When I started the A to Z of Becoming, the first verb beginning with an A was Attend. (Click through on that link to read the original post)
This week I want to explore the difference between passive and active attention. What I really mean can most easily be understood from that common expression – “that caught my attention”. We experience our attention being “caught” all the time. Whether it’s caught by a loud bang, a bright light, a word or a phrase we hear or read, what we experience is suddenly noticing.
What caught my attention and led me to take the above photograph was the colour of sky at sunset. I noticed the red sky, picked up my camera and went out into the garden to take the photograph.
What caught my attention next was the bright spot of light you can see shining up there in the top left of the image.
What is that?
So, then I took out my iphone, opened up the Star Walk app, and held the screen towards that part of the sky I had photographed.
Venus. That bright light is Venus. I then noticed (on the app) that several other planets were in the same vicinity, some of them having already disappeared below the horizon with the setting sun, and some of them not shining brightly enough yet to be visible in the red light.
What happened there was that my attention was caught, first by the red sky, then by the shining “star” (which turned out to be a planet). The whole experience was extended by following the curiosity which my attention had provoked. And I extend the experience further again now, as I write this.
We’re often not that aware of what is catching our attention because we don’t linger with it. We become aware of something, then we quickly start to think about something else. So, how can you become an more active player and influence what your mind is paying attention to?
Here’s an exercise you can do to find out what keeps catching your attention.
Take a notebook and write continuously without stopping to think what to write for either a period of time, or until you’ve filled a number of pages. I’ve seen several variations of this exercise and suggest you choose the one that best fits for you. Either fill three, or more, pages of A4 size, or write continuously for 30 minutes, or a period time you can fit into your schedule (I’d suggest it needs to be at least 15 minutes)
The rules are, do it every day, don’t stop for a second as you write, and don’t read what you’ve written. Do this for 30 days, then read the whole lot. You’ll be surprised when you find some of the things that keep coming up. Some will be obvious to you, but I bet there will be others which really surprise you. These repeated phrases, topics or whatever, are what has been catching your attention this last month. (If 30 days is too much for you, try it for 7, or for 10 days. Set your target in advance and don’t read anything until that target has been reached)
As you reflect on what you’ve written, you can make some choices. You can choose to stop paying attention to something, or you can choose to actively look out for something else. In other words you can engage actively with your attention, setting yourself up to have your attention caught more frequently by whatever it is you’d like it to be caught by.
We are never fully aware or completely present for long, but the act of choosing to attend to something in particular, again and again, begins to influence our passive, less conscious reactions too.
We can gradually begin to experience more of what we choose to experience.