thoughts creep in and tempt you with irrelevant mind chatter, just make a mental note of that fact. You can even say to yourself, “Distraction,” or “Stop” and return your mind to the task at hand. The specific word you use doesn’t matter that much; the act of noticing the distractions and refocusing your attention does. You might even do noting out loud at first, something that works well when no one else is around.
Simply Noticing: Choose a time to go sit outside or take a walk and focus your attention on the world around you. For example, as you sit on a porch note all the objects around you and focus on the details of those. Then focus on what you see, hear and smell and describe those. This trains your mind to act as observer and soon you will be able to step back from other situations and observe them.
Bring your attention to your body: When your mind is drifting, you can engage your body. There are at least two ways to do this. One is to bring attention to your body. Scan your body and notice physical sensations. For instance, if you’ve been sitting for a long time, you might feel a tingling sensation in your hands, a numbness in your legs, and a tightness in your lower back muscles. Noticing these sensations as they arise and pass in the present moment is a way to return to the here and now. A second option is to bring your body to attention. That is, assume the posture of someone who is fully engaged, active, and alert. Instead of slumping in a chair, move up to the edge of your seat and straighten your spine. Act as if you’re waiting for someone to yell “Fire!” and you’re fully prepared to leap out of your seat. Notice what happens to your wandering mind.
Handle the distraction, now: Say that you’re reading a novel and your mind keeps drifting to an argument you had earlier in the day with a coworker. You read one paragraph and think of something you wished you had said. You then bring your attention back to reading. While trying to crawl through the next paragraph, you mentally anticipate her response. Soon you realize that you’ve turned three pages without comprehending a word. The words on the page can’t compete with the shouting in your head. So, you need to deal with it. Either stop and write down some thoughts about what you wanted to say or what you learned. I call this a brain dump. Or make a plan of what you will say tomorrow to that coworker.
Being in the moment with one activity: We can start to “be here now” with one simple activity and then extend that quality of focused attention to the rest of our lives. To start experiencing the benefits of this practice, choose one activity that you perform regularly. This can be anything from washing the dishes or eating to exercising or taking a shower. Whatever you choose, do the activity with full attention. Notice the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and other sensations associated with the activity. Aim to be aware of every detail. And, if your attention wanders, simply note this fact and refocus on the activity at hand. Another tip: Perform the actions slowly and deliberately, at least at first, so you can attend to more of the details. If you practice this exercise regularly, you might make some startling discoveries.