Pay Attention, A Practice


I analyze.  I am continually finding myself analyzing situations and then strategizing how to best respond.  At least this is what I have called it for most of my life.  This obsessive analyzing has served me in many positive ways:

  • It has made me a super problem solver.
  • I am a tinkerer driven by a mad curiosity which results in discovered efficiencies both in my career and in my personal life.
  • The constant questioning and problem-solving have led me to learn – and I mean a lot about a lot of different things.

However, if I do not pay attention that same analyzing quality also can destroy my happiness by creating confusion and clouding clarity.

At its core, I have discovered the analyzing is worry disguised as intelligence.  It is a habituated way to seek reassurance everything will always be OK.  I have never considered myself a worrier.   I do not sit around and think to myself the world is coming to an end, are my doors locked, go to the doctor regularly just in case, etc…  However, that is the minds cleverness.  I guess you may be able to label it lots of things.  Maybe it errs on the side of insecurity or fear?  I do not know, but I do know that in times of uncertainty my mind kicks into a thick, heavy and strong sense of analyzation.

By practicing meditation and mindfulness, I have become more aware, in times of uncertainty, how confused my mind gets.  It starts to flip the perceived problem over, under, upside down, left, and right.  It yearns to grasp and cling to information, to find options, alternative approaches, and possible successful strategies.  The more information I grip, the more confused I become.  I reach for books, articles, magazines, and Google becomes my best friend as I search for the “answers.”  I was never aware of the pattern I was living out in my information quest yet, I can say, in hindsight, it has never been a comfortable feeling overall.  Most of the time I find myself exhausted, frustrated and stuck.  When traveling down this information rabbit hole, I never know which way to turn or how to take action because either the solutions will not produce the desired results or because none of the solutions “feel” right.  So I would meditate, or disappear back into my thoughts, sometimes I would kick myself and try to be positive, and other times blame myself and say it is not a problem at all.   Ultimately, no matter what path I chose to go down I would feel tense, scattered and restless.

However, something happened recently in this pattern, and I started to pay attention.  As I talked about in a previous post, I began to watch how my mind gets involved (you can read that post here) and takes over during periods of uncertainty.  I would like to tell you that after years of practicing being present I always pay attention, but it is not so.  I am more peaceful, have more consistent clarity, and feel more grounded than unstable, but I often get hijacked into my thinking and never really see it happening until after the fact.

Over the past several weeks, anytime I sense my mind grasping into in-depth analyzation to either sustain what I deem as positive or to avert what I consider as harmful I have started a new practice and it’s been super helpful.   I say the words to myself, “pay attention.”  I take a deep breath and say silently “relax” as I exhale.  I either write down or to myself answer the following questions in this order:

What am I feeling?

What I do?

What I could do instead?

The pay attention is not some scolding or militant voice; it is a gentle voice.  Meditation and compassion teachers will recommend that this kind of attention-getting statement can be prefaced with a “sweetheart” or “honey,” but that does not always feel comforting to me.  Anytime you feel lost in the voice in your head whether it is because you are excited or whether it is because you are uncomfortable, a simple “pay attention” seems to work for me to stop the runaway train.  It brings me back to what is happening right now inside of myself.

The “what am I feeling” question may feel hard to answer if you have not connected with yourself for a while.  If that is the case for you and you find yourself stuck you can refer to this post.  In the References section, there are a couple of lists to help you begin to identify your feelings.  Just remember this is not about anybody else so whatever you feel there is no right or wrong.  There is no room for judgment on this question.  No one else is going to be participating in this with you.  The practice is only about you and being honest about your feelings at the moment.

“When this happens I want to” is an opportunity to observe yourself.  In my experience, the reactions happened, and then as I posed this question to myself, I could see what I wanted to do so openly because in less than 3 seconds my mind had already rattled off those options.  The habituated path tends to feel like a wave of energy with a life of its own, traveling down the same path time and time again.

No matter what you put on your “what could I do instead” list know it does not mean you have to do it.  You are merely startling the mind and providing it alternative options rather than its knee-jerk habituated tendencies.  By asking this question, your entire being opens to the idea of possibility and the energy is redirected from its usual tendencies.

Here are a couple of real examples from my practice.  It looks something like this – the mind is jumping around, thinking, analyzing, pondering, and incessantly talking about what it could do or say.

“Pay attention,” deep breathe in, and as I exhale, I say the word “relax” silently to myself.

“What am I feeling?”

I feel scared because my body causes disturbances inside and I am so frightened of it.

“When this happens I want to?”

  • Run from it
  • Get away
  • Deploy tactics to suppress it
  • Not experience any discomfort
  • Look for answers

“What could I do instead?”

  • Breathe
  • Relax
  • Comfort and acknowledge the fear and confusion
  • Be kind and do yoga or something else compassionate to my body.

This practice has brought to my awareness the patterns of reactions, for whatever reason, I deploy in difficult, precarious and uncertain situations.  I am aware these reactions fuel separation which is the opposite of where I feel at peace.  I do not think it is discouraging news; it is just another piece of information about how my mind has been conditioned to work, and I can usually find awe and splendor in the genius of it all.  By seeing the habits of the mind, I can get to know them better and see them for what they are, pure energy patterns that travel the path of least resistance.   I can also see the automatic reactions tend to be of the always, permanently, and never tone of voice and this grounds me because although my mind thinks in permanence and finality, I know the reality of life forever changes.