Why it’s Okay to Let Your Thoughts Wander

Permission to daydream granted

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Our days are filled with a combination of both guided and pulled attention. Sometimes we choose what to pay attention to, and sometimes the world’s circumstances pull our attention, directing where the flashlight of attention is aimed. Interestingly, we need both guided and pulled attention and we need both focal and non-focal attention. Imagine a rocky hiking trail. We need to intentionally guide our attention to the path itself so that we do not trip over a rock and fall. But if a bear suddenly decides to cross our path, we need to be ready to pull our attention to this new fact of our experience (and quickly!). As we navigate this world, we must be nimble in terms of guided or pulled attention. And yet when it comes to the more day-to-day experience of living our lives—in other words, when there is no bear appearing on our path—our salience monitoring automatically evaluates what is significant enough for us to focus our attention on moment by moment, and this is usually happening without our even being conscious that these appraisals are being made by our non-conscious mind.

We engage in non-focal attention all the time. This is how our mind processes and keeps track of important things without using up the relatively limited mental space of awareness. This mental space of knowing, the subjective experience of being aware, can only work on a few items of information at a time—like a chalkboard of the mind, sometimes called working memory,that allows us to manipulate information and create new combinations consciously. Yet information processing does not require consciousness, and so we can imagine and calculate and come up with solutions to problems without using up this limited working memory space. To avoid flooding that space, we have non-focal attention direct energy and information flow without awareness. The direction of that information processing is still being shaped by the mind; it simply is not a part of our conscious subjective experience of knowing, of being aware.

The great news is that you can learn to sense these various aspects of attention, whether they are guided by you or pulled by things outside you, or whether they involve awareness and are focal or do not and are non-focal. This directing of energy and information flow is attention. Awareness is the subjective experience of knowing within consciousness. We “know” what is going on around and within us, with the term know here meaning not factual knowledge, but rather a subjectively felt texture of the present moment’s unfolding. We can cultivate access to a more open experience of being aware, and this capacity for conscious choice and change empowers our lives to move with flexibility and intention toward a more integrated way of living. Training the mind is all about building these skills of attention, awareness, and intention.

The key to a reflective practice that can strengthen your brain, your mind, and your relationships and improve the health of your body (reducing inflammation and optimizing cardiovascular, immune, epigenetic, and telomerase functions) is to cultivate your intentionally created guided and focal attention as you stream energy and information flow into awareness. In many ways this exercise to strengthen the monitoring capacity of the mind is the first step toward strengthening your capacity for presence. And mental presence is the gateway to releasing the mind’s ability to naturally create integration.

Attention is the process that directs energy and information flow. Awareness is our subjective experience of receptive knowing. What, then, is intention?

Intention is the way you set your motivation to engage in a certain activity in a certain way. Having the intention to be aware of what is going on, for example, can make guided focal attention more likely to be engaged. Similarly, you can have the intention to be kind to yourself when attention becomes pulled, not guided, and with this intention you can now realize that wandering is just what the mind does—no need to judge or be angry at the wandering, or at yourself. If your mind wanders and attention strays, it means one thing: You are human. With kindness you can simply recognize you’ve become distracted as something pulled your attention elsewhere, and now you can intentionally guide your attention back to the intended focus. Likewise, if some distraction repeatedly takes over awareness, you can notice this pattern as simply revealing where your non-focal attention has been placing its spotlight, making it more likely to intrude on consciousness. When you are open to whatever arises, such intrusions in a mental practice simply become glimpses into your non-conscious mind. You merely notice the distraction and then re- direct to the breath, for example, if that is the exercise you are intentionally engaged in at that moment.

The great news is that as you do this you will be strengthening both your guided and your focal attention. These skills will also cultivate a stronger and wider capacity to become aware of what is going on as it is going on. Stronger capacity means you can maintain attention, monitor awareness, notice salience breaks, and redirect focal attention to fill awareness with the intended focus. Wider means you can hold items within awareness for a longer period of time, and also sense the various dimensions of what you are aware of with more richness, breadth, focus, depth, and detail. You’ll be building those three legs of the mindsight lens tripod of openness, observation, and objectivity. Rather than being swept up into what you think should be happening, you can learn the skill of being present for what is. Cultivating consciousness in this way will be the beginning of enhancing your life, creating a vitality and fullness to your conscious experience of being alive that can be quite exhilarating.

A simple way to envision this is with a concept we’ve mentioned briefly: presence. When you are open to what is happening as it is happening, you are present for an experience. A wide range of research reveals that presence is the best predictor of a number of indicators of well-being, including physiological measures, relational satisfaction, and happiness.

Some people naturally have a kind of presence that has been studied by researchers in what are called mindfulness traits. Others acquire these traits through intentional mind-training practice that essentially strengthens focal attention, opens awareness, and cultivates kind intention. Either way, we can all benefit from doing some regular mind training practice, just like we can keep our body healthy with physical activity and keep our teeth and gums healthy with proper dental hygiene. Some people may have stronger bodies or teeth than others, but most of us can benefit from exercising or brushing—and the benefit requires us to do these things on a regular basis, not just once a year, or even once a month. With these practices you will be cultivating a habit of health.

Reprinted from Aware by Daniel J. Siegel, MD, copyright (c) 2018. Published by TarcherPerigee, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. 

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