Focused Attention & the Attention Cycle
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Our brains are constantly being shaped by forces around us. This is neuroplasticity. Mindfulness training consists of exercises designed to reshape our brains.
Set realistic expectations. Incorporate meditation into a holistic wellness program which may include exercise, a good night's sleep, positive social connections, eating well, financial stability, pursuing what you love, etc.- all of which contribute to a heightened sense of well-being.
Practicing meditation 20 minutes a day is the general recommendation. As with exercise, the only "bad" session is the one you don't do. Even if the mind is busy and you find it challenging to sit, you are cultivating many desirable qualities:
Set the intention to meditate and commit to the practice takes strength of will & determination. Acceptance, non-judgmental awareness, and self-compassion are foundational attitudes practiced during meditation which are worth cultivating. "We accept how we are" means, we simply acknowledge that our minds are busy, if busy; calm, if calm; restless, if restless; difficult to redirect, if difficult to redirect etc. We also take inventory of our emotional states: relaxed, if relaxed, anxious, if anxious, etc.
The Attention Cycle model consists of 5 intervals. During your practice, you may experience a deep stillness or clarity, you may find yourself in a sleep-like state, or, more likely, you may cycle through these common stages which involve neural networks that connect different nodes (or parts) of the brain:
1. Sustained attention (Executive network)
This helps us keep our attention on the object of focus (the object of focus could be the breath, a word, a thought, an image, a sound, a sensation).
2. Mind wandering (Default Mode Network)
This is the default, or usual, state of mind.
3. Awareness of mind wandering (Salience Network)
This is the moment we realize our attention has wandered.
4. Letting go (Executive function) This is where we let go of whatever thought has distracted us- regardless of its intensity or emotional charge.
5. Re-orienting (Executive function)
We redirect our attention to the object of focus.
Mind wandering is common during meditation. The posterior cingulate cortex is active during this interval. This node is associated with mind wandering, disruption of attention, judgment, craving & aversion. Because it is so active, this habitual (or default) mode of thinking makes meditation challenging. Mind wandering is a spontaneous and natural function of mind. When we try to control, when we exert effort, when we judge our performance, when we resist what is alive in us at the moment, when we crave some imagined state (to be calmer, for example), when we try to be "good" meditators, we are simply reinforcing this habit.
When we realize the mind has wandered, then, we easily and gently return to the breath- letting go of whatever thought, sound, emotion, or sensation has distracted us. We reorient our attention back to the breath. You may find yourself doing this every few seconds. This is the training. We call this quality of bringing the mind back over and over ardency.
We are much too tolerant of mind wandering. The default mode can be creative, inventive, and imaginative- but for the purposes of the exercise- we don't engage with thoughts, no matter how compelling, no matter the emotional charge. There is a difference between thinking (a natural function of mind) and being engaged with thoughts (this is a choice). The mind will secrete thoughts moment by moment. We are aware, but we disengage. When we find we have been drawn away by a thought and carried along the thought stream to wherever it takes us, we again gently, but firmly, return the mind to the object of our attention.
At this important juncture, when we realize the mind has wandered, the salience network is activated. This network is involved in error processing. At this point, rather than judge our performance, criticize ourselves, or even determine to redouble our efforts to remain vigilant (all of which are characteristics of the default mode of thinking), we choose to simply let go, celebrating that we were aware, and easily, effortlessly, reorient the attention back to the breath. In this way, we strengthen the salience and executive networks. We train the mind. We recondition the mind. This switching leads to greater cognitive flexibility. This is a very helpful skill to cultivate as it may help us disengage from destructive, conditioned, habitual, or afflictive modes of thinking. If, for example, I have the conditioned thought, "I am lazy, worthless, weak, a failure, etc." I recognize it as a thought. I am no longer identified with it. I can observe it, acknowledge it, let it go, and reorient my attention to something else, challenge the thought, or substitute it with a more positive one. This is cognitive flexibility.
The default mode network is associated with rumination. In "The Danger of Brooding and Ruminating," Guy Winch lists 5 potential dangers of mind wandering:
1. Ruminations create a vicious cycle that can easily trap us. The urge to ruminate can feel truly addictive such that the more we ruminate, the more compelled we feel to continue doing so. 2. Rumination can increase our likelihood of becoming depressed, and it can prolong the duration of depressive episodes when we do have them. 3. Rumination is associated with maladaptive behaviors. Alcohol, tobacco, food, drugs, or other addictive behaviors take the edge off of the consistent irritability and sadness that result from our constant brooding and to manage the distressing feelings our ruminations elicit. 4. Rumination fosters negative thinking. Spending such a disproportional amount of time focusing on negative and distressing events can color our general perceptions such that we begin to view other aspects of our lives, including relationships. too negatively as well. 5. Ruminating increases our psychological and physiological stress responses to such a degree that it can actually put as at greater risk for cardiovascular disease.
When we sit to practice, we are forming and strengthening new neural pathways and connections. Neurons get broken down and built up like muscles. As with exercise, you may find yourself getting tired. This is normal. The inability to focus and sustain attention for extended periods is called the vigilance decrement. It is natural. But, just as muscle strength can be improved, so can attention.
Maintaining attention on the breath can be challenging if we do not appreciate its value. The teacher Prem Rawat says, Everything comes to us courtesy of the breath. Life itself dances within us because the breath touches us. It makes reading possible, mindfulness possible. Because it comes, we can enjoy all of our hobbies, our families, our friendships; we can pursue our careers and interests; we can love; we can celebrate this very brief and precious existence.
To breathe is a gift, then. We recognize it and experience a deep gratitude for what it brings. We receive the gift with deep appreciation.