Archive for Presence

Awareness and curiosity

It is sometimes amazing how little we see. Think of a street you walk down daily: Can you recall what trees or flowers grow on this street? How about the colours or designs of the houses? For most of us, there are some details to which we pay attention, but others to which we are completely oblivious. For example, we may recall the make and model of every car parked on our street, but have no clue whether a front yard contains a garden gnome. Or perhaps we remember every bus-stop advertisement on the street, but cannot recall if the trees are blossoming. Of course, remembering these details is not necessarily important, but it is still useful to see whether we can. This provides insight into what goes through our heads as we walk down these streets. Are we absorbed in thought and oblivious to our surroundings? Do we filter most things out, perhaps only noticing the advertisements and sales in a store window? Or are we one of those rare people who takes curiosity in our surroundings, generally being aware of everything?

Consciously paying attention to what is around us is a wonderful exercise. It pulls us out of our heads for a moment and gives us a break from the stresses of the day. For those of us who spend our days processing papers or staring at computers, a walk down the street is a time to receive a much wider range of visual stimuli. Unfortunately many of us waste this opportunity by remaining stuck in our heads. Furthermore, for those of us who do look around, our eyes are often drawn naturally to text – such as signs and advertisements – and thus remain constricted to a narrow range of stimuli.

Hence, the practice of awareness is refreshing. Furthermore, it is interesting. We can spot things, even on our home street, that we never noticed before. Living this way puts us in a  constant state of discovery, adding a sense of wonder and enthusiasm to our lives.

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Boredom and attention

Our natural reaction to boredom is to find something different to do. We look for something more exciting, more engaging. Although there are definitely times when this is appropriate, often this attitude makes our problems worse. Boredom is caused by a restless mind, a mind that is unable to stay with an activity. We live in a society where we are engaged in constant stimulation: while waiting in a supermarket queue we have magazines to browse and text messages to send, not to mention the constant chatter of thoughts in our head. The unfortunate result of this is that our minds have become so used to stimulation that they cannot tolerate its lack. Furthermore, the more we indulge these impulses for stimulation, the greater our need becomes. Therefore, despite the widely varied activities in which we now engage, boredom in society is prevalent.

How do we counter this state of mind that so easily facilitates boredom? The solution is not to go out and find new things to do, but rather to calm down and learn to focus on whatever we are already doing. We must encourage our minds to calm down and relax. We must forget the daydreams, drop the distractions, and just learn to pay attention. This may seem contradictory – isn’t the boredom of an activity precisely what stops us from paying attention in the first place? Actually, no. Although we often associate boredom with certain activities, boredom has more to do with our own state of mind. Rather than boredom causing inattention, it is our inability to concentrate on something that causes us to lose interest. This is demonstrated in the following Scientific American quote:

In one classic 1989 experiment, psychologists James Laird and Robin Damrad-Frye of Clark University discovered that very low level distraction such as a quiet television turned on in the next room led participants to describe a listening comprehension task as “boring.” Unaware of what was distracting them, the subjects could find no other explanation for their inattention. But when the TV was blaring, the subjects instead commented that the sound made it impossible to focus. Without any distraction, some students actually said that what they had heard in the comprehension exercise was stimulating. The results thus support the authors’ hypothesis that “the essential behavioral component of boredom is the struggle to maintain attention.”

Therefore, developing the ability to focus is more crucial than ever. After all, dealing with boredom is not just a mere convenience. Frequent boredom puts us at greater risk for anxiety and depression, and has an adverse effect on our work and our social interactions. In contrast, learning to pay attention helps the mind to relax and rest in the moment, directly counters the thought patterns that lead to boredom, and thus brings about a stress-free and contented life, imbued with inner peace.

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