New Ways to Pay Attention—and Train Your Inner Beast

Introducing a more natural, more productive way to focus at work, at home, and even at rest.

If you’ve ever studied yoga or meditation, you may have heard the phrase “monkey mind”—the Buddhist term for a restless, confused, out-of-control mental state.

These days, as demands for our attention grow relentlessly*, it’s easy to see ourselves as frantic primates, swinging and screaming through the treetops.

But I propose a closer-to-home (and, to my mind, more appealing) animal metaphor: the puppy mind. Easily startled, ever chasing an endless array of scents and shadows, the puppy mind lurches from frantic thought to obsessive thought to utter exhaustion–because a puppy can respond only to one thing at a time.

Luckily, puppies can be trained. In fact, recent research has shown they can learn more than we ever thought possible.

And if puppies can be trained, so can we.

What we need is a new approach to training–one that suits our natural instincts instead of demanding extreme, unsustainable, hyper-focused attention. More luck: just such an approach already exists. It’s called “Open Focus.” And I believe it offers huge potential for easier, more fluid, more creative thinking, communication and problem-solving.

Why we need training. When I ask clients to describe the “right way” to pay attention, most people report intense, strenuous concentration on one thing at a time: the human equivalent of “Sit. Stay. Stare at the treat.”

After all, that’s the learning model most of us Westerners were taught from childhood. It’s an either/or, all-or-nothing approach emphasized in Western education–and in American business.

But modern business–indeed, modern life–makes such intense concentration all but impossible. As we desperately paddle through an ongoing flood of sensory input, we’re lucky to skim the surface–never mind exploring for deeper understanding.

That’s bad for our health, bad for our relationships and bad for our productivity. And it breeds what business experts Thomas Davenport and John Beck (in their book Attention Economy) call “organizational ADD”, i.e., not knowing what to pay attention to over a typical workday.

Open Focus: the new way to pay attention.  As I’ve written here before, mindfulness can help us navigate the churning currents of modern life by becoming aware of the current moment. The key practice of mindfulness is meditation.

Practicing Open Focus can also help us navigate life, perhaps even more confidently. In my experience, it certainly can enhance meditation.

Unfortunately, many people give up quickly on meditation because they think it demands restrictive focus (on the current moment, a mantra or breathing), banishing all other thoughts and sensations. That’s challenging for many of us, and for some it’s all but impossible. The old ideal of narrow, forced attention—while useful at times—is generally unsustainable, largely because our survival instincts (not to mention our habitual impatience) scream against it.

In his book The Open-Focus Brain, clinical psychologist and brain researcher Dr. Les Fehmi describes ways to expand this rigid, all-or-nothing approach to attention. He offers us not one, but four, constructive states of attentiveness:

  1. Narrow-objective attention: This the attentional style described above—the one most of us have been taught: rigid, strenuous and self-conscious. We strive to maintain a tight field of awareness, excluding peripheral perceptions. This style is useful for short periods of intense, focused effort (e.g., running from sudden danger) but used too long or too often, narrow-objective attention can bring on anxiety, panic, and rigidity.
  2. Diffuse-objective attention: A relaxed-but-alert state, ideal for activity with others. Think of team sports, acting in a play, or playing in an orchestra. We stay aware of others and our surroundings, yet are comfortably focused on our own role and conduct.
  3. Narrow-immersed attention: This is the state that work psychologists call “flow.” It’s also casually known as “being in the zone”—when we’re so pleasantly and productively absorbed in a task that we don’t notice time passing. Imagine a fly fisherman who spends blissful hours casting into a mountain stream. This feeling can occur in any task we enjoy and are skilled in—from composing music to writing code.
  4. Diffuse-immersed attention: Our most relaxed waking state, diffuse-immersed style involves total immersion into an experience, such as deep meditation, without purposely restricting our attentional scope. Sometimes compared to falling in love, diffuse-immersed attention also helps us recover from accumulated stress.

All of these states of attention—even narrow-objective state—have a positive place in our lives. By understanding all these styles and being able to call on them as needed, we broaden our ability to respond effortlessly and flexibly to a wide range of circumstances and challenges.

Can we learn this kind of flexibility? Yes! I often talk about using mindfulness to navigate our lives moment-to-moment. Understanding these Open Focus attentional styles supports such moment-to-moment navigation beautifully.

Once we experience and can easily access these four attentional styles, we can respond flexibly and constructively to unexpected—or otherwise challenging—situations.

One important (and pleasant) effect of an Open Focus practice is that we become more aware of space—not only around us but also within us. This attention to space actually shifts our brainwaves toward the Alpha state—peaceful and alert. This shift affects the entire body, relaxing tense muscles and calming our nervous system.

And as we practice, we grow ever more comfortable and confident using all of our attentional styles, shifting naturally as needed in our fast-paced, attention-demanding world. (Dr. Fehmi says that, practicing Open Focus, we can naturally access all four attention styles at once.)

This exercise will help you get a good start in developing your training. Your “puppy mind” will be able not only to stay, but also to happily fetch, herd and play.

Imagine having such a helpful companion.

*In fact, one issue of the Sunday New York Times now contains more factual information than all of the world’s written material in the 15th century. 

**Open Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body by Les Fehmi, Ph.d, and Jim Robbins, Trumpeter Books, 2007.