Whether we are worried about the future or feel stuck in the past, our minds have a way to haunt us. Combine that with the beeping machines we carry around in our pockets and it pulls us a lot away from the current moment.
According to Shauna Shapiro, professor and mindfulness researcher, this can be a recipe for bad luck. Shapiro sees attention as our greatest asset: it keeps us attached to what is happening in the here and now, which research has shown is good for us. And although we live in a time when our attention is a resource that everyone is competing for – those beeps aren’t free – we can focus on ourselves through simple practices.
Attention: Our most precious resource
It is not time but attention that is our most valuable resource. We live with so much stimulation and distraction that it is a miracle that we can even think clearly. According to research by Harvard, our thoughts wander about 47 percent of the time. Our attention is constantly being attacked by social media, the internet, email, and text messages. A 2012 study found that our brain uses more than 30 gigabytes of incoming information every day. We are unable to process so much information that our attention becomes scattered and fragmented. We lose touch with what matters.
It is not just the outside world that exhausts our attention. Our attention is taken away from our own minds: we repeat past mistakes that have already passed and we endlessly worry about a future that doesn’t yet exist. As a result, we are missing out on the present moment – the only moment we actually need to live.
Our inability to manage our attention causes us to suffer not only emotionally but also physically. When we become obsessed with the future or think about the past, our bodies inundate with cortisol, a stress hormone. Chronically high cortisol levels contribute, among other things, to hypertension, weaken our immune system, cause fat deposits and reduce libido.
Research shows that training your attention to focus on the present moment leads to some extraordinary benefits: increased happiness, decreased stress, improved sleep, stronger immune function, and greater satisfaction with life. And it protects the ends of strands of DNA that keep us youthful and healthy.
Of all the things that change the quality of your life, training your attention skills is high on the list. As the old joke goes, “Any man who can drive safely while kissing a girl just isn’t giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” You need to be present to fully experience the richness, beauty and meaning of life. In fact, right now, that moment is the only one that you are certain to have.
Train your attention through mindfulness
Mindfulness can be an antidote to distraction. It trains and stabilizes our attention in the present moment so that we can see clearly and respond effectively. This enables us to better control life’s trials and appreciate the joys in life. We become more alive to the sights, sounds, sensations, tastes and emotions of every moment.
As we strengthen our ability to pay attention, we connect with what makes life most meaningful. We can get off the autopilot and reset our inner compass in the direction we want to go.
Our brain literally pays attention to and reshapes the tissues of our consciousness so that we can live with greater calm, clarity, and joy.
3 steps to draw your attention to the present
Intention: Start by setting your intention for the practice. For example, “May this practice bring more peace and clarity into my life” or “May this help me be present.”
Attention: Focus on the present moment. Gently move your attention over your body, releasing any apparent tension, especially in the jaw and shoulders. See if you can soften 5 percent more in each area, and feel the breath flowing in and out of your body naturally. If you notice your mind wandering, use your breath as an anchor for the mind: carefully guide it back to the breath each time. In this way you train your mind to focus and cultivate the neural attention pathways.
Attitude: Give your attention kindness and curiosity. See if you can add 5 percent more kindness, interest, and care to this experience. When your thoughts wander, try to bring them back with an attitude of kindness. Treat your stubborn mind like a little puppy and whisper patiently and lovingly, “Come back … stay … stay …”
When the mindfulness practice ends, take a moment to thank you for caring for your most precious resource: attention. As your day progresses, check to see if you can bring a seamless continuity of attention to every moment of your life.
Shauna Shapiro, PhD, is a professor and researcher at Santa Clara University and a member of the Dalai Lama’s Mind and Life Institute. Shapiro is the author of The Art and Science of Mindfulness, Mindful Discipline, and most recently Good Morning, I Love You: Mindfulness + Self-Compassion, to rewire your brain for calm, clarity + joy.
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