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The Anatomy of Attention

I used to have a hard time getting into any project that required focus. Once I had been working at something for a while I would “drop in” and be fine, but it was hard for me to sit down and get started. I would think up all sorts of other things that I imagined needed to be done first, as a tactic to delay the moment when I would have to sit down and make myself focus. By accident, I discovered that if I did the dishes the old-fashioned way, with a sink full of sudsy water, it would quiet my mind enough that I could then go and get started on my project. It was a long round-about way of getting myself into a state of mind where I could focus, but it worked. Little did I know there was a much simpler way to arrive at a quietly-focused mind.

Attention is a remarkable thing. It is easy to think of the mind as a computer, with bits of information running through the neuron “circuits” of the brain. But attention is not information—it is awareness of information. If my mind is a computer, attention is the “me” who is using the computer. Attention is the mind’s ability to direct its own consciousness. In a very real sense, attention is consciousness.

When something “grabs your attention”—you spot something you really want on the middle of a half-price sale table surrounded by a dozen other bargain-hunters—there is a way that your senses “lock onto” the item you want, like the crosshairs of a rifle sight. You still see the other things on the table and the shoppers around it, but none of them interest you the way your target does. Nothing else has the same “juice.” Or, think of what a cat looks like when it is ready to pounce on a moving toy—muscles tense and quiver, eyes bulge, pupils grow large. You can almost “see” the attention focused on that toy like the powerful beam from a searchlight.

In ordinary language, attention is described mainly in terms of what it is pointed at. If I am sitting at a café and looking out the window my attention might be on the car that just pulled up, or it might be on my plans for the weekend. If it is on my plans, I may not notice the car even if I am looking right at it. In either case, attention is described in terms of what it is directed towards. “My attention is on the baby,” or, “my attention is on the traffic.”

Yet this is only half of the equation, because attention also has to come from somewhere. Where attention comes from turns out to be of great importance to mindfulness. In ordinary states of mind, attention seems to come from the head. This fits with scientific evidence of “attentional networks” in the brain that are active when one is deliberately paying attention.

Attention is not some free-floating impersonal consciousness, but it is my consciousness, or your consciousness. If I direct my attention at a flower, I am not watching my attention watch the flower, I am my attention watching the flower—it is the this is me part that ispaying attention.

Attention, described in this way, always has a location. It always comes from somewhere in the body. This is important because where attention comes from determines your state of mind. If you (as your attention) are sitting in your head, you are probably in a thinking mind state. If you are sitting in your belly, you are probably in a mindful state. In this way, it becomes possible to map out different states of mind in terms of where your attention is sitting. Then, when you follow the map, you can reliably get to the state of mind you need.

by Glenn Hartelius, PhD