Peter Baumann: The most difficult we have today is our attention gets hijacked. There is so much happening in our lives that we pay attention to and quite frankly, you know, the little devices that we carry around don’t help very much because our attention gets totally absorbed into that attraction from these little devices. And we get a little bit of dopamine all the time when we get information, information is valuable instinctively. So we want to know what’s happening and what’s going on. That’s true for gossip and it’s true for why we watch the news. But the problem is that our attention is so much absorbed in that that we rarely, if ever, pay attention to just being present. And that is really what mindfulness and meditation is trying to balance out a little bit so that when the mind quiets and you actually are at home in your body that that distraction fades away and you actually get in touch with that underlying happiness that the Greeks call eudaimonia.
I think to begin with it would be really valuable to become aware of attention and how it automatically shifts from one to the other. And it can happen at lightning speed. If suddenly there would be a huge loud noise we would all wonder what is it and our attention is immediately hijacked. And attention at its core was also a very important evolutionary adaptation because what happens with attention is it either goes to the highest opportunity or it goes to the highest threat that we perceive in our environment. So suddenly there is something that we, you know, in the hunter-gatherer time something that was valuable to eat and then that’s where our attention goes. Or there is something like a dark shadow moving and then that’s where our attention goes. And it’s automatic. And the reason that we have attention is to pay attention and then summon all of our resources to either take advantage of the opportunity or to avoid the threat. That’s really the purpose of attention. So we zone out everything else, we kind of blank everything and just focus on one thing that in that particular moment is of highest value or potentially the highest threat.
So attention is a wonderful capacity, you know. For instance little infants, they don’t have attention. They go all over the place. They look all over the place. And the brain eventually develops to pay attention to things that again are an opportunity or a threat. Now we live in such a complex environment that our attention is hijacked all the time. But the antidote is not necessarily only mindfulness. You can get actually obsessed with mindfulness and am I paying attention. So you’re trying to pay attention to paying attention. And then you’re back to square one. So I think that to understand the value of attention is number one and then to recognize there are times where it’s perfectly okay. When car comes rushing at you, that’s where you want your attention, you know. Or when you’re really giving a public speech, that’s where you want your attention.
It’s not always right to say I’m mindful, I’m mindful, I’m mindful. You know, the brain works overtime to monitor whether you’re mindful or not. And the way that I think is the perfect way out of it is to pay attention to your body’s sensation. Because your body’s sensations will always signal if there is something that’s a potential threat or a potential benefit. And to just pay attention to the body’s sensations it relaxes it. But, you know, by all means for a few hours or so you don’t pay attention to paying attention, that’s perfectly fine, you know. I think that we don’t want to add more difficulty and complexity to our lives. I think that to come more at ease with the wandering attention and even observing as the attention is attracted here or there. I think it’s all part and parcel of being at home with this shifting influences that we perceive every day.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton