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Where does your attention go and what goes with it?

In any given moment, we can ask ourselves questions about our attention: “What is my attention focused on right now? Where is my attention going? Is my attention focused broadly or narrowly? Is it moving around or is it stuck on one thing?” In any given moment, we can also bring curiosity to what emotional tone is going with our attention. “Does the noticing have an emotional tone of warmth, friendliness, a gentle curiosity, acceptance, frustration, harsh judgmental commentary, or something different?”

A commonly used analogy for describing how we can consciously move our attention around is that of a flashlight or a spotlight. In the same way that we can move a beam of light around a darkened room and bring our attention to notice what is showing up in that beam, we can also move our attention around to different things and notice what is showing up in the metaphorical beam we are choosing. So for example, we can move our attention to notice sounds in this moment or the feeling of the air on our skin or emotions that we are noticing inside or other physical sensations, even the changing sensations in our body as it breathes (noticing sensations of our breath moving in and out). (E.g., see Compassion Focused Therapy for Dummies by Mary Welford, 2016.)

Both how we focus our attention and the emotional tone we cultivate to go with that focus—the emotional tone of our noticing—influence how we feel and things that are going on in our nervous systems such as influencing whether our nervous systems tend to move in the direction of a higher stressed state or a lower stressed state. When we regularly practice noticing with an emotional tone of gentle curiosity rather than harsh commentary, as an example, we help to support wellbeing. Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Mary Welford, described the attention+helpful emotional tone combination so wonderfully when she wrote, “It may help to think of attention as a spotlight, while compassion is the torch we choose to use” (Compassion Focused Therapy for Dummies, 2016, p. 121).

If you ask yourself, “Where is my attention right now? What am I noticing?”, remember to also ask, “What type of flashlight am I using right now to notice? Is it the Flashlight of Gentle-Curiosity-And-Non-Judgment or is it the Flashlight-of-All-Judgment-All-The-Time or is it something different?”

We can all find ourselves holding unhelpful flashlights. It is common. It happens. And we can all learn to pick a helpful one.

The helpful ones illuminate but with more breathing room, and they help us connect to feelings of strength and to courage, and they help us generally speaking to feel a sense of safeness. The helpful flashlights do not, in and of themselves, add more threat signals to the nervous system load. (There are a few caveats to this, which can involve the complexities of what can signal threat based on prior life experiences and learning, but all of that is workable and is something that can be explored with a therapist etc.)

Returning to Mary Welford’s description a way of finishing: “It may help to think of attention as a spotlight, while compassion is the torch we choose to use”. I love that image.

May the torch of compassion be with you.