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Attention and Mental Health

"Few things affect our lives more than our faculty of attention. If we can't focus our attention - due to either agitation or dullness - we can't do anything well. We can't study, listen, converse with others, work, play, or even sleep well when our attention is impaired. And for may of us, our attention is impaired much of the time."

- Alan Wallace


Alan Wallace is an expert on physics, the history of science, and religion; he also is one of the wisest and most insightful meditation teachers I have ever met. He often points out how so many people in today's world suffer from "OCDD" or what he calls "Obsessive, Compulsive, Delusional Disorder." No, this is not in the DSM (Diagnostic Standards Manual). Alan uses this acronym tongue-in-cheek to describe what we consider "normal" mental health.

Indeed, in a Harvard study that included 2,250 people, researchers found that our minds are wandering, on average, approximately 50% of the time for our entire lives. We may find ourselves obsessively ruminating about the past or worried about the future and unable to control these distractions. Most of these thoughts are probably negative and the urge to repeat them is overwhelmingly compulsive and even addictive. Our minds are often deluded that our thoughts are reality or that thinking is the same as problem solving or that we are unaware that we are completely disconnected from reality and living in a mental simulator.

In fact, what is considered a healthy mind today is a rather impoverished level of clarity and concentration. Perhaps we all suffer from OCDD to a greater or lesser extent. If we keep a low profile, don't draw too much attention to our words and actions, and are engaged in some life activity such as family, work, or school, then we are considered to be mentally healthy.

How can we achieve exceptional mental health? Is this possible? Science has proved that exceptional physical health may be achieved through diet and exercise. Can we apply athletic training to our minds and get better mental health? How would we go about that? Can we start with whatever level of OCCD that we have? Even if we meet criteria for a "real" mental health disorder?

Attentional stability, according to Wallace, is the foundation for exceptional mental health, and it is achieved through meditation. Attentional stability is still, quiet, unbroken attention. Maybe the practice of settling the attention on just one thing starts with two seconds of concentration. This concentration is not a product of mental force and strength. That is a common mistake and it leads to a big dead end.

The body must be relaxed. Fear, anger, and anxiety are essentially tension. Relaxation is letting go of this type of mental suffering. Upon relaxing the body, we may attend to just one complete breath. Or two. Or ten. We might just pet the dog or the cat with all our attention. Or just listen to the birds for one minute. Or even mentally repeat a word, such as "wellbeing."

Now, it may seem counter-intuitive, but the most important part of this practice is not whether or not attention is sustained on one thing. At the beginning, the most important part of the practice is the attitude that you have toward yourself when you notice your attention wandered. You might experience self-criticism or feel disappointment when you realize you were daydreaming or worrying about something else. The most important thing here, upon realizing the mind wandered, is to respond with acceptance and self-kindness and simply attend once again to the intended object of attention.

Thus, the practice of attentional concentration carries an attitude that is gentle, kind, and even loving. Cultivating mental clarity and concentration with acceptance and kindness is a formula for greater success and wellbeing.

If you can reach a minute of solid unbroken attention on one thing, without the mind wandering away and without falling asleep or becoming agitated, you are on your way to exceptional mental health. You are ready for more challenging practices.

But for now, let go of that goal entirely and just take one inhale and one exhale with all your attention. In that moment, with one single, focused breath, you might just change your world.

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