Our capacity for attention is sometimes spoken of as a torch. But what can this torch do, and who or what controls it? Let’s assume it is on all the time whether we know it or not.
The best short summary of what attention is and does is by Professor Paul Gilbert in his book Mindful Compassion, co-authored by Choden. (Paul Gilbert & Choden, Mindful Compassion (London: Robinson, 2013)
The first point they make is that attention, like a torch, can be moved, it is not fixed. I can move it intentionally to focus on my big toe but it can ‘also be taken over unintentionally by the threat and drive systems.’ (p.191) The threat and drive systems are two of our three main internal systems. So they can shine the torch where they want. In the drive and resource-seeking system we are ‘wanting, pursuing, achieving, consuming.’(p.56) In the threat-focused system (fight and flight) we are ‘threat-focused, protection and safety-seeking.’ (p.56)
So it can be moved intentionally and it can be taken over, this torch of attention.
The second ‘m’ to remember for attention is that it can magnify, ‘Attention acts like a zoom lens making some things bigger in our minds and blocking out other thoughts and feelings.’ (p.191) I can zoom in on my big toe and my torch of attention magnifies it so that it is the focus of my attention. I also have another process of open awareness that can run alongside this focused attention but that is another story.
The third ‘m’ to remember for attention is its ability to focus on our memories. What that means is that ‘Attention can have very powerful physiological effects: bringing to mind happy memories can arouse pleasant feelings and sensations, whilst dwelling on unhappy things can arouse unpleasant feelings and sensations.’(p.191) This can be done intentionally or automatically, unintentionally, out of our awareness.
Our attention can be ‘captured by our emotions without us even realising it.’(p.191)
Mindfulness practices help us to train our minds so that we can intentionally work with the torch of attention. We can notice when our attention has unintentionally switched to negative ruminative patterns. We notice those patterns and let them go. We do not avoid them or fuse with them.
Attention – it is a very important torch!