Paying Attention

Paying Attention

Oh dear. Yet another something lost, found, and returned through the kindness of other people.

This time my cell phone, which I managed to leave on a bench outside the hotel when I caught a taxi to Chicago’s O’Hare airport after teaching at the IONS conference two weeks ago. Didn’t notice it was missing until the taxi got me to O’Hare, the driver asking routinely, “Do you have your cell phone? Passport? Wallet” etc. Uh oh. And whew! Enough time to go back to the hotel and get the phone if it had been turned in.

The quick-thinking driver called a driver in his same fleet of taxis he knew would be at the hotel picking up people headed to Midway airport. Yes, he found the phone, turned it in to the hotel, a round trip to the hotel and back to the airport again. So very, very grateful, again, to the quick-thinking of my driver and to the graces of the universe that, once again, averted a real hassle.

This post, though, is about creating a habit of paying attention and checking in. All three times I lost the things mentioned in this series of posts – my calendar, my debit card, my cell phone – I wasn’t paying enough attention to the flow of my life and to the possessions that keep that flow going. One aspect of mindfulness practice – which I teach, which I had taught at that conference – is focused attention training applied to new conditioning in the brain. Training the mind to maintain a steady, present moment awareness, so that experiences actually register on our radar rather than below it, and then using that concentrated conscious attention to choose and install new habits of behavior in our neural circuitry.

Our minds operate below the radar most of the time. We rely on unconscious habits – always placing the car keys in a basket by the door, always carrying the phone in one particular pocket – to save our precious conscious processing for the things that require conscious attention – how to get to an airport or how to console a friend who’s just lost their cell phone. Automatic habits helps us be efficient, and therefore creative and productive when we choose to be.

Daniel Levitan suggests in his The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in an Age of Information Overload (see September 2014 e-newsletter “Help Your Brain Work Better in Times of Overload”) “off-loading” where you put things from your own brain to external memory systems like key hooks, cell phone trays, and special drawers for the sunglasses. We externalize the effort so we don’t have to keep everything in our heads.

Even a little bit of mindfulness training – paying attention whenever we put things down or put things away – goes a long way in training the brain (specifically the hippocampus, the structure of memory consolidation) to remember where we put things, because we’re invoking the central executive functioning of the brain to help with encoding the moment.

I do usually place my car keys and my cell phone in their own particular “home pockets” in my purse. Traveling more this summer has scrambled that a bit, so now I need to create of new habit of checking before I head off somewhere, as my taxi driver reminded me to do when he asked, as he asks all of his customers, “Do you have your phone….?” I can at least use my mindfulness training to create a new habit – of remembering to check. Simply, always, remember to check. I’m practicing that now that I’m home again for a bit, practicing remembering to check. I look forward to the day when that’s the new automatic habit, and I know where things are before I dash off somewhere, leaving tools important for modern living behind in unconscious haste.

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