The Healing Power of Attention
Antony Sammeroff, Contributor
What is attention? If you’re interested in spirituality you may have heard it called consciousness or presence.
If you have an interest in psychology or are more on the hard-science side of things you may have heard it called mindfulness instead. Mindfulness is a useful term if you read it as “what you are mindful (aware) of,” and not so helpful if you consider it to be concerned primarily with the mind, that is, what you are actually thinking.
There is a subtle difference. You may be thinking about what you are mindful of – it may even be helpful to do so at times – but thinking is not the key component of mindfulness. Awareness is. That’s why I like to call it attention. What are you paying attention to? What are you making yourself aware of?
We all needed attention at sometime. Especially as children. The younger we were, the more we needed it. In fact, studies have shown that babies who are not touched simply die! Attention is so important to children that if they can’t get positive attention they may act out to get negative attention instead: admonishments, yells, timeouts – even beatings in extreme circumstances. For the desperate child, the old adage ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ applies – any attention is better than none, and so neglect is the worst form of abuse. Of course negative attention will never really help a child grow into an adult in the long run, but a child who gets plenty of positive attention will learn to give it to themselves and others.
Dogs are pack animals who may tear up an entire house for the need of attention if left alone. Why? Because attention is life-giving.
Everything is a reflection of how much attention has been put into it, is it not? The pen I first wrote these words with arose from the attention of the factory assistants who moulded it and the bureaucrats who marketed it. A Song is the product of the attention the songwriter put into learning their instrument, practising their skills as a lyricist, and sitting down to combine the two creatively.
A song which is not given the attention it requires never gets written.
A building is the flower of the architects who designed it, the lecturers who trained them, the builders who laid the cement, the truck drivers who shipped it. A derelict building reflects a lack of attention.
How derelict are we?
A houseplant lives or dies based on the quality of attention it receives, and it follows naturally that the areas of your life that are most unsatisfactory are the ones that are the most in need of attention. Proof for this can be found in the fact that so many of us are familiar with the feeling of being put off by the amount of attention some things appear to need! (This is where a good friend, counsellor or therapist can help jump-start the engine.)
You will notice, again, that attention does not simply mean “thinking about.” If you’re anything like me you will find that thinking about a task makes it bigger, and bigger, and bigger – and the bigger it gets the harder it looks to accomplish. Thinking relates through past and future, and so the mind looks forwards and says “there is so much to do!” Attention, on the other hand, is given entirely to the moment. “There is only one thing to do, and doing it will naturally lead on to the next thing.”
We must treat ourselves, and our projects, like the house plant. It needs the correct kind of attention. Water is one kind of attention, and water is good – but too much water will drown it. Thinking is one kind of attention, and thinking is good – but too much thinking will drown us.
How do you know what the right kind of attention is? How do you get more of it to dish out to yourself and your projects?
By hanging back. By not rushing. By taking the time to know what you are trying to do before trying to do it. By giving your attention instead of distracting yourself from the challenge with thoughts. By giving your attention instead of putting extraneous things into your head like tv, video games, social media, books – all the beautiful fruits of other people’s attention which are wonderful in their own place but are used too often by us to escape working in our own orchard.
In essence, you gain attention by not ignoring yourself.
Next week we’ll be looking at what ignoring yourselves entails, why we do it, how to stop, and how we can improve the quality of attention available to us, then we’ll move on to putting our attention outwards so we can truly heal the world.
About the Author
Antony is a relationship coach, theatre critic and piano tutor living in Edinburgh, Scotland where he runs life-changing workshops to help people improve the way they communicate with themselves and others to improve their relationships. He administrates The Progressive Parent youtube channel which provides free resources for carers of children to help them do the best job they can, and is also studying his postgraduate doctrine in Counselling part-time. Of all his vocations, his favourite activity is working with individuals one-on-one to help them enrich their lives and relationships. His website can be found at www.enrichyourlife.co, and he takes bookings internationally over skype or phone.
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