Tag Archives: distraction

The Genius of Attention: Making Peace with Bossy Mind

I am at the airport, in conversation with a man who is deaf. He is speaking, and I’m struggling to understand his speech. I’m distracted. My flight will board soon, and I’ve injured my knee, so I’ll need extra time to board and don’t want to miss the announcement.

He is telling me that he is going to see his 95 year old mother. I notice my distraction and make a decision to shift into paying full attention to this man who seems so interested in social contact. Over the years, I’ve come up with a simple tool to help me tune in to a conversation when I might otherwise be distracted.

I look at the man, noticing his eyes, his facial expressions, his gestures, and his strong desire to connect. I start noticing what I like about this man. As I do this, everything in the background falls away, and I see and hear him. He is an acupuncturist. He loves his mother who is very frail. He struggles with back pain and will also be boarding early.

Before I started using this tool of noticing what I like about a person with whom I’m in conversation, when I felt distracted, my Bossy Mind would direct my distracted mind to FOCUS! This process didn’t bring me into the moment, and into connection, in the same sweet way as noticing what I liked. Bossy Mind nearly always made me feel more anxious and more distracted.

Have you noticed that Bossy Mind is directing the current conversation about attention? “I’m distracted! I’ll never get it all done! I’m addicted to my phone!” This is Bossy Mind talk. Those newspaper headlines announcing: Addicted to Distraction; that’s Global Bossy Mind talking.

Attention, emotion, and breathing are very strongly related. When Bossy Mind owns the conversation and takes us into fear: “I’ll never get it done;” and distraction: “Why have you started ten emails and finished NO emails?!,” our breathing often becomes much shallower. When Bossy Mind revs up its internal dialog, the negativity and judgment often prompts negative emotions, making it more challenging for us focus and attend.

If athletes had a steady stream of Bossy Mind telling them they were distracted, needed to go faster, needed to focus, they would lose the race, drop the ball, and lose the game.

It turns out that with positive emotions, liking and loving, our breathing slows and can become deeper. Further, feelings of gratitude, felt in the whole body — embodied gratitude – can also slow and deepen our breathing, and bring our attention back to the present moment.

I used to think Bossy Mind, the wizard of distraction and overwhelm in my head, needed to be killed, or, at least silenced. Instead of raising a sword to slay Bossy Mind — because I guarantee you, Bossy Mind has a much bigger sword than you have – just, graciously, give Bossy Mind a seat at the table, then gently turn your attention in the direction of the noticing exercise below.

There is a Bossy Mind in every one of us. It needs a seat at the table and it will demand a seat whether you like it or not. But it does not need to be dancing ON the table, stealing the show. Making peace with Bossy Mind is a step toward being an “Attention Genius.”

Here are some things to notice when Bossy Mind is trying to take over:

  • Notice what you like about another person, about your day, or about where you are.
  • Notice beauty around you.
  • Notice how you are safe.
  • Notice the way your feet feel on the floor, the way the chair supporting you feels.

This might take 10 seconds. It might take a minute.

Bossy Mind is the Frito Bandito, the Hamburglar of our Attention. Bossy Mind is also part of who we are, and in accepting that graciously, and turning toward our liking, loving, appreciating, safe selves, our attention is ours to channel as we choose.

Panel on the Genius of Attention, 92nd Street Y, NYC Stone, Kaplan, Nusbaum, Gallagher

Panel on the Genius of Attention, 92nd Street Y, NYC
Stone, Kaplan, Nusbaum, Gallagher

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Cute Cats Redux

Ethan Zuckerman, who is wise, kind, and brilliant, posits that people have a preference for using the Internet for banal activities, like surfing for “cute cats.”  It seems true that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and the like, are, indeed, rife with cute cats.  I’m beginning to believe there is a deep explanation for that.  I’m proposing a theory hereby referred to as Cute Cats Redux.

Here’s a little background:

In 2009, I was talking about email apnea and showing the Heartmath EmWave technology at a Foo Camp.  Before passing the EmWave around, I demonstrated it.  The EmWave shows, using red, blue, and green colored lights, the level of stress one is experiencing. 

I explained that, to reduce stress, one could use certain types of breathing to get into a more balanced autonomic state.  Only, even as I was using the suggested breathing technique, I was _not_  shifting states.  The light was red. Red. RED.

I looked at the audience and said:  “There’s actually another way to do this. When we evoke feelings of love and appreciation, it can also bring us into a more balanced autonomic state.” I looked around the room and saw so many people I admired and appreciated:  Matt Mullenweg, John Hagel, Kathy Sierra, Bunnie Huang, Dan Gould, Sara Winge, and so many others.

Then, my eyes settled on Matt Mullenweg.  Matt had very kindly come up to me at a conference a few months earlier, and mentioned that he enjoyed my writing, and when I was ready to move off my very broken JotSpot Wiki, to WordPress, that he’d be happy to help me.  I was so moved by this – both emotionally (and literally!  I made the switch and Matt was awesome!). 

I started, “Matt, thank you so much for your kindness – for…”  Before I could even finish the sentence, the audience gasped.  GREEN!!!  Eye contact, appreciation, and a few words, had shifted my autonomic state instantly!  The audience SAW the power of emotion.  Of course, with the emotion, my breathing and attention state also shifted.  I was more relaxed.  It’s all wired together:  attention, emotion, breathing.

A few months after that, I was showing a senior executive how to use the EmWave to become more aware of her stress levels and to learn to better manage this.  When breathing techniques didn’t work to help her shift out of a stressed state, I suggested she think about something she loved.  Her husband was standing nearby.  For a moment (she explained later), she focused on her husband, then sighed, and said, “Honey, I’m going to focus on the cats.”  Green!  Instant green!

Fast forward to March 2014.  I’m being interviewed by Erin Anderssen, a journalist.  She mentions that it can be challenging to shift from red to green when she’s using the EmWave.  I tell her the story from 2009.  Then it hits me! 

What if all the cute cats and dogs on the Internet are in some small way, evoking momentary feelings of love and appreciation?  What if looking at these images is as beneficial as a “breathing break.”  What if cute cats and dogs make us kinder and more empathic as we hunch over our personal technologies for hours on end?  What if we are self-soothing and bringing ourselves back into a kind of spiritual homeostasis when we look at and share these images and videos.

It turns out, there’s science to support the Cute Cats Redux theory.  There’s a database of images called the International Affective Picture System, compiled by researchers Margaret Bradley and Peter Lang.  This calibrated set of photos tracks affective consequences, and positive and negative responses to photos.  Negative examples include:  a spider, a baby with a tumor, and an automobile crash with injured people.  On the positive side, there’s a category referred to as “cute.”  Cute includes the old couple on the park bench holding hands and watching the sunset, as well as kittens and puppies.  All these produce positive affect.

Looking at those cute cats and puppies is not a waste of time.  It’s self-soothing.  Just as we have a physical homeostasis that supports healthy regulation of bodily functions, I believe we have a spiritual homeostasis that can draw us, both individually and collectively toward what heals us.  Cute Cats Redux.  

This post is dedicated to Ben Huh, Cheezburger, and to a very funny guy who sent me a video of him singing a sweet song to his cat.

 

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Our Powerful and Fragile Attention

What if I told you that the way we are talking about attention is part of the problem today? Our conversation about distraction, multi-tasking, and the stern command to focus actually creates a level of stress, anxiety, and shame.

Headlines read: Dangers of Digital Distraction! Taming the Distraction Monster! Time to Unplug! This conversation stresses us in a way similar to the techniques magicians and con artists use to create misdirection. As we consider how distracted we are, we shame ourselves with messages like: “I should unplug!” “I have too much to do!” “I’m distracted!” “I have to focus!”

All of these thoughts, all of this stress, zaps our attention bandwidth. We twist in the winds of our own misdirection. Isn’t it ironic that even in our efforts to manage our attention effectively, we are, instead, contributing to stress and misdirection!

If we don’t consciously choose where we want to direct our attention, there will always be something in our path tomisdirect it. From the news, to pickpockets, to Facebook — every choice we don’t make is made for us.

If we want to harness the superpower that is our attention, instead of talking about distraction and a need to unplug and disconnect, let’s talk about what it is we choose to connect to. As we reach for what we prefer, we can stop stressing and shaming ourselves regarding what it is we’re getting wrong.

Click here to read the whole post on the HuffingtonPost

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