Paying attention is the window to all of our experiences every day of our lives. Where and how we place our focus of attention (or where and how we allow other things to grab our attention) determine the quality of our lives, and our relationships with ourselves, others and what the world has to offer. What we know of ourselves, how we feel physically and emotionally, and our ability to make informed choices are all influenced by both how we focus attention and the quality of that attention.
Mindful, as distinct from mindless, focus helps us to extend our conscious awareness in order to pay specific and detailed attention, on purpose, to things happening right now and to do so with an attitude which is open, curious and accepting. Cultivating this type of mindfulness creates more self-awareness and compassion, allowing us to observe problems or difficulties calmly without entangling with them or trying to fight them off – watching their weather pattern, as it were. This creates more opportunities to choose what we do next in a supportive and kind environment rather than make potentially rash choices on emotional autopilot.
This practice is a useful way of learning how to tune in to yourself and the present moment. It can help you to step out of automatic pilot, to note what is really happening free of the distortion of circumstances and emotion, and to step back to observe, leaving you with the ability then to make clear choices about what you do next.
S: Stop whatever you are doing and pause for a moment.
T: Take some slow, deep abdominal breaths, each out-breath longer than the in-breath. As you do so, you can truly connect with present moment – what is happening right now – not what has happened and not what might happen in the future. Just focus on the breath – the mechanism of breathing – almost as if tuning in to the steady rhythmic beat of a clock pendulum.
O: Observe what is happening in the present moment. Note what you have just been thinking, feeling, doing or experiencing. Thoughts and feelings can be like waves of water, flooding us and carrying us away. Sometimes we block or avoid them because of this. This practice helps us to deal with our thoughts and feelings in a mindful and balanced way so we do not drown. Step back from the experience and see it for what it is: a set of reactions and sensations. Recognise those reactions and sensations and accept them, watching the flow with openness and genuine curiosity.
Then note the quality of your mental energy (feeling focused or distracted) before gently noting any associated feelings that might be present – bored, interested, overwhelmed or in control. As you note these things, you can then bring attention to your body and notice any sensations there – is there tension or restlessness, tiredness or energy, or just a neutral feeling? If you note tension in any particular part of the body, you can relax that part in whatever way you best do this, whether that means just concentrating on its relaxation or tensing and releasing it.
Then, when you are ready, you can purposefully bring your mind back to the situation at hand and reflect on what is next best to do.