Week 4: Attention

So far we have covered three of the Five Principles: the body, the breath, and the mind. This week we will turn toward the fourth principle: attention.

How to use this

  1. Please watch these videos sequentially.
  2. Acquaint yourself with the movement and breath by following the instructions included in each video a few times before moving on.
  3. Acquaint yourself with the language and breathing cues that are used in each video, noticing patterns of movement and breath.
  4. After completing the videos and the reading, please take and submit the quiz.

Lesson

As mentioned in the introduction, we often tell our students to “pay attention,” but we never teach them what attention actually is, and how to develop it. Attention is not simply forcing the mind to focus, which is not a simple thing to do. If we are tired, overworked, stressed out or emotionally upset, we will experience the attempt to focus on anything at all as very difficult.

When the nervous system is overloaded with stress hormones and the the prefrontal cortex is not communicating smoothly with the limbic system, we need to redirect ourselves by moving the body (when we get worked up we might take a walk to cool down) and breathing deeply (we’ve all most likely told someone who is upset to take a deep breath). Then the mind will begin to settle down on its own. When we calm the body, calm the breath, and calm the nerves, the mind—which is contained in all of those things—automatically calms down as well. It is at that point that we can listen, focus, process, and respond. We have brought ourselves (body, breath, and mind) into a state of attention, where we can be fully present with what is happening at that moment.

All of the tools that you have learned up until this point are for this purpose: to learn that attention is a state, not a thing that is independent of our other physiological processes. Attention is also a habit and a skill. This means that, through practice, we can develop the habit of arriving at a state of attention, and we can develop the skill of getting there with less effort.

Talent vs. Skill

We often praise people’s talent, which is different than skill. Talent is defined as “natural aptitude,” whereas skill is an ability that can be consciously pursued and developed. The development of skill requires study, practice, discipline, and a certain degree of enjoyment (though enjoyment may not always be the first thing we associate with study, practice, and discipline). If someone is going to become a concert pianist or a major league baseball player, these pursuits will require hours and hours of practice. Proficiency generates confidence, as well as the ability to efficiently accomplish what once required more effort and time.

Repetition

Repetition is a crucial part of training. As educators we have all experienced students getting bored with the repetition of material, and are challenged to constantly keep lessons fresh and engaging. There is repetition involved in the practice of our Wellness exercises, and it should be understood that the purpose of this is to help develop states of attention. After all, practice is “the repeated performance of an activity so as to acquire confidence and proficiency.”

On an extremely pragmatic level, if you tend to lose your keys or your cell phone, try putting your keys or your phone in the same spot every time you return home. Within six weeks, you will have formed a new pattern of habit and memory through the repetition of this simple action. By doing the same thing over and over again for a certain period of time, it becomes yours forever.

We use practice and repetition to:

  • Discover something new about the thing that we are doing.
  • Discover subtleties and nuances.
  • Be able to sustain a fresh, calm state of mind even while performing difficult or strenuous actions.

Benefits of repetition include:

  • New patterns of behavior and intentional habits.
  • Increased strength and flexibility.
  • New, complex, and/or fortified neural patterns.
  • Strong memory—mental, physical, spatial, and neuromuscular.
  • Improved steadiness.

Students will understand that:

  • The repetition of a beneficial action builds commitment, discipline, confidence, and skill. LeBron James shoots thousands of free throw shots just so he can nail one when his team needs it. We practice building states of attention through breathing and moving in the Wellness exercises, so when we need to gather our attention into a coherent state (e.g., during a test or presentation), we have these abilities hardwired within us.

Awareness of the Mind

One of our overarching Health and Wellness goals is an awareness of the mind. When you do the same practice repeatedly, you can measure your mind against it: How is my mind today? When you do the same thing every day, you will notice how your mind changes—some days you will be tired, some days you will be in a good mood, and some days you will be in a bad mood.

If you choose not to practice (a sport, an instrument, an art, or a hobby) because you are feeling lazy, you won’t have the opportunity to strengthen your mind and meet yourself where you are, no matter what mood you happen to be in.

There are different levels of our mind. There is a surface level where fleeting emotional states come and go depending on many factors (how much we have slept, if we have eaten enough, if we are under stress). These states are always changing.

The mind also operates on the deeper level of the intellect, which helps us decide which actions are beneficial for us to perform and remembers our commitments and resolutions. It is this deeper level of mind that we would like to develop more in order to bring about success in our lives. Even when the surface of our mind is turbulent, this deep intellect can be contacted more readily when we have the tools to do so.

When we develop this skill of the mind, we gradually gain control of where we want our attention to be, and our fluctuating states of mind and emotions no longer get the best of us. Instead, we let our deeper drives get the best of us! When we can do this with regularity, we find that our minds become happier and more flexible, our memories sharpen, and our ability to focus is enhanced.

Videos

Takeaways

  • Attention is a state of mind that can be cultivated through the body, the breath, and the nervous system.
  • Attention is not a thing that we can “snap to” instantaneously and expect to maintain.
  • A skill is something acquired through repetition. An action that is repeated over time becomes hardwired into our neural networks. Eventually a habit is formed.
  • Repetition can help us develop deeper levels of awareness of the states of our mind.
  • The surface level of our mind is ruled by fluctuations in our emotional and mental states, but these fluctuations come and go.
  • At a deeper level of our mind exists our intellectual drives, ambitions, and purpose. It is this level of our mind that we wish to strengthen in order to bring about success in our lives.

Quiz

So far we have covered three of the Five Principles: the body, the breath, and the mind. This week we will turn toward the fourth principle: attention.

Resources

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