Take your right hand and lay it on top of your left hand. See if you can leave it there for one full minute, without moving it.
Success? I thought so.
Now take your right hand off and place your attention on your left hand. Focus it there and leave it there for a minute, without thinking of anything else.
What did you find? Was it not so easy?
Did you find that your attention wandered? That despite choosing not to give your attention to other things, your attention went there anyway?
What if the first exercise had been like that? What if you couldn’t leave your hand there without it wandering off, scratching your nose, rummaging in someone else’s pocket, picking up and examining stuff? You’d be worried, you’d think you had to see a doctor. You expect that when you put your hand somewhere it’ll stay there until you choose otherwise.
Attention is fundamental
Why would you expect less obedience from your attention? What kind of impact does Wandering Attention Syndrome (yes, I made it up) have on your daily life? But attention is fundamental to everything we think of as ‘our life’? We have a deadline so we direct our attention to the task in front of us, away from our TV. Someone is talking to us so we direct our attention away from our phone to their face. But in an instant our attention has gone its own way – to the sound of neighbours talking, to thoughts of what you have to do before tomorrow, to the witty remark you’re going to make when she finishes the next sentence.
We see this happening and we excuse it – “I have a grasshopper mind!” Well, so has everyone. And it costs us dear in our work, in our relationships and in the interior drama of our unfolding life story. A grasshopper hand wouldn’t be acceptable – why should a grasshopper mind?
And it’s not just you that’s involved. Imagine if there were teams of people paid to go around putting your hand in your neighbour’s handbag? Or raising your hand when volunteers are called for? Or forcing your hand to pull out your wallet when they present an exciting retail opportunity?
Well there are people paid to do that for your attention – they’re called the media – and they’ll fight tooth and nail to get it. Try to control your attention and you’ll meet resistance for sure.
Starting to regain control
Mindfulness practice isn’t just about soothing and calm. It’s about gaining some conscious control of your attention. Giving it to the things and people that need it. Noticing when it’s been hijacked and bringing it back to focus. Learning about what kind of hijacks you’re vulnerable to. You’ll never cure Wandering Attention Syndrome – another term for it is ‘Being Human’ – but you can learn to limit the damage it does.
If it was your hand, you’d do something about it. Why not your attention?