"Pay attention, son!" I heard it way too many times to count or remember when I was a child. I was my dad's first child - and a boy, which for him meant that I must be indoctrinated into manhood by the time I was in elementary school. He probably would have started that process earlier, but I'm sure my mother let him know that was not going to be acceptable. By the time I entered school she had two more kids to deal with, so her mind and efforts were elsewhere. I'm sure dad had no idea that a child's ability to pay attention to anything for more than a couple of minutes really doesn't even start until age 6 or so, and continues through age 12 - and beyond, of course, but those are the primary formative years for focus and attention in a child's development. And I get it, those ages for him happened in the Great Depression on a farm in Kansas where life was extremely difficult and he was expected to pay attention and work to just help the family survive. Survival was not an adequate reason for his passing this on to me at that early age - there was no reason at all, really, other than that was his default - his autopilot behavioral programming.
What was he asking me to do when he said "pay attention?" When we think of that term focus comes to mind for most of us, I think - turning our focus of attention to the input being provided. A deliberate effort of the mind directed at the input. Directing that deliberate focus on an input is a lot harder today than it was even twenty years ago, because there are inputs bombarding us from all sides and angles 24-7. Multi-tasking is the norm. I see young kids dealing with all this input and it appears they have it figured out - but I wonder. I work with adolescents in my practice and listen to them explain how they can have friends over to do schoolwork and at the same time they are texting other friends, watching YouTube videos, playing a video game, and listening and sharing playlists, all the while sharing in the latest gossip - and I wonder. Am I just being an old fuddy-duddy? (I guess so if I drag up that term). My wonderment comes from a sense and a perception that there is an underlying base anxiety level in these kids that is higher than the base anxiety level even a few years ago - too much input, too much to pay attention to. The higher physical and mental stress that accompanies an increase in anxiety is troublesome, especially in individuals whose brains are still developing. I see it every day.
This stress will accompany them into adulthood and precipitate all kinds of emotional regulation issues - and deep troubles in relationships and connecting emotionally with others - and with themselves.
That is why I believe it is no longer just "paying attention." It's not just a matter of focus. It is a matter of awareness. Is there a difference? Yes, awareness is a holistic state of knowing. A centered place of mind and body where we can separate our real self from all the input and observe it all out there without judgment and its sidekick anxiety. Author and scientist Dan Siegal has an analogy he uses called the Wheel of Awareness, where the hub of the wheel is our real self, the rim is all the input and the spokes are the direction of our focus in a controlled manner of knowing. Ideally, we don't want to hang out on the rim, our base is the hub and we visit the rim with focus (a spoke) when we want our attention there on a particular input. This way we remain in the peace and knowing of our hub until we decide on a spoke to move out to a particular place on the rim. The hub is a place of no anxiety and fear, by the way. Experiencing that anxiety can happen when we visit the rim, but with awareness we can always return to the hub. So focus is a deliberate action at the conscious level, awareness exists always at the hub where we find our real self and a beautiful, peaceful place unencumbered by the thoughts, feelings, and other experiences out on the rim.
This sounds wonderful, doesn't it? And it is. The problem we face is getting to the hub and making that our primary internal residence, rather than the rim. Through years of behavioral programming our primary internal residence is the rim - that makes the hub our second home, the vacation residence. Can we make the switch in residence? It will take some re-programming to make the move - packing and unpacking what, do you suppose? That's where the awareness comes in, the "wake up" part of wake up and smell the coffee. We train ourselves in a spirit of curiosity and adventure to be in the place of awareness as much as we can. Think of the primary residence as a beautiful, calm, relaxing place - whatever that is for you. Countryside, tropical beach, mountains, forest - where would your quiet place of repose be? That will be your hub, and we no longer have to escape to there, we are there - and when we have to go to the bustle of the city we will, with a clear intention, all the while knowing we can return.
Allowing this place to become our default programming, our new autopilot, lays the groundwork for improving our emotional connections with ourselves and others.
So how do we find this awareness? Stay tuned and we will work on it together.
Each week on my radio show, At the Root, we discuss this awareness and finding emotional connection. This show is available 24-7 as a podcast on your favorite podcast platform. Each show resides there for you to check out and share with others.