Paying Attention

As a mindfulness educator, I find it thrilling that many hours out of my day I get to sit and just notice things. As I practice with my students and clients, I get to sense the air on my skin, feel the support of the couch cradling my body, notice the variety of sounds in the environment.

I get to PAY ATTENTION. And I get to teach little ones to PAY ATTENTION, without yelling it at them!

The words “pay attention” are so interesting to me. We adults tell kids all day long to “pay attention” but we never actually teach them how. We don’t cultivate attention. Our culture cultivates distraction. I can’t go out to eat with my family without competing with ESPN. I’ve seen couples on dates with their faces in their phones. Homework is done with an iPod in the ears, a movie on the screen, while surfing the internet. Bringing our attention into one place at one time is an anomaly. In fact, probably a good 75% of you reading this aren’t even here right now. You’re wondering if the toast is burning in the toaster, or if the flights to Portland are cheaper this weekend, or if you have time to squeeze in a trip to Party City to see if they have the Spiderman costume still left in stock.

Our brains are like Niagara Falls, they flow and flow and flow and flow with information until we wonder if we can keep our head above water. And while it’s WONDERFUL that they produce information with which we can assess situations and problem solve and brainstorm and be creative, they can also bully us with thoughts of how we aren’t skinny enough for summer, how our neighbors just bought their 3rd new car in 3 years and we’re still driving that 1995 tank of a minivan, that we didn’t get our kids enrolled in that great tech camp that all the other kids are going to, or that our budget just isn’t big enough for Christmas, and, and, and… We simply aren’t good enough, strong enough, smart enough.

Which is part of the reason why I find mindfulness practices so essential for cultivating a healthy mental outlook. Mindfulness is simply “paying attention to ‘what is’ with kindness and curiosity.” Choosing moments out of the day to pause and attend to anything present in the here and now. Your breath. The song of a bird. The feel of the air on your skin. Noticing, really noticing these small sensations, while letting your daily thought parade simply march on by, can teach us how to pay attention. And it changes your brain.

  • MRI evidence (in adults) shows that going through 8 weeks of mindfulness based stress reduction training (and PRACTICING a minimum of 27 minutes a day!) enlarged the gray matter in areas of the brain associated with attention and emotional integration and decreased the size of the amygdala (the part of the brain associated with anger/fear). Electrical activity was measured in the brain of participants, and the mindfulness group was found to have significant increases in activity in the left side of the brain’s frontal area as compared to the control group. This region of the brain is associated with positive affect and emotion regulation. Individuals with greater activation in this region recover more quickly following a stressful event compared with individuals with less activation in this region. (Ogden et al., 2006)
  • MRIs have also shown that brains of people who routinely meditate have thicker regions in the frontal cortex, the area responsible for reasoning and decision making, and a thicker insula, which is involved in sensing internal sensations and thought to be a critical structure in the perception of emotional feelings.
  • Mindfulness practitioners also showed significant increases in antibodies compared to the control group, suggesting that meditation can help boost the immune response.
  • And, a study subjecting long term meditators to emotional sounds (like babies crying), showed less activation of the amygdala, the part of the brain associated with processing fear and aggression, suggesting that long term meditation practice may be associated with significant decreases in emotionally reactive behavior.

Early research with children is showing that learning to “pay attention” and be “mindful” leads to:

  • Enhanced ability to approach experiences with curiosity and an open mind
  • Ability to calm down when angry or upset
  • Increased capacity to concentrate and ignore distractions
  • Increased compassion for self and others
  • Development of prosocial qualities like patience, humility, joy and generosity (Amy Saltzman, The Still Quiet Place)

One of the simplest ways to be mindful is to simply stop, right now, wherever you are and start listening. Pay careful attention to every single sound you hear for 30 seconds. Let the sounds simply come and go without trying to label them, or hold on to them, or get rid of them. Simply notice them. This is how a mindful brain works. Paying attention without grasping or running away. Allowing what is happening to happen (that is, if your life is not in danger!), and to simply watch with gentle curiosity.

If you are interested in starting your own mindfulness practice I recommend the app Headspace. Andy Puddicombe has done a great job creating an accessible and fun mindfulness practice. And if you are looking for something for your kids, check out MindYeti, a wonderful app full of 3 to 5 minutes opportunities to make paying attention a much more enjoyable experience.

This video clip gives you a taste of what it’s all about! Get Your Mind Ready with MindYeti

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