Walk to Strengthen Attention

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People say they need to take a walk to clear the mind. The air outside is supposed to be good for this. But I think this is more difficult than it sounds. My mind either stays full of whatever thoughts I was trying to get away from or it finds new topics such as drivers who won't stop for pedestrians, other walkers who never look up from their devices, or why I never took the time to memorize the names of trees.

In this post I'll identify some typical obstacles along the walking meditation path and a few clever ways to navigate around and through them. 

Walking is a great way to improve your physical, cognitive, and emotional health. It also has the potential to provide a break from the thinking and worrying we default to in our cubicles or workspaces.

But often when we head outdoors, our attention tends to stay anchored in our heads.

When we realize that our tiring thoughts have tagged along, it's easy to berate ourselves and run back inside with our tales ruminating between our ears.  

What we need is a practical focus strategy and realistic expectations about how our minds respond to such a challenge.

Plan to Pay Attention Differently

Trying to disrupt the default narrative mode of attention takes practice. The absence of a clear plan and the presence of unrealistic assumptions prevent us from experiencing the benefits of attentional fitness practice.

Attention wanders away from what we decide to notice. You can count on it. When it does, quietly steer it back. Gently guiding your attention back to what you intend to notice is the essence of attentional fitness training.

Drifting attention is not a personal shortcoming. It's normal. The only thing it proves is that you have a nervous system. There's a reason it's called the default mode

Try to consider each opportunity to return to the intended sense experience as one exercise training repetition. A wandering mind provides opportunities to strengthen the skills of attention

Here's one good strategy that you can use when walking, running, lifting weights, grocery shopping, or during any activity that requires you to move without much talking. 

Try to stay in contact
with your body
and your surroundings 
through your senses.

How do you do this?

Ask yourself questions about your present experience relying on your senses rather than language for the answers:

What does it feel like to walk (run, lift, move)?  

What is it like to see? 

What is like to hear? 

The answers to these questions can be observed directly through sensations in the body and information coming into it through the eyes and ears.  

Feel what it is like to feel.

See what it is like to see.

Hear what it is like to hear. 

Try to rest your attention on one sense at a time for about four or five seconds. Experiment with using the rhythm of your steps to help mark a comfortable pace.

What makes this simple exercise so challenging? 

We're blinded by familiarity

We're convinced that there's nothing new to observe. Isn't it just the same old trees, buildings, clouds, and people? It's effortless to postpone an exploration of our present surroundings.

We have to remind ourselves that even though we've seen similar things in the past, there is always an opportunity for a fresh experience. You're never quite the same person each day. You'll notice slightly different things each time you practice. 

We're captivated by our thoughts

The story problems in our minds seem original and new and troubling. We complain about the sensationalism in news but forget that the supply is designed to fill a demand.

A breeze playing in the trees and the laughter of children wait behind the private news ticker each of us actively produces for a demographic of one.

We miss the extraordinary that is hiding right beneath the surface of the ordinary. Children tend to be more attuned to this kind of wonder. Isn't this what makes their observations so captivating to adults? This natural skill is often lost along the road to adulthood as habits of self-absorption are reinforced and take hold. 

But habits can be eroded with practice over time. We can decide to get fascinated with what's around us again. We can feed our senses instead of only feeding the impulse to make sense.

Notice What you Feel, See, and Hear

We have to remind ourselves over and over that we have an amazing ability to notice what it feels like to be alive. Attempting to focus on something intentionally – such as the world around us and our bodies moving –  for a few seconds or minutes is a step in this direction.

We just have to make a habit of remembering. And we can even use the tendency our awareness has for sliding back toward thoughts and feelings to help us remember.

Feel

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Notice what the body feels like as it moves. 

Try to stretch your awareness over the whole body at once. 

Zoom in to specific regions of the body. 

Is it possible to stay open to both pleasant and unpleasant sensations in the body? 

Explore the physical signals related to being alert, tired, hungry, full, thirsty, hot, or cold.

Can you find places that feel like they are working and other areas that seem relaxed? 

Are you able to detect any sensations that seem to be emotional such as boredom, fear, restlessness, or embarrassment? 

See

Try to notice what it is like to see for a few seconds at a time. It doesn't matter what's in your visual field. It doesn't hurt if it's beautiful, but it isn't required. Let the seeing itself be the point. The narration and evaluation are secondary to the direct observation. Instead of trying to block out storytelling and judging, try to let them be in the background, secondary to taking the world in through your eyes.  

Your mind will wander so far into memories and plans that you will forget to see what's in front of you. This is normal. Expect it. When you realize that something visual in your mind is so compelling that it's getting in the way of seeing, gently slide your gaze back outward. 

Let the visual aspect of thinking remind you that an outward focus is the priority orientation for this period of practice. Return to the seeing the world around you through your eyes. 

Hear 

In a similar way, try to notice what it is like to hear for a few seconds at a time. You can focus your attention on a specific sound or let it spread out in all directions around you to take it all in. 

Try to suspend about the sound. Let the investigation of the source of the sound be secondary to the actual hearing. 

When you are listening in this way, try to allocate the bulk of your attention to the auditory aspect of the present for a few seconds. 

When you realize that the chatter in your mind has become your main focus, gently slide your attention back out to hearing sounds around you. Be kind. Try not to punish yourself. Resist the urge to give up and watch TV instead. This is the challenge we all face.  

Let the verbal side of thinking remind you that you are trying to stay in contact with your surroundings for this period of practice. Come back to hearing the world around you through your ears. 

Yield 

When you realize that you've lost contact with your body or the world around you, gently return to feeling, seeing, or hearing. Give yourself time to warm up.

Expect it to be challenging. Expect to reestablish your awareness over and over again as you practice.

Yield to the exercise with gentleness. 

You might even be surprised to find that when your awareness is anchored in your body and your surroundings, there is less attention available to support mental activity. This will vary across sessions. But be on the lookout for this kind of momentum and savor the experience when it emerges naturally. 

Give yourself–and your current story–over to it.