Adrienne: Whether it’s the uncertainty, the financial stress or the social isolation… more and more people are growing concerned about the mental health challenges that go with the pandemic. Today, in response to that need, our Wellness Columnist, Scott McPherson, is going to give us all a quick lesson on “Intentional Attention.” Hi Scott.
Scott: Good afternoon Adrienne.
Adrienne: Before we even get to defining ‘Intentional Attention,’ let’s maybe start with re-defining ‘mindfulness’ itself? What exactly is it, ‘to be mindful?’
Scott: The example I use is lucid dreaming. That’s the type of dream where the dreamer becomes aware they are dreaming and they can take conscious action in the dream. And we can do that because we know we’re asleep, and the dream character is just a projection, created by our own consciousness. When we realize that we control that person, we feel really powerful in the dream. Well, Mindfulness is like having that same awareness, and that same sense of power and control, but when we’re awake.
Adrienne: But when we’re awake and not dreaming, who is the character projection that our mindful self takes control of?
Scott: Our ego. Our ego will still take over sometimes. But that’s okay. We can stay more relaxed when we remember that our ego’s job is to create the circumstances that allow us to grow. And we all love the feeling of growing as a person. So having an ego’s okay in a roundabout way. We just want to get some distance between us and its thoughts. We want to learn to watch our own ego more like a character in a movie. And just like in a movie, we want to really feel what our protagonist feels, emotionally. And we want deep feelings too. We just don’t want to get ‘attached’ to any of them. Because Mindfulness only works when things are allowed to flow.
Adrienne: What happens when we stop that flow?
Scott: That’s when we stop watching ourselves think, and instead we start believing we’re the thoughts themselves. That’s when we’ll think things like ‘I AM sad,’ or ‘I AM angry.’ Rather than ‘I feel sad,’ or ‘I’m experiencing anger.’ Our ego uses thoughts to create an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ just so we can stop to self-assess or second guess ourselves. We call that version of our ego our ‘conscience.’ It means well, but our ego is a judgmental perfectionist that feeds us a lot of really negative emotional chemistry. It’s always time travelling. It’s always focused on our past actions, or its fears or concerns about something we might do, or that might happen, in the future. That’s not living. That is stopping our present life to think judgmental thoughts about our past or future self. That’s like sticking a bucket in a river and then looking at the water as though it’s the river. When we do that with our flow of thoughts, the ego dumps some ugly past event, or some potentially threatening future event, into the bucket of our consciousness. And then our ego concocts a narrative around that event. And when we tell ourselves that story, just like with any story, it generates the emotions we experience. Of course feeling those things generally won’t help us change our situation. Those feelings only steal energy from us by being scary, or angry or depressing. Which makes the whole thing go in a downward spiral that feeds on itself. More painful thoughts just lead to more painful thoughts.
Adrienne: And what should people be doing instead? Is this where the Intentional Attention comes in?
Scott: Yes. For anyone to be healthier, we want to try to avoid having unproductive habits of thought. And we want to increasingly focus our Attention with some Intention. That’s critical if we want more control over our lives. Because whatever is in the frame of our attention is what’s real to us. That is literally where our reality is illuminated by our consciousness.
Adrienne: Okay. So whatever is within the frame of our attention basically forms our reality. So that’s how a Trump supporter can look at only specific media and then feel certain about their version of reality?
Scott: Exactly. Within the confined frame of their attention, the common view is wrong and the lies and hate they see is the truth. It can seem crazy, but we’ve all done that. In our lifetimes all of us will repeatedly believe things that aren’t true. In fact, a lot of our growth comes through finding and fixing those mistakes. And because of them, we learn to be more humble, and more cautious about our judgments as we age. It’s also why improving our awareness is so important.
Adrienne: It sounds like Intentional Attention might be the antidote to some of these mistakes our egos can lead us into. But don’t people assume their attention is already where they want it?
Scott: Yes, that’s actually the problem. They think their actual life is where their attention ends up. They don’t see their habitual choices so it’s like their life just ‘is,’ and they have no control over a lot of it. But we can choose where we place our attention.
Adrienne: So, how can we stay more aware of those choices?
Scott: Often it’s in how we think about what it is we’re doing. A question by one of your listeners prompted me to describe it this way: Think of each day we wake up into, as being a massive house, loaded with potential experiences. It’s got old photo albums in the basement, and pictures on the walls. Our teenage bedroom. A huge bookcase of every book we ever read. Our diary is there. It’s got windows that look outside, we have a radio for listening to the world. And just like we know the structures of the world, we know the layout of this space. And that’s important because in this analogy, when we wake up, it is pitch black inside. Our day is unformed when we wake up every morning and turn on our flashlight. And that’s our consciousness. Wherever we move it brings our day to life. Anything inside the conical beam of that flashlight is the reality that we are choosing to illuminate in that present moment.
Adrienne: Oh, okay. So rather than just accepting what falls into our consciousness by habit, the flashlight is something we can aim.
Scott: Yes. The room includes all of our potential realities. By choosing where we aim our attention we choose which one comes to life for us. It’s like the lucid dream. When we live with Intentional Attention we are actively ‘aiming’ our attention. Being conscious of that aiming process is what creates that distance between us the thinker, and our thoughts.
Adrienne: This all sounds very logical. But will people accept that they have this ability? This power?
Scott: It’s an excellent question. Almost everyone worries they won’t be able to do it. But there’s a reason everyone can be sure they can do it: Because they already are. It’s how we’ve always created our realities. We’re all doing it right now. It’s just that now, most people are wandering through their big space shining their light pretty unconsciously. If we chose to illuminate regrets, missed opportunities, mistakes… only the painful parts of our space… then we will create a painful life. If we are conscious of our ability to refocus our attention… we can create a better reality. So if people are out there and they’re in pain, really do try to be conscious about what you’re focusing on. Because shifting where we shine the light of our attention can make all the difference in the world.
Adrienne: Very interesting stuff to think about Scott. Thank you.
Scott: You’re very welcome.
For those who may be unaware of it, I regularly have the pleasure of discussing mindfulness practices with Adrienne Pan, the co-host of Radio Active on CBC Radio One.
Once the show has aired, if there is an audio version available I will add a link to it here. A listing of all of the columns is here. For those without audio versions, I will attach a transcript of the column to this post, after its airing.
People hear that they should try to live with more ‘intention,’ but that can be a very nebulous term for people. In today’s column, Adrienne and I will be talking about ways to see our reality as more of a choice, and how we can use intention to discover more of the hidden potential in our daily life.
Consider checking us out. If you’ve never heard the CBC Radio Active show before, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. They have a great team.
Take care everyone.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.