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John W. Travis, M.D. & Regina Sara Ryan
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Training the Mind

While our education may have trained us in certain cognitive skills, others have been sorely neglected. The ability to pay attention is one of those undeveloped abilities. Perhaps because of the media's approach to keeping us always stimulated by changing images every few seconds or because of the enhanced pace of life in today's techno-culture, the mind's ability to focus and keep attention is rarely addressed. Most of us know that we've got a wild monkey" running around in our brains, jumping from tree to tree, from thought to thought. If we have ever tried to simply watch one phenomenon for more than just a minute, we know how incredibly taxing and even impossible that can seem. The typical example used is that of trying to watch the second hand on a clock with full attention. In a short time we are feeling edgy, tapping our fingers or shaking a foot. Most people can't keep such focus for even a minute. Try it and see, noting when your attention wanders or your thoughts take you to another time and place altogether.

Yet the ability to pay attention is a treasure worth cultivating. Not only can paying attention be relaxing - as happens when attention can be focused solely on the movement of breath - it can be transcendental, as when the painter or sculptor becomes utterly immersed in the work.

The martial artist first sharpens and then diffuses attention to the point where he or she appears to be responding even without thinking. In healing, the ability to focus attention is also essential, for picking up on subtle cues from our inner experience or for directing energy from one area of the body to another. Many of the mind techniques for enhanced health require an exceptional placement of attention and continuity of practice. But the effort is well rewarded. You can practice paying attention in any activity of your day: preparing a pot of tea and drinking a cup with mindfulness; working in your garden, experiencing all the sensory input that is flooding you even amidst a barren patch of earth. The possibilities are endless.

Paying attention is a prelude to living life in the present moment. And the present moment is the only place wherein the fullness of life can be experienced - the only place where power, love, and creativity coexist.

Mindfulness is the capacity of being present in the here and now. When I eat an orange, I can eat the orange as an act of meditation. Holding the orange in the palm of my hand, I look at it mindfully. I take a long time to look at the orange with mindfulness. "Breathing in, there is an orange in my hand. Breathing out, I smile at the orange." For me, an orange is nothing less than a miracle. —Thich Nhat Hanh, Be Free Where You Are

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