The Skill of Conscious Attention

Let’s talk a bit about the attention required in directing and how this is applied during daily life. There are three stages of practicing attention that a student must progress through, each of which is progressively more difficult to put into practice: 1. learning to direct and attend as a focused process; 2. experimenting with application in activity during class; and 3. application in daily life. Today, we will focus just on the first step, on what it means to be attentive and why it’s important in directing.

First, let’s all agree that directing can never be overemphasized as it is a key process in our work. You could say in a nutshell that directing is the process of sending messages to muscles. We are always sending messages to muscles, which in essence is its own kind of subconscious direction; and because our subconscious direction is unreliable, it is a misdirection whereby we tell muscles to contract unnecessarily.  In this sense, giving directions consciously is preventative because we need to send new, positive directions in order stop that tightening.

Attention in Directing

Why is attention important in directing? Just because you’ve given a direction doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. Direction is not something you place on top of an inert system that otherwise had nothing else to do. Directions are a default activity of the nervous system because we are always sending messages. Try this experiment: Give you directions for a few moments. Then have a conversation with someone, forget about your directions and come back, and you’ll see that you have tightened up again. This is because you sent messages to muscles to tighten as part of what you were doing, as part of your activity (the conversation), and these subconscious, misdirected messages are being sent all the time.

So, whether it is conscious or unconscious, you are directing all the time. In the absence of conscious direction, you will direct unconsciously, and this means that the moment you become unconscious your muscles will contract again. And this will happen all the time, whether you are talking to someone, daydreaming, sleepwalking, or sleeping. It’s part of your instinctive and habitual use, and it is very strong indeed. That’s the important thing to keep in mind here. We can’t just direct here and there and expect it to work for us; we have to learn to sustain direction because our old direction is always fighting to come through.

To overcome this, to override our instinctive direction, you must learn to pay attention and sustain attention over time, and that is an equally important part of our work. Directions have to be given constantly; and it can’t be constant unless you learn to pay attention all the time.

Attention as a Skill

Here’s the tricky part: attention in itself is a skill that takes time and patience to acquire. Even if we know how to direct and realize that we have to sustain direction, it’s still difficult to do! I can say I’m going to look at a sunset, or listen to a concerto, but what keeps me focused on the task at hand if it gets boring and my incentive wanes? What if your mind keeps getting drawn away toward a conversation you had earlier that day, or to a task you need to handle later? What if you simply cannot stay focused?

When I started out in this work, I realized that, to direct, I would need to learn to sustain attention. I initially learned more about what it meant to be attentive from the process of directing than from any other mindfulness method I had practiced because of this very problem. I spent a lot of time directing and quickly realized that, to do the work effectively, I needed to keep my attention without losing it, something I now call “learning to attend”. I practiced every day, paying attention for long periods, noticing when I got distracted, and bringing myself back to the task, over and over until I could keep my attention over longer periods of time without losing it. I had never thought of this work as mindfulness practice, but of course that’s exactly what it was.

Attending vs Paying Attention

When you learn to attend, you quickly realize that it is something more than paying attention in the usual way. We can all pay attention, as when a teacher asks you to read a passage from a book, or when you attend to a finite task like writing an email or putting makeup on in the morning. This is normally what we think of when we pay attention. We do this form of selective and voluntary attention all the time—in learning something new, in being asked to notice something, or when a teacher asks us to remember a new fact and we pay careful attention for a short period of time. “Pay” is a useful and clarifying verb, in fact, because we dole out this type of focused, selective attention in small, finite amounts, almost as if it were money. This, and other forms of attention are more basic and fundamental to us as humans. Learning to attend or be mindful over long periods is something more than this because, even when we pay attention to something selectively, we want also to Attend in a different way, at a different level, by maintaining awareness of ourselves and the world around us as we engage in a focused activity. This is exactly the moment where we have to learn not to lapse back into inattention and lose ourselves in activity. The vast majority of us have not developed that skill.

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This man, like many of us, loses himself in focused activity and cannot Attend to himself or the world around him.

To attend in this way means that we cannot get distracted and we also cannot over focus, both of which will result in lost attention. To me, this was what our work demanded and what mindfulness became: consciously paying attention, in the moment, in a very active way, without losing focus and without being TOO focused on any single thing. And this is how we must approach directing. In order to direct in a sustained way, we have to learn to consciously attend by not losing attention or getting lost in something. This skill of attending is a discipline that must be mastered.

In the next post, we’ll talk more about conscious attention and learning to attend in a new way.