AMISHI JAI: For a long time in our evolutionary history, the brain began to suffer from a very big problem: there is far more information in the environment than it is possible to fully process. Attention ended up being a very useful solution because it allowed the brain to prioritize and downsample parts of what was happening. There are so many ways in which our attention is powerful. It ends up being used for all these different aspects of the human experience. To fuel our ability to successfully think, feel, connect, we need full access to our attention.
For most of us, when we hear the term “mindfulness,” we think of concentration. What does this actually mean? It means that we restrict and narrow down where our mental energy goes in this very precise way. I often use the metaphor of a flashlight to describe this ability that we all have. Just like a real flashlight or torch, if we are in a dark room, wherever this flashlight is pointing, we will get clear and sharp information. And the beam of this flashlight is narrow. It’s about prioritizing certain information, and that’s because there’s a brain mechanism called “bias,” which activates neurons representing what you’re directing your attention to. But, even though we often think of attention as concentration, it ends up saying that attention is more than concentration. There are other attention systems.
Another aspect is almost the exact opposite of a flashlight. And I’m using the metaphor of a projector here. Unlike a flashlight, whose beam is strong and narrow and directed, a spotlight is wide, diffused, and you might say receptive. There is nothing that you favor over anything else. The projector is a brain system called an “alert system”. Being alert means noticing what is happening right now. But you know you have to be careful in this broad and diffuse way. The spotlight really describes that experience. And then finally, there’s a third way to prioritize and pay attention that actually has nothing to do with content or timing, it has to do with our goals. And it’s something called ‘Executive Control’. I like to use the metaphor of a juggler for executive control.
You can think of it this way: “Executive” is like the executive of the company. The executive’s job is not to do all the necessary tasks, but to keep the goals in mind and ensure that the actions of the company, the individuals in the company and the goals are aligned. . Same idea with this notion of juggler – we keep all the balls in the air. We manage and coordinate the many complex things that need to happen. Now, we often intend to focus our mind, but we often don’t know where our focus is.
So one of the very useful ways to train our attention, to protect it from this thing called wandering of the mind, is to do what we call a “breath concentration practice”. When we begin this practice, feel free to set a timer for 12 minutes to continue doing this. So in this practice we are going to find our flashlight. How are we going to do this? Well, the first step is to anchor our flashlight somewhere. And above all, we will start by paying attention to the breath. The first thing I want you to do is settle into your body. Just notice your seated, breathing body. And if you feel comfortable, go ahead and look down or close your eyes. It will just help reduce all the extra distractions a bit. Just notice that you are breathing. And what I’d like you to do next is really zoom in on that aspect of your present moment experience – your sitting, breathing body. What is most alive related to your breathing? Try to assess that. Is it the coolness of the air entering and leaving your nostrils perhaps? Or maybe your shoulder is moving up or down? Anyway, try to identify it. And once you have identified that vivid sensation related to the breath, you are going to set it as an intention for this brief practice to shine the flashlight of your attention directly on those sensations related to the breath. Keep that strong, steady beam of your attention flashlight on the breath. Just as you breathe naturally, there is no reason to control the breath – just in its natural rhythm, happening as it should.
Focus on the breath. Now, if it hasn’t already happened, it will surely – the mind will wander. Maybe thoughts or memories, other things in your environment. Notice when mind wandering occurs. Keep that spotlight receptive to what’s going on right now. You focus and notice yourself as you breathe. Now, if it turns out that the mind has wandered off, that’s okay, minds wander off. It’s a natural thing the brain does. If you notice it, consider it a win. Now you know where your flashlight is and just redirect it to those breath-related sensations. Restart. Breathe, notice, redirect as needed, and repeat. Now, as we complete this practice, just remember those steps of focus, notice, redirect that we did formally focusing on our breath, which we can use for anything we do in our daily lives. . It is a practical tool. We can think of it as the push-up we can do for our mind. He is with you and always available, just like your breath.
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