We beat ourselves up instead of gently return our attention

Once during a five hour bus ride, the woman across the aisle from me had ants in her pants.

Do you remember hearing that phrase as a child?

Parents and teachers would use it to describe kids who are unable to sit still, due to anxiety, excess energy, or impatience.

Anyway, the women next to me spent the entire bus trip executing the same series of tasks.

Check the notifications on her phone.
Switch sitting positions.
Rifle through her purse.
Eat a snack.
Pull out her notebook without actually writing anything.

It was fascinating to observe this routine out of my peripheral vision. And while there is no way for me to know if this woman was enjoying herself or not, it made me wonder about adults who have ants in their pants.

Do you know someone like this? The person whose attention gets hijacked by everything? They notice and respond to every sight and sound around them?

It’s a complex personality feature, because to a certain degree, it’s biological. This is brain chemistry. Some people are natively wired to be more distractible than others.

But there’s a nurture piece as well. Because we can learn to filter out unwanted information. We can chose not to accept the slavery to our idiotic notification culture.

Psychiatry researchers have found evidence suggesting that certain meditative practices ameliorate distractibility by activating brain regions implicated in both sustaining and directing attention.

This shouldn’t be news to most, as the mindfulness industrial complex has been going strong since the seventies. But as a person who has been accused of having ants in his pants more than a few times, I’m no stranger to training my brain to become less distractible.

One of the terms psychologists use is called open monitoring, or choiceness awareness. It’s where you pay attention to what’s happening around you without becoming attached to it. Instead of processing it, thinking about, judging it or trying to change it, you simply notice it, moment by moment, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

This is harder than it sounds. It requires patience and forgiveness and acceptance. Not only with the world, but with yourself.

That’s why most people can only do it for a few seconds or a few minutes at a time. When the mind wanders, we beat ourselves up instead of gently return our attention.

Ultimately, though, mindfulness pays off in the moment and down the road. Multiple studies have shown that people who engaged in a regular open monitoring practice, be it meditation, yoga, breathing exercises and so on, have demonstrated a greater ability to detect arising distractions or mind wanderings.

Note the language there.

These people didn’t reduce the amount of irrelevant stimuli, they learned how to reduce the effects of it.

These people noticed the world trying to hijack their attentional resources away from the task at hand, and brushed it off their shoulder like a piece of lint.

Or maybe more like an ant in their pants. 

Will you definitely use this piece of information for something immediate and important?


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