As my friend Rick Hanson says in his beautiful book Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, "attention shapes the brain." What we pay attention to is literally what we will build in our brain tissue. Our neurons wire in response to what we focus upon.
We may think we understand the art of paying attention but many times, unfortunately, we mistake attention for judgment. We think about attention as a "critical" function. Attention is not critical. Judgment is. Attention is neutral. We begin to pay attention to something and then we start to judge it, evaluate it, categorize it and, yes, generally "criticize" it. But judging, while certainly useful, is not attention. Judging involves an underlying assumption that our purpose is ultimately to categorize and take action. We judge something to be done with it. The rush to being done with something does not increase our capacity to pay attention to it.
When we judge something we generally assess whether or not we need to "fix" it, reject it or enhance it, and move on. In other words, we are motivated to change it in some way. Whatever it is right now is generally not OK or not enough and has to be altered. If our intention is to fix or change or reject something our capacity to pay attention to it is actually minimized. We will see only as much as we think we need to see to take action. What if there is more to learn?
Attention is noticing and being with something without trying to change it. Attention takes the time to fully explore, to discover whatever there is to know about something, to watch as things change by themselves without our trying to ‘fix" anything. Attention is patient and attention is kind. No rush. No burden. No criticism.
Healing an injury requires the practice of paying attention, of being with something fully, of focusing upon it over and over again without pushing it away or trying to change it. It is in paying attention that we will discover the tiny threads of healing and transformation that are developing moment to moment. It is attention, not judgement, that will help our brains rewire.
So how do we let go of judgment and simply pay attention? How do we practice being with whatever is happening and learning from it? My teacher, Frank Ostaseski, founder of the Metta Institute, teaches the art of paying attention. Frank's work is and has been for many years with people who are dying. He works at the forefront of what we find difficult to pay attention to.
Frank teaches: "Welcome Everything; Push Away Nothing". That might sound odd at first. Why would we "welcome" something unpleasant? The word "welcome" confronts us, asking us to look without judgment and criticism, to invite ourselves to be open to whatever comes, to simply pay attention.
This is not about seeking difficulty. Before my brain injury I was not in the least interested in being unable to dress myself. It's not something I sought. But once I was injured I had a choice, I could "welcome" the assistance of the people who helped me dress or I could judge my inability to dress and the people helping me and thus push away the information it brought. But what would I have learned about the way to put clothes on post injury if I had?
The more I paid attention, without pushing away or judging what was happening, the more I learned about how my body moved and what I could do to help myself. The more I paid attention the more my brain began to rewire the movements necessary to continue to help myself. It really is that fundamental. Attention is the key.
Paying attention is ultimately an act of loving kindness towards ourselves. If we love a child, we pay attention to her. We watch this child thrive as we give her our attention. We know this works. In this way we are not different from the child. We too will thrive with attention and as adults, we have the capacity to give that attention to ourselves. Let's practice simply paying attention, not rushing to judgment. Let's practice "Welcome Everything; Push Away Nothing."