Our minds are thought generators, and many of the thoughts that arise can be stressful. The way the brain works, we can experience stress from an actual event, or we can experience stress from thinking about an event or concern. Either way, the stress centers in the brain are activated, and stress hormones are released. When we are not paying attention to our present moment experience, thoughts will arise and our attention will be absorbed by them. We don’t even realize we’re thinking or worrying, it just happens. We can be engaged in some activity, like walking, minding our own business, and before we know it a thought pops up and our attention is carried away somewhere else. Perhaps we’ve been reading the news and we are concerned about the healthcare debate in the Senate, and we begin worrying about what will happen if millions of people become uninsured. As soon as we notice that our attention has drifted and we’re now thinking about healthcare and not paying attention to walking, we have a choice. We can continue to think about healthcare, or we can let the thoughts go and return our attention to walking. One choice isn’t better than the other, but they are choices. Often we don’t even consider what we are thinking about as being a choice, but it is if we are aware of our thoughts. If we are just caught up in the story we’re thinking about and not aware that we’re thinking, then we don’t have the choice.
So how can we cultivate this capacity to choose where we place our attention, and to be able to choose what we think about? Being able to do this requires practice, and a principal practice is attention-focused meditation. When we choose an object to focus on, like the sensations of breathing, and then notice when our attention wanders and intentionally disengage and return our attention to breathing we are practicing making the choice of what we pay attention to. Each time our attention wanders we have the choice of staying with wherever it has strayed, or bringing it back to what we have chosen to focus on. The more we practice this the easier it becomes to be aware of where our attention is and to choose where we place it. This capacity can then be applied at other times, when we are not meditating.
When we notice that our mind has wandered we can also become aware of the content of our thoughts. Often we may find that our thoughts have wandered to concerns over which we have no control, as may be the case with the healthcare debate in the Senate. We may choose to take what actions we can to influence the outcome, like calling or sending an e-mail to a Senator. If that case, we are exercising what influence we have. Or we may know that our Senators have already made up their minds and that our input would make no difference. In that case, we would be worrying about something that we are concerned about but probably have no ability to influence. Then we can ask ourselves the question, if I can’t influence this, is it worth worrying about, or would my mental efforts be best applied elsewhere? If it is the latter, then we can let the thoughts about healthcare legislation go, just like when we are meditating, and choose something else to pay attention to instead.
Paying attention to our thoughts and noticing if we are caught up in something we are concerned about but have no control over is addressed by Stephen Covey in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. This is part of the third habit, Putting First Things First, and he calls them our circle of concern and our circle of influence. Most of us have more to do and to think about than we have time for. Why not devote our energies, both mental and physical, to things over which we have some influence? Not only are we likely to be more effective, but this practice can help us also be less stressed by paying less attention to things outside our control. As with many mindfulness practices, this is simple but not easy, and it requires practice, like meditating regularly, in order to incorporate it into our everyday lives.
Filed Under: Monthly Musings