Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Attention, memes, and brain pathways

William James said that "The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another."

One of the recent Practice Everywhere reminders encouraged us to practice turning our attention from object to object. Nothing complex, just "now I'm attending to the chair, now I'm noticing all the green, now I will listen for any sounds I can hear, now I will turn my attention to my breathing, now I will turn my attention to my mouth as I smile." The practice is one of bringing conscious awareness to the process of attending. Doing that little exercise regularly builds our directing-the-attention muscles.

On Open Air last evening a caller was telling me about having spent most of the day in a miserable conversation with the voices in his head--likely the kind of one-sided "conversation" we had as children listening to a haranguing adult. After some consideration, he realized that assessment of his day was inaccurate. A voice in his head had told him he'd spent the day in that conversation! When he looked for himself he saw he'd spent quite a lot of the day present and aware of being present with no energy going to the story of suffering in his head.

I, like many of you, have spent a lot of time exploring that phenomenon. We seem to be going through life with a "companion" who we can say, at the very least, does not have our happiness and well-being as a first priority. Yes, it would claim to be doing everything it’s doing for us, but a brief perusal of the evidence makes it clear that's a lie. Losing any part of our day by having our attention dragged to conversations in the head about imaginary unhappy circumstances and then attempting to convince us that's how we spend all our time just can't be an aid to a happy, fulfilled life!

So, we might ask, what about that? Alas, there is, of course, no explanation. We don't know why we have that shadow companion. When I find it comforting to make up a reason, I tell myself that living with egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate inspires me moment-by-moment to learn to choose compassion. Seems as good a made-up explanation as any.

Two "notions," one scientifically supported and one less easily proved, bring encouragement to use the weapon of choosing what we attend to. First, the less scientifically accepted is the “meme” theory which postulates that ideas, symbols or practices can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals; that those which replicate the most effectively spread best; and that some may replicate effectively even when they prove detrimental to the welfare of their “host.” Sounds a lot like social conditioning, doesn't it?

Second, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz was among the first to use brain scans with patients practicing mindfulness exercises to prove that neural pathways could be altered quite quickly by simply turning the attention away from the unwanted pattern of thought and behavior and to the chosen pattern.

All this encourages me to devote an increasing amount of my time and energy to building and flexing those "pay attention to what I want my life to be" muscles while withdrawing those sources of sustenance from the suffering production machine that is egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate.

In gassho,


  1. Thanks for the reminder of why the Practice Everywhere messages are so useful. We are training our minds to come back to that which supports us getting free of conditoned patterns that use up our life energy.

    It is SO GREAT to have this kind of support. The tweets are perfect!

  2. Gassho for the reminder, as always!

  3. I am studying the work of Doug Lemov, who has written a book on how to be an effective teacher. He describes effective teachers as having a "strong voice". They square their shoulders and hips, stand still, don't talk over other talking, and aren't pulled into side issues. The whole attitude, to me, is one of focused awareness. It's helped me bring calm into my classroom, and I like to use it as a further personal tool for reminding myself to direct my attention in the ways you suggest outside of the classroom.

  4. Hi,

    You have an extremely great weblog. Most of the people usually do not comprehend what mind power can do to one's achievement.