Mindfulness is a tool that can help place attention where it is most needed and then keep it there as long as required to reflect, plan, decide and act.
Our attention is always someplace. Unfortunately, our attention at work and at home (now more often than not the same!) moves about involuntarily, pulled away and bounced around by meetings, texts, emails, news feeds, and during the last year of pandemic, by the kids, the pets, the laundry, and the pot of soup on the stove, and maybe YouTube and Netflix. By some estimates, more than 90% of our attention is involuntarily triggered by outside stimuli or internally generated thoughts about what happened earlier or what will happen tomorrow. This takes us utterly away from the present moment.
The costs to our productivity and our personal wellbeing of this involuntary attention are enormous. We start and restart work, our minds wander, we are anxious, and we become exhausted following our thoughts around like a cat chasing a laser pointer. We have trouble sleeping and start the day tired, further accelerating the spiral of involuntary attention.
On the other hand, we all know the feeling of voluntary attention. We may experience it playing sports or tending to a child, rock climbing, sailing, or driving in bad weather. All distractions disappear, and we feel a sense of focus, energy, and aliveness.
Mindfulness is a tool that can help place attention where it is most needed and then keep it there as long as required to reflect, plan, decide and act. When practiced consistently, mindfulness can help us become aware very quickly that our minds have wandered and it can help us gently return to the matter at hand. Mindfulness also helps with peaceful sleep as attention is placed on body and breath instead of rehashing the day’s events and our judgments and criticisms. Mindfulness can be a practical tool that can reduce workplace stress, improve health, and produce better results.
When a bird sings in the yard, our ears hear it. When we smell dinner in the oven, our nose will smell it; it does not “choose” to smell. Likewise, our eyes don’t choose to see, our tongues don’t choose to taste, and our fingers don’t choose to feel. They just do. We may choose to give further attention to a sound that may signal danger or the excitement of a loved one’s car pulling into the driveway. We may move away from a noxious smell or walk into the bakery following the smell of cinnamon and sugar. Most of the time, the sensory input comes and goes, but we can choose what to focus on and give our attention to.
It may be useful to think about our minds like a sixth sense organ, like the eye, ear, or nose. Most of the time, we don’t choose to generate thoughts; they simply generate themselves. The difference is that we believe these thoughts have more importance than the smell of the bakery or the sound of the dog barking next door. We would be better off letting 99% of them go without further attention. When a thought arises, and we follow it where it takes us, our focus is likewise gone.
To bring the attention back to the present moment, awareness of the breath is a powerful tool that almost anyone can practice. Simply pause when you realize that your attention has been pulled away involuntarily and notice what your breath is doing. I guarantee that you are breathing! Is your breath shallow or deep? Fast or slow? Smooth or jagged? No need to do anything about what you find; just notice and stay with it for a moment.
Then, in that quiet moment, decide where you intend to put your attention and gently place it there. It will wander off again, for certain, but you can repeat this awareness and refocusing of your attention as often as you wish.
Recently we held an introduction to mindfulness and meditation with one of our clients, the senior team of a large American corporation. Our session sponsor, a very self-aware senior executive, reported a few weeks after the session: “Since starting these mindfulness practices, I’m sleeping better than I have in years.” Mindfulness is a tool that can have profound effects on our personal and professional wellbeing.
As you go through your day, through your week, notice when your attention is on something that it has been pulled to involuntarily. Then, see if you are able to, return to the breath, and place your attention where you intend for it to be. Perhaps you can shift the balance towards voluntary attention, even by 5%.
This is the first in a series of articles on mindfulness by Jeremy Seligman. Jeremy is a Senior Partner at Brimstone Consulting Group. He is a former corporate executive with extensive background and experience as an organizational development specialist and executive coach. Jeremy is a longtime practitioner of mindfulness and meditation, and is a certified Mindfulness and Meditation Teacher, certified by the UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Sounds True, and the Awareness Training Institute.