Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Benefits of Paying Attention

Mindfulness meditation is a great strategy to develop awareness of our thoughts, awareness of our feelings and awareness of how we habitually react. Awareness is an incredibly important skill to develop and an important pre-condition to making changes. Awareness can take us out of our typical stimulus-response patterns and open up a space where new possibilities for thinking, feeling and behaving can happen.

Why is awareness so important? Awareness gives us insight and information into how and what we are focusing our attention on. Our lives haves been shaped by what we have paid attention to and what we haven’t. It is a truism that what we focus on tends to get bigger. When we lose awareness our minds often tend to focus on what could be wrong with our lives instead of what’s right with our lives. So those of us who are used to letting our attention dwell on problems or negative emotions may find that we consequently have disempowering emotions and constricted possibilities for action.

Awareness then, allows us to notice what we are focusing on and if necessary change our focus. For example, looking for the silver lining or focusing on the productive aspects of difficult situations leads to a better experience and outcome. This doesn’t mean that when something upsetting happens that we try to force ourselves to be happy. It does mean that we become aware of our thoughts and feelings about what occurred. Then we can direct our attention to some aspect of the situation that helps us see things in a more helpful light. This definitely takes practice and the support of a counsellor can definitely help. What you pay attention to can actually change your brain and your behaviour.

So how can we develop your awareness muscle? Mindfulness mediation involves learning a one-pointed concentration on our breath (and sometimes a focus on the body as a whole, or on sounds, or on thoughts). We follow the breath in and out by anchoring our attention at the nostrils or in the belly and gently refocusing our mind when it wanders. Repeated practice helps to strengthen the brain’s attentional systems. We can also focus our meditation on a specific emotion such as unconditional love or loving-kindness or gratitude. Since what we focus on tends to get bigger, these feelings strengthen specific neurons in parts of the brain and bring about changes to how we feel and live in the world.

Warm regards,