“Pay attention to that.”

I often say this to my clients. It’s a helpful strategy if practiced with consistency and patience. It can provide valuable information for accessing strength and clarity.  

Paying attention can aid in decreasing one’s anxiety or the impact of depression. It can help improve one’s relationships and introduce a way to tolerate the discomfort of stress. It can provide the space for an addict or alcoholic to make healthy choices. 

You’ve Got Skills

As soon as we take our first breath, we have attentional skills. We have an innate ability to turn towards care and to cry when we need nurturance. Growing up, we can laugh and play with wild abandon and know when to move away from scary situations. We can access protective rage in dire situations and bring focus to our loved ones during intimate moments.

These emotional systems provide us with automatic survival tools. Instructions are not included because, if all goes well enough, these skills just flow. However, many of us lose contact with these inner reserves too early in our lives. This can be the result of genetics, personal physiology, or unhealthy environments.

In time, just about all of us grow alienated from or uncomfortable with some of these inborn skills. We turn away from “simple” things and focus on the uniquely modern needs that require higher order rational thinking: school, careers, relationships, family, communities, health.

We learn how to pay attention to external factors with our executive functioning, but forget to check-in with ourselves to see if what we’re doing is a good fit for us. Thankfully, we can change our behavior.

By turning towards what matters most to us we can grow stronger. Our cognitive abilities, the very same ones that can lead towards obsessions with success and power, can help us to be more mindful. We can choose to tune into our sensations, our thoughts, our beliefs, our actions, and our feelings.

With intentional practice, we can deepen our connection to ourselves and the world around us. We can reconnect with those always flowing emotional systems simply by reminding ourselves they exist. We can do this simply through paying attention.  

How to Pay Attention

When I encourage clients to pay attention I’m not asking them to spend hours each week meditating on an issue. In fact, my suggestion sometimes is made in passing. I simply want to draw awareness towards an action, a feeling, or a thought that might otherwise be rote or unconscious. 

I want my clients to be curious about their own lives. I also want them be more tolerant of the distress that is part and parcel of the human condition.

The practice of paying attention can begin simply. In a moment of your choosing, simply notice the sensations you’re experiencing, the thoughts or images popping into your mind, or the feelings arising in you. This three-part approach (sensations, thoughts/images, feelings) is simple, but complex.

A client might notice that she consistently tightens her shoulders when we discuss her family of origin. Normally, this movement would go unnoticed. From this one simple observation, it’s possible then to focus on the thoughts connecting this movement and this topic.

Identifying emotions can be daunting, but exploring one’s thoughts is a fantastic way to move closer to an emotional experience. I’m always aiming for emotion because I find this experiential approach transformative for clients.

Otherwise Known as Mindfulness

Being conscious of sensations, thoughts, and feelings is necessary for becoming more mindful. These data provide an object on which to focus one’s subjective attention. With sustained and intentional focus, we are better able to understand our motivations and formulate thoughtful actions.

I use the phrase “pay attention” for two reasons. First, because while paying attention is being mindful, mindfulness is more than simply paying attention. Second, I just find the phrase itself to be more inviting.

Imagine you’re nearing the end of a session and you mention something important to me. Which would you rather hear, “pay attention to that” or “be mindful of that”? Personally, I’m more drawn to, and less intimidated by the former.

Whatever label we apply, the goal is same: becoming more aware of ourselves as intentional creatures.