Use Your Attention Wisely

Become aware of the damaging thought patterns in your day so that you can begin to experience them in new, more distant and less harmful ways. This will help de-clutter your mind.

Neural pathways illustration

While others may try to grab your attention, you are the only one who can decide how to use and harness this gift of awareness.

Photo by Fotolia/Tatiana Shepeleva

Content Tools

We’ve all heard about the benefits if clearing unneeded stuff from your surroundings, but what about the stuff in your head — the psychological version of a jam-packed storage space? This mental clutter affects your ability to experience joy and have a fully satisfying life. In Clearing Emotional Clutter (New World Library, 2016), Donald Altman not only helps you recognize what baggage you’re carrying from your past, but he also suggests solutions for transforming it or getting rid of it for good. Learn to accept old wounds, mistakes, and disappointments so that you can better deal with your joyful present and cultivate a fulfilling future.

For more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Inner-Facebooking

"What if you could erase everybody’s memory of how the world operates? In that moment, the world would be born anew."
— John Nelson, Matrix of the Gods

Are you an avid social networker? How does your time on Facebook or other social networking sites usually make you feel? Do you notice when your mood goes up or down? Do you notice the streams of memories, thoughts, or desires that get stimulated by the images and posts of others? Many people use social networking in a positive way to stay in touch with distant friends and family. In the same way, we need to constantly stay in touch with the “posts” we’re putting up in our own minds, as well as the instant “texting” sent to us by the body — all of which I like to think of as Inner-Facebooking.

Inner-Facebooking skills are all about how you use one of your most precious resources: your attention. Your attention is what you use here and now to navigate your world. While others may try to grab your attention for their own purposes, no one other than you, ultimately, can decide how to use and harness this gift of awareness.

To illustrate what I mean, take the following brief survey:

• In what ways have you used your attention today?
• How often did technology grab your attention?
• How good do you feel about where you placed your attention?
• Did you use attention to help you feel more balanced and at peace?

Attention is necessary to regulate your emotions and help you maintain your emotional equilibrium throughout your day. By Inner-Facebooking, you can be more aware of harmful or distracting external or internal “posts.” You notice the subtle signals of tightness, stress, or dis-ease your body is sending you. Knowing how to shift your attention lets you become skillful at putting up nurturing, feel-good posts that get you motivated, inspired, and involved. With Inner-Facebooking, you become proficient at noticing your moods, sensing emotions in your body, and cultivating the attitude of an impartial observer as you rebalance in the moment. To do this is to literally rewire and reshape how your brain makes connections.

On the other hand, if you lack Inner-Facebooking skills, you might find yourself hopelessly mired in negative clutter from the past. In one of the biggest studies of its kind in the United Kingdom, researchers analyzed more than thirty-two thousand participants who completed an online survey related to stress and repetitive, self-defeating thoughts. While the study determined that traumatic life events and family history were the largest predictors of depression and anxiety, there was one vital variable that kept stress in check. That mediating variable was one’s perception of stress. If you strongly believe that you can’t cope with a stressful situation, then you won’t. However, if you shift your attention so as to view the situation from a distance, you can think about it and assess it differently. You might say, “Yes, this is stressful, but I’ve handled these kinds of situations effectively before. And I can find resources to help me get through it successfully.” As Professor Peter Kinderman, lead researcher of the UK study, said, “Whilst we can’t change a person’s family history or their life experiences, it is possible to help a person to change the way they think and to teach them positive coping strategies that can mitigate and reduce stress levels.”

Where’s Your Attention Right Now?

Do you ever feel like the more you pay attention to your emotional wounds, the more you continue to pay attention to them? Preoccupation with negative past experiences may inadvertently hardwire the emotional clutter circuits in the brain. Imagine rolling a rock down a hill over the same path time and time again. Before long you create a groove or rut that guides the rock down the exact same path every time.

Our brain has the ability to create pathways, and change them, in much the same way through the process of neuroplasticity. When we think and behave in a certain way, the brain generates a pathway. Over time, frequently used pathways get wired together, creating an established path or groove. It’s empowering to know that how we notice and respond to our thoughts can change the physical structure of the brain — even those habitually used emotional-clutter pathways.

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, author of Brain Lock, is a pioneer in neuroplasticity and repairing negative brain grooves. He developed a four-part mindfulness method for patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Instead of having patients take their repetitive and alarming thoughts at face value, Schwartz directs them to mentally change their relationship to those damaging thoughts. First, patients notice the old thoughts, and then they reappraise them in new ways. Before and after brain scans of patients have shown how their thinking can deactivate the OCD wiring in the brain by creating new neural pathways to replace the faulty ones. Patients learn how to harness the skill of Inner-Facebooking to notice and release their repetitive thoughts from the habitual groove.

Inner-Facebooking makes us aware of how we’re using our attention and gives us some constructive distance from offending thoughts so we can decide how to respond to them. We can shift attention in a number of ways, including reflecting inwardly on that initial thought, finding a more realistic thought, or engaging in an action or behavior that reflects our deeper values.

Fred was a thirty-two-year-old client who, in my experience, lacked Inner-Facebooking skills. He was stuck in depression. I soon learned that when Fred was not working, he devoted all his free time to building a virtual life online as a vitriolic political blogger. The dark side of this blogging was that Fred so strongly identified with his political beliefs that he was consumed with anger. He was oblivious to the lighter side of life to such an extent that he developed what I fondly call ESD, or extreme seriousness disorder. As you might guess, Fred’s ESD was fraying his relationship with his new girlfriend.

I also learned that Fred grew up in an authoritarian, adopted family and was told he would never amount to much. Fred’s need to broadcast and impose inflexible views upon others was not unlike what he had experienced during his childhood with his rigid, self-righteous parents. It was very likely that Fred’s mental grooves were ancient and deep. To counter ESD and his mental and emotional ruts, I had Fred try an experiment where he distanced himself from blogging every other day for a week. On nonblogging days he replaced blogging with other activities he enjoyed — hiking, walking, reading. I instructed him to practice Inner-Facebooking on the days he blogged, by noticing the emotional posts he was making in his mind and feeling in his body. Finally, I asked Fred to rate his mood from negative to positive on a scale of 1 to 10 each day for the week. I also asked Fred to practice noticing and naming his emotions — another important Inner-Facebooking technique.

J. David Creswell published research in Psychosomatic Medicine that demonstrates that, by naming our emotions as we experience them, we can more easily detach from that emotion and not automatically react to it. By shifting focus and making the emotion the object of our attention, we create a healthy distance from that emotion. We are no longer being pushed and pulled around by emotional baggage. We stop identifying with the powerful emotion and are more in control. Creswell’s work shows that by naming our emotions we quiet down and inhibit the amygdala, a key part of the brain implicated in triggering emotional arousal and the body’s ancient stress response.

A personal example of how this naming process has worked for me involves coping with “road rage.” In the past, if a driver cut me off on the freeway, I often experienced a quick emotional reaction — followed by a few choice expletives. These negative emotions usually took a long time to dissipate. But the instant I named my emotions — a mixture of impatience, frustration, and superiority at being a “better” driver — I felt an immediate change. By taking a step back, I was no longer experiencing the emotions but was simply observing them with a sense of curiosity. This Inner-Facebooking also gave me a deeper understanding of my old habitual grooves, and it helped me be less reactive in the future. This is how Inner-Facebooking establishes a new brain pathway.

How did Inner-Facebooking work for Fred? He was surprised to discover that he was much happier, more curious, and more enthusiastic on those days he wasn’t blogging. By Inner-Facebooking, he grew much more aware of how his blogging increased tension in his body and increased his negative thoughts and emotions.

While he remained committed to his beliefs and causes, Fred took a more neutral and relaxed stance toward blogging. He slowly let this activity go to spend time on other pursuits, including working as a volunteer to teach children about the environment. There isn’t anything wrong with having strong political views, sharing your opinions, or writing political blogs. But ask yourself, do the ways you express and experience these views enhance your life or create clutter? It’s like playing a sport — can you enjoy the game while accepting that you will lose some of the time? Or do you take losses and disagreements personally, letting them steal away the joy of the game? Do these feelings eat away at you long after the game (or the blog) is over? Fred learned to care without taking things so personally.

By Inner-Facebooking, Fred’s physical health improved, too. Ruminating or anxious thoughts actually affect the body’s immune functioning. Years ago, this might have been considered a New Age idea. Nowadays, a solid mountain of evidence shows that negative thoughts do indeed affect us at the cellular level, from upping the levels of cortisol in the body (which damages the immune system) to shortening our telomeres (which are biological markers of aging).


Donald Altman is the author of the national bestseller Clearing Emotional Clutter, and One-Minute Mindfulness, as well several other books about mindfulness. He is a practicing psychotherapist and former Buddhist monk. An award-winning writer and an expert on mindful eating, he teaches in the neurobiology program at Portland State University. Visit him online at Mindful Practices.

Excerpted from the book Clearing Emotional Clutter: Mindfulness Practices for Letting Go of What’s Blocking Your Fulfillment and Transformation. Copyright © 2016 by Donald Altman. Printed with permission from New World Library.