What Is Attention And How Do We Manage It?

Welcome to Lights On podcast! If you like what you hear and if you’re feeling generous, please rate us five star and share us with others. I’m your host Mitra Manesh. I’m the founder of Innermap, a new mindful storytelling and coaching app. I teach at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center. And for the past 35 years I’ve been coaching my brilliant clients on 4 continents to live, love and lead more mindfully, peacefully, and joyfully at home and at work. You can find out more about my work by visiting mitramanash.com. But right now, I’m grateful for your presence and your mindful journey.

This episode is about attention. What are different kinds of attention. How do we manage our attention. And what type of attention can we give topics and challenges, and issues in life. First of all, let me explain that this is a recording of a session that I was doing with the Association of Camera Operators, so if there’s a reference to terminologies about camera and close shot and big shot, and zooming in and zooming out, that’s the reference so that you know what’s going on. And really the reason we wanted to make this recording available on a podcast, on our podcast, is because this topic really pertains to all of us, regardless of what we do in life. If you think about conscious living, really that is about attention management. Because where my attention goes is where my energy goes, is where my feelings go. So, this is very much about how we lead our life.

In this episode I first talk about different kinds of attention. What are the different kinds of attention and then I talk about, I provide a tool that is a simple tool but allows you to just be conscious of how you’re spending your attention. And then at the end we look at two ways of paying attention, which I’d call zooming in and zooming out. I think you will enjoy it. I hope it’s helpful. And let’s go together and take a cup of tea or a glass of water, sit back and give yourself this gift of, I don’t know, 17-18 minutes and see if it makes a difference in the way, you lead your life. Thank you for your attention!

There are two major kinds of attention: there is the attention that is on autopilot – I pay attention not knowingly. How does that happen? The loudest voice, the loudest color, the bigger thing takes my attention. That means we are, we are, I am at the mercy of the providers of these noises and sizes and colors and volumes. Then there is the intentional attention. That’s why I said, the whole cacophony about mindfulness is about attention management.

So, when I become aware and when I know how important my attention, how valuable my attention is I’ll say, you know what, I’m quite frugal with it, very frugal. I’m very careful, careful – full of care about how I spend and pay and budget my attention. I give it to things that are necessary for my survival, and I pay it on things that are necessary for my “thrival”. I know such word doesn’t exist, but I thought I’ll catch your attention – so, survival, “thrival”. The autopilot attention usually, if I’m doing it on my own, goes to survival. The question for the survival mind is “what is wrong?” Because remember, survival mind, its job is to hold you alive, keep you alive. So, it’s like, I always say, it’s like a bodyguard. Imagine, we’re walking with two bodyguards and they’re always watching for trouble. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. If you’re in Los Angeles, you’ve probably seen these, like, celebrities walking with, you know, bodyguards. They’re sort of, like… they’re always looking for danger. Like, where is that thing that I need to, you know, grab and be careful about, and defend my clients with or from. Great! I mean we need to survive. If I didn’t have my survival mind, I wouldn’t even be able to cross the road. But the problem is, then it becomes and has become habitual. No, more than that! Addictive! I am almost always in my survival mind mode, and I am paying my valuable attention to things that are not real dangers. You’ve seen that somebody doesn’t say “hello” to you for two seconds and your mind goes there “I don’t think they like you”. “I think they want to fire you”. “Did you see what they did?” “I think, they always were against you!” “In fact, let me bring memories of, like, eight years ago”. “Do you remember that?” And it’s like a really bad advisor. It turns into a bad advisor, the one that was saving your life now is your worst enemy. It just wouldn’t shut up. It just goes on and on, and on. “It’s a problem!” “Don’t you see, it’s a problem?” “You should do something about it!” “Oh my God!” “If you’re going to go…” “They’ve invited everyone except you.” “I think they’re going to do this.” “They don’t like you!” “They never liked you!” “Oh! It’s because they’re just, like…” Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! What happened? They just probably had a really rough day! As my teacher used to say, he used to tell me, “you don’t know who just lost their dear ones, you don’t know who just lost their dog, even you don’t know who’s just coming from a hospital, you don’t know who just received the bad news about their health.” You’re always assuming life is about you. It’s not. My life is about me but not other people’s lives. So, the survival thinking mind becomes the problem. It came to solve a problem. It now is a problem itself. Why? Because me, that aware me, is not in charge. It is my mind. My thinking mind. You don’t need to know this, the neuroscience of it, just an application of it. Because my thinking mind is now driving this vehicle called “my life”. And survival mind likes to feel important so, it always gives you a problem to solve. “They did this! They did that! I think this. It happened.” And usually, survival mind is either in the past – telling you what’s wrong with what happened, or in the future – making a monster of the future.

And I have some statistics for you. According to research, 79 point something, I call it 80, but OK let’s be accurate, about 80% of things that our thinking mind presents to us as a problem, never ever takes place. That’s a huge statistic. If I told you, “Give me your money I invested, and there’s 80% chance that it will… you will just lose the money”, you would… you will run! But here we are. Here we are – giving our most valuable inner attention to a place, to an investment that brings only at times 20%. And I know what you’re thinking. What about that 20% of the time? Here’s another research for you. When I am not consumed with my thinking mind, in fact, when that 20% takes place, I am far more capable to take care of it. When times like these happen. When things get cancelled, like, they have. And I know, that’s not true, I guess, I guess what you’re going through. Because my partner is an executive producer, I know how everything got cancelled. I hear from him firsthand what it takes to work with a camera person and how much it takes and how difficult it is, and it is difficult for everybody! But now we’re talking about you! Because it’s physically challenging on its own. And now it’s emotionally challenging because what happened to the industry. Even those of you who are starting to go back to work, the conditions are just, like, very challenging. I just heard Christine told me that some of you are traveling and you need to go to 14 days of like, you know, incubation and then come out and be very careful, and not to touch and not to, like… These are very unusual things! And you know, we’ve been made for these times. I know it’s hard for us to believe if we let go of those things that we artificially made for ourselves the problems that never existed. That they didn’t say “hello” to us and they didn’t do this, and they didn’t do that. “I don’t think, they liked me.” “And I don’t like, and I don’t like…” all of those judgments that we have about ourselves and about our lives. Then we will have the energy available and accessible to ourselves to deal with these times.

This was nature. This is nature. We made an artificial nature that was not sustainable. Nothing about this time is surprising. Nothing. Everything is contagious. Yes, so is love and kindness. By the way, they’re very contagious. Check it next time, go to a room where everybody is frowning and unhappy, go in and just say, “I really love your shirt!” Not even “you”, “love your T-shirt.” Believe me, I’ve done this and it works, everybody’s lifted! I love the color of your curtain and they say, “Oh, thank you!” Mood changes, that’s contagious too! Horribleness is contagious, but so is love and connection. What else? Nothing is permanent, nothing was ever permanent. The first principle of mindfulness is impermanence. We say, “breath by breath”, not “day by day”, “breath by breath.” How long have you been here? 26 minutes. We are physiologically, psychologically, spiritually completely different beings than we were when we joined this call at 11:00 AM. Now science backs it up. That’s why they allow a person like me to talk about these things at school of neuroscience at UCLA. 25 years ago, the very people who take my courses for continuing education, they’re called scientists, they would really not take these things seriously, but now science shows. I always say, “wisdom knows and science shows”. But don’t even take science or wisdom, try it for size, see if it works.

Next time breathe deeper, connect to yourself and ask yourself, “Where’s my attention?” Here’s your tool! I call it “win”, I love acronyms because I have dyslexia and I can’t remember things.

  • W – where is my attention, as if your attention is this child, dear loved child in your custody. I’ve asked you, “Could you please take care of my child today?” You will really be alert if you’re a responsible person and loving person, which I’m sure you are. So, W – where is my attention. Just ask and name that place, that it’s at. And I usually say, it’s either in the past or in the future, very rarely in the present moment. In this moment you and I have no problems. The problems live in the past and in the future. So, W – where is my attention.
  • I in “win” – intend to attend, intend to attend mindfully. Ok, so if I was intentional with my attention where would it be? If I was a bit wiser, if I was a bit more present, if I was a bit more mindful. And the way I define mindfulness, “mindfulness” is a very common word these days, very fashionable word these days. And it has many definitions but the one that I’ve coined, and I use is, that mindfulness is being accepting and aware of our present moment experience with compassion and curiosity. So, 5 words: aware, accepting, present curious, compassion. Pick any of these words and ask yourself, “if I was compassionate right now…” Especially if it’s a hard day, if you’ve been carrying this on your back, if you’ve been treated unfairly, whatever it is. I mean, we all have our stories and our sufferings. It’s amazing how much we have in common! But ask yourself, which one of these five. So, ask yourself, “I – if I was intending to attend mindfully, compassionately with the sense of presence with awareness, with curiosity whichever acceptance, how would I be?”
  • We go to N “navigating”, the N in “win” – how would I be navigating this moment differently. So, this simple tool could be a savior for you if you could just manage, supervise, be aware of your attention.

Many of your man-made, woman-made, they-made problems will go away. Because most of our problems reside here, rent free. And then you can actually attend to the problems that you may have. And I’m not saying life is without challenges, of course, I mean if you look at my story: I’ve gone through war, revolution, I mean, there is just separation, I literally walked out of my country and I’ve been living on four continents, moved so many times, that it’s just not funny when I, when I look at it. But you know, here I am in one piece, having a very very wonderful life, happy life with all the ups and downs. By the way I don’t want you to think that happy life means like this. I have an Innermap, which is a storytelling app. And one of the most beautiful stories that I love in that, is about a client of mine, that asked me to be in the room when they unplug her. She was dying, and she knew, she was dying. And I had gone and really helped her at the hospital. The hospital was right across from UCLA where I teach, it’s Ronald Reagan hospital. So, I used to go and visit her all the time. And then of course the day came, and the family asked me to be in the room. And I was in the room meditating, sitting next to her, and watching all the medical professionals working with her, and then I was looking at the heart monitor, and the heart monitor was going up and down, up and down, up and down and then when they unplugged her that’s… that sound, it went “shhhhhh”, and I inappropriately got a moment of aha moment and said, “Oh, my God!” It was her gift, I think, to me. I realized, why we suffer! We want to be alive, which is like this, this is alive, and we want it to be like this one line without changes, no ups no downs. That’s called death that is not life. So, I just had that, and I know it’s not a big aha moment, but it really was a big aha moment for me. I said, “Oh, my God!” And I turned to her, and I said, “thank you”, because it was a gift that I received. We can’t lead our lives like this, you know why? Because that is not called life. I do have trust fund kids who have everything planned for them, in fact for rest of their life. I have a trust fund kid as a client that has a staff bigger than my team, and I’m producing a lot to just attend to him. And he’s not even 18! And you know what? He can’t wake up without medication. He’s one of the unhappiest young people I work with. So, he has it like this. There is no “this.” They remove all the “this.” They’re all gone. It’s everything like that: he gets up, two people get up, I want this today, I want to go here, he does, he goes, but there’s no joy. Because joy is in this up and down, in not having so that I know what having is.

So, I’m going to go quiet because I’m aware of the time. This is the main tool that I’m going to give you today. And I’m going to tell you how to navigate your way. Zooming in – is for identification of problems. So, if I don’t go in, I won’t know, like, exactly, like, you wouldn’t know what’s going on if you don’t zoom in, right? But the problem is if you stay zoomed in you will never see the solution and the resolution, and you will get stuck in the details. And you know how it is when you go in there. You know that’s not good. Put it this way and then, like, you know, then you get stuck with the problems. So, besides connecting to yourself it became three tools:

  1. One was how we started. I want you to connect with you because until you connect with you, you cannot connect with life, you cannot be alive, you cannot be enjoying the ups and downs of life. Connect with you! Then really attend to your attention.
  2. You can use “win”, or you can use anything else. And then know when to zoom in and when to zoom out.
  3. Zooming in is for identification of the problem – I need to know, I need to really dive into it and look at all the details. But then the wisdom is to know when to zoom out. When do I zoom out to see the big picture, to see how I can find a solution, how can I be the leader?

Christine uses that word “mindful leadership.” I teach mindful leadership. And you know until I can’t lead me, I cannot lead anything. I cannot lead life, I cannot lead my team, I cannot lead anybody: my family, my relationship, romantic, friendship, social… You need to lead you first and when you zoom out you get a sense of life and then it becomes easier to lead.

Hope this episode answered the question or two for you, or provoked and inspired questions in you. I’m so grateful you showed up and listened up. Until the next time. Be well and stay curious!

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