3 Steps to Follow When You’re Obsessing about the Future or Ruminating on the Past
Whether we’re worrying about the future or feeling stuck on the past, our minds have a way of haunting us. Couple that with the beeping machines we carry around in our pockets, and there’s a lot pulling us away from the current moment.
That can be a recipe for unhappiness, according to professor and mindfulness researcher Shauna Shapiro, PhD. Shapiro understands attention as our greatest asset: It keeps us anchored to what is happening in the here and now, which research shows is good for us. And although we live in an era when our attention is a resource everyone is competing for—those beeps aren’t for nothing—we can cultivate focus for ourselves through some simple practices.
Attention: Our Most Precious Resource
It is not time but attention that is our most valuable resource. We live with so much stimulation and distraction it’s a wonder we can think clearly at all. According to research from Harvard, our minds wander approximately 47 percent of the time. Our attention is under constant assault from social media, the internet, email, and text messages. A 2012 study revealed that our brains consume the equivalent of over thirty gigabytes of incoming information every day. We don’t have the capacity to process that much information, so our attention scatters and becomes fragmented. We lose touch with what matters.
It is not just the outside world that depletes our attention. Our attention is hijacked by our own mind: We replay past mistakes that are already over and endlessly worry about a future that does not yet exist. As a result, we miss the present moment—the only moment we actually have to live.
Our inability to manage our attention causes us to suffer not only emotionally but physically. When we are obsessing about the future or ruminating on the past, our bodies flood with cortisol, a stress hormone. Chronically high cortisol levels contribute to hypertension, weaken our immune system, cause fat deposits, and reduce libido, among other detriments.
Research shows that training your attention to focus on the present moment leads to some extraordinary benefits: increased happiness, decreased stress, improved sleep, stronger immune functioning, and greater satisfaction with life. And it protects the ends of DNA strands, which keep us youthful and healthy.
Of all the things that will transform the quality of your life, training your ability to pay attention is at the top of the list. As the old joke goes, “Any man who can drive safely while kissing a girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.” You have to be present in order to fully experience life’s richness, beauty, and meaning. In fact, this moment, right now, is the only one you have for sure.
Training Your Attention through Mindfulness
Mindfulness can be an antidote to distraction. It trains and stabilizes our attention in the present moment, so we can see clearly and respond effectively. This allows us to navigate life’s tests better and to appreciate life’s joys. We become more alive to the sights, sounds, sensations, tastes, and emotions of each moment.
As we strengthen our ability to pay attention, we connect with what makes life most meaningful. We are able to step out of automatic pilot and reset our inner compass in the direction we want to go.
Paying attention literally rewires our brain and redesigns the very fabric of our consciousness so that we can live with greater calm, clarity, and joy.
3 Steps to Train Your Attention to the Present
Intention: Begin by setting your intention for the practice. For example: “May this practice bring greater peace and clarity into my life” or “May this help me be more present.”
Attention: Focus on the present moment. Gently move your attention over your body and release any obvious tension, especially in the jaw and shoulders. See if you can soften 5 percent more in each area, and feel the breath as it naturally flows in and out of your body. When you notice your mind wandering, use your breath as an anchor for the mind: Gently guide it back to the breath each time. By doing this, you are training your mind to focus and cultivating the neural pathways of attention.
Attitude: Infuse your attention with the attitudes of kindness and curiosity. See if you can bring 5 percent more kindness, interest, and caring to this experience. When your mind wanders off, see if you can bring it back with an attitude of kindness. Treat your wayward mind like a little puppy, patiently and lovingly whispering, “Come back…stay…stay…”
When the mindfulness practice ends, take a moment to thank yourself for cultivating your most precious resource: attention. As you continue with your day, see if you can bring a seamless continuity of attention with you into each moment of your life.
Shauna Shapiro, PhD, is a professor and researcher at Santa Clara University and a fellow of the Dalai Lama’s Mind and Life Institute. Shapiro is the author of The Art and Science of Mindfulness, Mindful Discipline, and most recently Good Morning, I Love You: Mindfulness + Self-Compassion Practices to Rewire Your Brain for Calm, Clarity + Joy.
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