In my last post, I explored the importance of setting an intention to pay attention as a crucial part of mindfulness.
Now it’s time to talk about paying attention.
Paying attention is key to mindfulness; if we can’t direct our awareness towards something and then bring it back to that something again and again when it wanders, we will be at the mercy of the distractions of life.
I see this in my daughters all the time; they’re young and their little brains are still learning to pay attention. They can focus fairly well on something that’s new or interesting, but they are also distracted mid-sentence by a squirrel or a plastic gem on the floor or a memory of something that happened earlier that day or even earlier that year.
This a very handy thing when I’m trying to distract my girls out of a tantrum; it’s not so handy when I want them to pay attention to something such as putting their shoes on or eating their dinners or brushing their teeth.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve told my daughters to pay attention, but I’m not sure I can remember ever explicitly telling them what it means to pay attention, or how to do it.
The dictionary definition of paying attention includes words like “heed” and “be attentive.” I’m not sure either of those would be particularly helpful to my girls either. So, I had to find my own words, and my favorite one for paying attention is noticing.
I have been noticing things—the smell of lilacs, the moon rising in an afternoon sky, their favorite letters on the side of a building—with my children for a long time now. I’ve been appreciating when they notice a ladybug or a forgotten lovey or that I’m having a hard day and might need a little extra help from them.
They may not understand paying attention so well, but they understand noticing. Noticing is the first step in paying attention. The second step is to keep noticing.
We can notice with our eyes, either by opening them or closing them. We can notice with our ears, our nose, and our mouths.
We can notice with our bodies, by turning them in a specific direction, holding them still, or moving them.
And inevitably, within a minute or two or ten, we stop noticing. Or more accurately, we notice something else. We notice a thought that wandered into our mind, or a pain in our side, or a piece of dust moving across a sunbeam. And then, if we’re really paying attention, we notice that we’ve stopped noticing and then we come back to paying attention all over again.
The extent and frequency with which our mind wanders from the object of our attention depends on many things: how interesting or novel the object is, what time of day it is, how hungry or tired or sick we are, whether or not we’ve moved our bodies that day, and whether or not we are paying attention the right way.
You’re probably wondering what the “right way” to pay attention is, and the answer is, it depends.
It depends on each individual person’s style and needs. I can’t write a single word unless I have the TV on in the background. My husband can’t focus on a phone call unless he’s walking at the same time. My daughter does much better in seated circle time at school if she can play with silly putty the whole time. Some children can notice—and keep noticing—more easily in the morning or after they’ve been able to move their bodies beforehand.
Paying attention comes more easily to some of us than others. The good news is that it is a skill we can learn, and the way to learn it is through practice.
The trick to practicing is to start by paying attention to something easy and enjoyable, something you do every day. I try to pay attention when I’m in the shower. I’d like to think I pay attention in the shower, but if I don’t set an intention to really pay attention, the reality is that more often than not I get to the end of my shower, my hair is dripping wet, and I have no idea if I washed it or not.
And so at various points throughout the day—when I’m driving or reading to my children or stirring the pasta—I make a point to notice. And then notice when I’m not noticing anymore, so I can start noticing again.
In the next post, we’ll talk about just what we should be noticing when we’re practicing mindfulness, and how all of this noticing business has the potential to truly change our daily experience.