Although we may not be consciously aware of it, there is something occupying our mind, even during sleep. If we are awake, we can normally elect to change the focus of our attention at any time. Something could distract us to do that for us, or we could choose to make the change ourselves. We can also change the way we attend to things. For example we can concentrate intensely on one single thing or we can relax our attention a bit, and become aware or ‘mindful’ of several different things or sensations at once.
Driving is an activity that involves frequent changes in our attention style and focus. We steer the car, change gears, attend to what other drivers are doing, whilst listening to the radio or conducting a conversation with a passenger or on the phone. Alternatively, we can go on automatic pilot and drive from A to B whilst engrossed in our thoughts, barely remembering anything about the journey.
Most of us, for most of the time, are probably not aware of our thoughts…as thoughts. Persistent negative thoughts (called intrusive thoughts) can hijack our attention to the exclusion of everything else. There is a cost to that. As well as the mental toll associated with constantly worrying about the future or ruminating on the past, narrowly focusing on our thoughts all day can be physically exhausting.
We can, however, learn how to change our attention style – we can learn how to choose what we pay attention to and for how long. That helps in two distinct ways. Firstly we develop control over our thoughts. We learn how to treat thoughts in such a way that they lose their captivating power.
Secondly, we can develop an alternative to the narrow focused attention style so common in today’s busy, stressful environment. We start this process by experiencing the sense of relaxation that comes with ‘loosening up’ our attention and directing it in a different way.