Wandering Thoughts and Focused Attention

Where do your thoughts wander?

It’s been a long day at work, and you are relieved to be in the car driving home. As you pull into the driveway and park your car, you realize that you have no recollection of the last 15 minutes of your commute. Were you driving on autopilot?

On Sunday morning, you find yourself sitting in the church pew, twenty minutes into the pastor’s sermon. He just made his third sermon point, but looking down, you discover that you never wrote down his second point. Instead, you were thinking about what you were going to have for lunch.

Maybe you find yourself cuddled up on the couch, reading a book before bed. Your mind wanders, and when you come back to the book, you realize that you’ve been scanning and re-scanning the same paragraph for some time.

Sound familiar? Our minds love to wander. Often it feels like work to make them sustain attention. In a world of faster and faster technology, our brains are being trained how to work more quickly, multitask more efficiently, and sustain attention for smaller and smaller amounts of time. It seems we are losing the art of deep focus.

The Gift of Focus

Interestingly, there is a growing body of neuroscience research to support the importance of focused attention. Concentrating or focusing deeply is a practice that is incredibly healthy and helpful. You could almost think of it as fertilizer for the brain. Focused attention is a key part of mindfulness, and thankfully because of neuroplasticity, we can train ourselves to get better and better at it.

In fact, you have much more control over your own attention than you think you do. Try this:

  • Bring your focus upward, until you find a focal point on the ceiling. Stare at it for 10 seconds.
  • Now bring your attention downward, to your feet. Take note of them: Are you wearing socks or shoes? What color are they?
  • Now bring your attention to your breath. Focus on how you are filling your lungs slowly and then gently exhaling. Do you see your chest rising and falling?

Our minds are always paying attention to something. It just so happens that much of the time, what we are paying attention to isn’t what is currently unfolding in front of us. Curt Thompson, MD, and author of The Soul of Shame, encourages his readers to “pay attention to what you’re paying attention to.” Where do your thoughts drift when your mind is operating on autopilot?

How can you increase your ability to sustain attention?

There are many mental health benefits to increasing the ability to sustain focus and attention, and there are a myriad of practical ways to practice increasing this capacity. To test your own attention span, try this exercise:

Focus on an object in the room, any object will do. Now, try to focus only on that object for one minute. Whenever you notice your attention drifting, try to bring it back to focusing on the object. (Pause your reading and really try it!)

Did you try it? Now, be honest: how many seconds did it take for your thoughts to drift? Was it 5, 10, or 15 seconds? If you made it to 30, you’re doing pretty well for a first try!

This exercise is not made to emphasize how bad you are at focusing, rather it’s to practice increasing your ability to bring your thoughts back into focus. Our thoughts and attention like to drift, but being able to bring them back is the key. Over time you will notice that you are able to focus for longer and longer spans of time without your thoughts drifting.

Personally, I find that focusing on objects is difficult. For me, focusing on music, or choosing a word or phrase to focus on comes much more easily. Isn’t it interesting then, that Scripture often mentions meditating on God’s Word? The idea of meditating on God’s Word is repeated often throughout the Psalms.

Choosing a phrase of Scripture on which to focus and meditate is an incredible way to not only train your brain, but to feed your spiritual life as well. For more ideas on creative ways to meditate on Scripture, listen to my PRN Podcast episode about this subject.

A screenshot of John Eldredge’s Pause app, a great way to begin practicing rest and meditation

Pause, Renew, Next idea: I have recently found a Scriptural meditation app that I feel captures not only the heart of this blog post’s intent, but also is in line with the whole Pause, Renew, Next concept. I have found it helpful myself, and would love to pass it on to you. John Eldredge’s Pause app, is a free, easy way to schedule in a moment to pause and reflect during your busy day. It has one, three, five, and ten minute options, and walks the listener through meditative prayer and Scripture readings. If you’re needing an easy way to begin practicing focused attention from a Scriptural perspective, the Pause app may be a great place to start.

May you find peace and joy as you take moments to focus deeply and allow your mind and body to rest and renew.

Pause, Renew, Next!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.