Having trouble concentrating? Attention struggles are nothing new. And all our devices are not helping. There’s always a new social media platform that we feel compelled to add to our daily rotation of things we check in on. Now there are TV screens in elevators, taxi cabs, backseats, and even at the gas station. Our world has turned in to much more of a carnival.
Do I sound like an old timer?
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Covid and Attention Deficit
But lately, with a relentless news cycle and heightened stakes to pretty much every decision we make thanks to Covid. Our attention is like an order of hash browns at Waffle House—it’s scattered, smothered, chunked, and topped.
Buddhists call it the monkey mind. I envision it as Animal, the drum-playing Muppet with flailing arms and legs and big eyes and big reactions. And think about it, Animal needed a chain around his neck to make sure he didn’t hop in some other band’s van. Yet, think about Animal—he’s sweet, he’s lovable, he’s furry, he really feels things intensely. And he needs some boundaries. Ha ha. Our attention is just like that. It needs to be reined in.
To be clear, although I am a big fan of focus, that’s not exactly what I’m talking about when I talk about reining in your attention. Focus is the polar opposite of being scattered (and smothered, and chunked, and topped). I’m talking more of a middle path, which is something else Buddhists talk about. Instead of seeking to cultivate laser-like focus, I’m talking about giving your attention some parameters. A container, if you will. Like putting a dog on a lead in the middle of the yard. She can go sniff the bushes and dig under the garage but she can’t run off in to the next town. Or like putting a force field around it so that there are edges to it but those edges feel stabilizing and protective, not rigid and restrictive.
Having trouble concentrating? Put A Force Field Around Your Attention
Why do we need to put a force field around our attention? Well, here are some things that happen when your attention is shooting off all over the place:
You get less of the important stuff done. Which raises your overall, generalized sense of stress. We all hate the nagging feeling of something you have to do but you just haven’t done yet.
Your mind never has a chance to quiet down. And while I love the amazing things my brain can think up, just like anything else, if it’s required to be on all the time it’s going to start malfunctioning or burning out. We humans are exquisitely dynamic creatures, designed to function in all kinds of states of being—at rest, in motion, in crisis, in calm. We can do all of it but we need all of it—we need the quiet times to fuel the busy times, or else we get out of balance.
It’s hard to be present when your having trouble concentrating—whether that’s with your work, your loved ones, your friends, or even your own thoughts. And when you’re not present, you can’t listen. You can’t really commune with others or yourself. And that connection to someone or something is so important to us. We crave it, we need it. We wither without it. It’s what sustains us through hard times and makes good times even better. Even if the creature you’re communing with is a bird that comes to visit your feeder, or your cat.
Attention and Mental Health
Attention is also a big factor in mental health. When we can’t stop ourselves from replaying the past, we tend toward depression. When we are constantly having trouble concentrating and anticipating the future, we’re leaning toward anxiety. Of course there are all kinds of factors at play in these very real mental health conditions–your personal history, your physical health, even your gut health has been shown to play an important role in both depression and anxiety. I’m not saying anxiety or depression is your fault. They are both multi-factorial. But they are conditions that we can invite if we aren’t tending to our attention.
And as a country we are struggling mightily with mental health since the pandemic started. Census Bureau data shows that for every 100 American adults, 34 show symptoms of anxiety, depression, or both.
So when you’re having trouble concentrating, we need to tend to our attention, and giving it a container. This is something that can help us in so many ways, from being in a better place mentally, to being better able to connect with others, to helping us get out of that overwhelmed feeling, and helping us be more patient, and just feeling like a better, more whole person overall.
Attention and Patience Week
This week, we’re going to look at four different ways you can strengthen your attention muscles. I’ll talk you through a simple hack to make your life—and your concentration—less interrupted by notifications, I’ll talk to Paula Rizzo, an expert in mindful productivity about how to stay focused on what really matters, and I’ll share two simple and unconventional meditation practices that will help you start to knit together that force field that will help your attention stop running off into the neighbor’s yard. And if you hear the word meditation and think, welp, I can skip those episodes, just know that they are things you can do anywhere, even with other people, and that instantly help you switch out of that “I’m all over the place” feeling. Come on back now, ya hear?!