Setting An Intention To Pay Attention: A Crucial Step Of Mindfulness

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Earlier today I was sitting in a meeting, but instead of paying attention I found my mind drifting away, thinking about other things I needed to do that day at work, what I wanted to do when I got off work, a co-worker who was in a bad mood this morning and somehow I had allowed her to get me off center.

And then suddenly I came back to the present, back to the sound of our CEO’s voice realizing I didn’t hear anything she had said over the last five minutes. Not a good thing. It was then I realized that I had to set an intention to pay attention.

It’s so easy to get distracted by all the noise in our heads, our phones buzzing with messages or even a co-worker in a sour mood. This can be helpful of course when you are doing something like pumping gas and need to notice the suspicious looking person approaching, but it is not very helpful when we are trying to engage with another person or pay attention in an important meeting.

Mindfulness doesn’t just happen, you actually have to make the decision to pay attention. This can be part of an intentional practice such as paying attention to our breathing during meditation or paying attention to a loved one and ignoring our phone or any other internal or external distractions.

This is even helpful sometimes in the middle of the day when we realize our minds are all over the place, especially when it’s in the future or the past and not in the present. That’s when we need to bring focus back to our loved one that is talking, or our child that wants our attention or like this morning, our CEO who is lecturing. And sometimes we just need to bring our attention back to us, what we are doing in that moment, even if it’s just walking or breathing.

This may sound very small, but it is actually often difficult to do because we aren’t always aware of when our thoughts and attention have gone away from where they need to be.

The other day I was sitting with my future wife watching a movie, but I realized my mind was somewhere else and instead of enjoying that moment with her I was creating anxiety for myself about a situation that I had no control over. When I realize this I brought my mind back to the present, back to that moment and the anxiety I was feeling dissipated.

It’s a powerful thing, that moment when you realized you aren’t focused on the present and then bring your mind and attention back and choose to live in that moment instead of just letting that moment pass you by.

Choosing to pay attention is such an easy thing to do, but at the same time it’s easy to forget and harder to do consistently without practice.

Defeat Unpleasant Thoughts By Ignoring Them

iStock_000009024892XSmall-300x240I recently read an article on psychologytoday.com entitled Why Our Thoughts Are Not Real. This wasn’t the first time I had read an article that talked about the fallaciousness of our thoughts and how we often misinterpret the information our thoughts give us.

Everyday we are filled with thousands of thoughts, most of them aren’t even real, but we assume and act on them as if they are real and that is what causes us to have many of the feelings and behaviors we have that cause us so much strife.

Our thoughts on their own are just thoughts, they don’t exist in reality, you can’t touch them and they really aren’t anything at all until we make them real by engaging in, dwelling on and trying to do something about them.

I try to explain this a lot when I work with clients dealing with anxiety. They will have a thought pop into their head, such as “I don’t think my shirt matches my pants today and everyone is going to notice and I am going to be walking around looking like a fool and people will be laughing behind my back.”

Consciously the client didn’t chose to have this thought, it just popped into her head and if she ignores it for a while, it will likely fade away and she will forget she even had that thought, but what most people do, especially people with anxiety, we try to do something to get rid of the thought which causes us to pay more attention to the thought which causes the thought to become more real and anxiety provoking.

The person in this case is then more likely to continue wondering if she looks stupid, may go look in the mirror and start scrutinizing her attire even more and may go to a coworker asking “do I look stupid in this” and may feel relieved when the co-worker says “No, you look fine” or may create even more anxiety by saying that her coworker is just too nice to hurt her feelings.

Whatever the case, the point is that because she is thinking about the thought, that isn’t even real, she is making it more and more real and creating more and more anxiety, when if she would have just let the thought enter her brain, allow herself to not do anything about it, including thinking about it, the thought most likely would have left her awareness and she would have went on with her day without being overly conscious about her attire.

When we start given our thoughts attention, that’s when they start to feel real and start to have some control over us because we typically want to do something about it. People with anxiety generally create more anxiety because they attend too much to their anxious thoughts and generally try to get rid of it, by doing something which causes even more anxiety, similar to someone with obsessive compulsive disorder. The same goes for people suffering from depression. They may have the unreal thought “no body likes me” and so they withdraw from people and when they find themselves alone use that as further proof that “no body likes me”.

When it comes to anxiety, I had a client who suffered with anxiety and her boyfriend would break up with her almost every week. When he would break up with her she would have the thought, “If he leaves me I will be alone and miserable for the rest of my life”, that thought would cause her to panic and she would call and text him repeatedly. He wouldn’t respond which would amplify that thought and her anxiety so she would jump in her car and drive fast and recklessly to his house where she would pound on the door and cry until he opened it and they reconciled.

Later she would always be depressed by the frantic and pathetic way she responded, yet the next week she would do it all over again.

I had to help her learn to just sit with her thoughts and feelings and do nothing about them, even though she felt like she needed to. It was hard for her not to call, text and drive to go see him the first few times we worked on this, her anxiety was through the roof,  but when she finally allowed herself to sit with the anxiety, to try to not think about it, she was surprised that after about 20 minutes, the anxiety went from a level 10 to about a 2. It would come back when she thought about it and we had to work on letting it go again, and once again her anxiety would go back down without her doing absolutely anything except not giving it life by attending to it and trying to do something about it.

After a few sessions she was able to sit with her anxiety and not have it cause her whole world to stop or spin out of control and with that, her self-confidence increased and she was able to handle her situations a lot better, without panic, but with a clear level head.

I think this is something we can all practice. Remember that our thoughts are not real until we breathe life until them, and especially when it comes to an uncomfortable thought, sometimes doing nothing about it, including not thinking about it, will allow it to leave our consciousness and fade into nothingness instead of causing us to feel and do erratic and irrational things.

Distraction is a good tool to use when it comes to this. Instead of thinking about the thought, do something to distract yourself. I do it all the time and with practice it becomes really simple. Usually in about five minutes whatever the thought was causing the anxiety, sadness, or whatever, will fade from my consciousness and not have crippled my day or caused me a great deal of distress. This is a simple solution that can help us all live happier, more fulfilled lives.