In my last blog post, I introduced the reticular activating system (RAS) and talked about it’s basic functions. The RAS helps us filter the world around us. That has two primary features. First, it keeps out millions of things we don’t need to pay attention to. After all, we’re exposed to literally millions of impressions per day. Second, it helps to focus more clearly on what IS important.
That second part is the most interesting to me because we can “hack” our RAS to help us focus even more. Because the RAS helps us decide what is important, we can feed it stimuli. Your conscious brain can literally seed what your unconscious brain pays attention to.
In my book Relax Focus Succeed, I give an analogy between the brain and a filing system. All day long, you go through your day pulling cards out of the filing system and throwing them on the floor. Some cards are problems, some are experiences, some are ideas. And then, at night, your unconscious brain picks up the cards, sorts them, and files them away again. Every once in awhile it picks up a “problem” cards and an “idea” card that match. Your unconscious brain has solved a problem!
But you’re asleep and you’re not aware that you’ve solved a problem. That’s where meditation comes in. It allows your brain to relax and do that background work while you’re still awake.
Of course it’s all much more complicated than that. But here’s how you can use meditation to seed your RAS so that your focus is pointed directly where you want it.
You’ve heard of “mindfulness” meditation. Many people define this as a type of meditation where you try to clear your mind of all thoughts. For example, you just sit there and, when a thought wanders into your mind, you acknowledge it and then set it aside. Other people define mindfulness as simply experiencing what’s going on. In this variant, you sit there and name the things that enter your attention. A truck driving past. A bird. The breeze. Someone walking.
In both variants of mindfulness, you are attempting to NOT think – no not solve problems, not worry about money, not plan the day ahead, etc. It seems miraculous, but this lack of focusing on anything often results in major epiphanies. We’ve all had the experience of coming up with a great idea while you’re in the shower. That’s because it’s just you and your brain with no outside stimuli from radio, TV, the Internet, etc.
Let me suggest a technique that I use. I think you’ll be amazed at how easy it is.
First, choose an object for focus. It might be a poem, an idea for work, a problem with the kids, etc. Anything. Sit quietly and think about the object of focus. If you wish, take notes. The overall idea is to simply fill your mind – your attention – with thoughts and questions about this topic. I generally take anywhere from five to thirty minutes for this. The more time you give it, the more focused you become.
Here’s what’s going on physiologically: You are telling your RAS in no uncertain terms that you have something that needs your focus. You are doing this in a relaxed manner without frenzy or panic. You are, in fact, simply setting its agenda and letting it know that this is important to you.
Second, put an end to that and move into mindfulness meditation. Find a technique that works for you. STOP thinking about the problem you just spent time on. Focus on your breathing. Or do a whole body scan. For beginnings, I think full body scans or Yoga Nidra is excellent. Take as much time as you can. I recommend no less than fifteen minutes. If you can do thirty, that’s even better.
There’s no cheating here. You really are trying to clear your mind of everything. Clean the slate. Relax. Be open. Just experience your breath moving in and out. When ideas float by, acknowledge them and then move your attention back to your breath.
Third, go about your day. That’s it. Just do whatever you need to do. Go to work. Cook dinner. Have a beer. Enjoy some television. Whatever you do, just do that.
Here’s what’s really going on: You have put serious, focused attention on an object (problem, idea, etc.). That has given your RAS notice that you want attention on this. And as you go through your day, you will notice that lots of things seem to be related to the object of your focus. People you meet have ideas that are related. Snippets of news you see on the Internet are related to it. Comments you overhear are related.
It’s as if the world has conspired to help you achieve your goals, solve your problems, help you find funding for a project, or whatever you need. In reality, you have simply applied a filter. You are paying less attention to little, unimportant things, and more attention to the one thing you identified as needing your attention.
Imagine if you do this every day. Figure out what is the most important thing that needs your attention. And then spend the day finding that thing everywhere you look.
Way back in my college days, I was a camp counselor for the YMCA. Session after session, I had a cabin full of seven-year-olds. One of my favorite distractions was to give them a basic assignment such as:
– Everyone go out and bring back a red leaf
– Everyone go out and find a stick with a “Y”
– Everyone go out and bring me a small, smooth rock
These were simple assignments and everyone was always successful. This exercise with your RAS is basically the same thing. You’re telling your unconscious attention span to go focus on a specific object . . . and it does just that. – “Go find me a solution to this problem.”
The best part about priming your attention span is that it just works. The simple fact that you put your attention on something creates the focus that stays on that thing all day.
Try it! I would love to hear your results.