How To Really “Pay” Attention: Learning To Divide Your Attention

“Give whatever you are doing and whoever you are with the gift of your attention.” – Jim Rohn

Recently I wrote an article on an experimental way of learning a new language faster using tDCS (trans-cranial direct current stimulation).

It was my intent that by reading that post, the reader would realize that the most important and significant part was about learning to divide your attention. But after getting some feedback it was my feeling that most people just passed over it or didn’t even read the post, because they thought it only dealt with learning languages. So I would like to re-post that section of the article.

Learning to divide your attention in the manner I speak of here is of tremendous significance if you can intuit it, if you can catch it. It is the key that unlocks and makes many other things possible in the journey of self-development.

The Wandering Mind: Our Biggest Enemy


As this Ted Talk video highlights, the modern man’s dilemma is that he can’t focus, we engage in mind-wandering all day. Most of us don’t notice this and don’t make the connection of what that means to the larger picture of our lives. A mind that constantly wanders leads us to live in a world that is predominantly the creation of our imaginations.

Our unconscious imagination becomes the source of our unhappiness.We are constantly in a state where we are mesmerized with the contents of our mind. Our attention fluctuates with a kind of sea-saw action. How this affects us is that our attention is not steady, is not controlled, so when we are learning we are not able to be fully cognizant of the experience in a more complete way. We then create very superficial and weak memories.

Dividing Your Attention To Become More Present

To me controlling attention is the most powerful skill one can possess. Attention is life. Learning to divide our attention will strengthen our memories and make us more self aware. What do I mean by dividing our attention? This is how I visually represent it to myself.

Typically our attention is like the arrow in the figure below, it is one pointed. When we observe an object whether it is an external like the chicken or an inner object such as a thought, our attention becomes focused on the object along with our simple sense of existing in the moment, and we are quite unconscious of it.

What I mean is we forget who or what is actually observing or cognizant of the experience. This means that any object has the power to take our attention. Hence our mind wanders. An external force is always causing us to react.

paying attention

Now when you learn to divide your attention, you learn to become more self aware. As you observe an object you try and keep half of your attention on the object (b) and half on the subject (a), that is you don’t forget the knower. In doing this you create a new point of observation (c) that we typically are not aware of. This creates a more stable point of observation that is coming from a more inwardly grounded place.

This grounds you in your “witnessing” self. From this place you are able to observe the contents of your mind or an external object in a more objective way. You create the inner space to freely observe.

This means you are less identified, you are more free from external stimulus, and your mechanical thoughts have less power in dictating your behavior. You become less reactionary and have the ability to respond in a more intelligent way. When you place attention on yourself you can begin my sensing your body, as it is always in the present.

divided attention

This may not seem so significant to you now, but if you start to practice this in your day to day life you will see why. You will realize the majority of your day is spent inattentively and that you don’t remember yourself. You will also see that the reason this can make you more aware, more conscious, is because it requires a lot of conscious effort.

When you first try you may only catch a few glimpses, you will not have enough psychic energy to divide your attention for long stretches of time. But the more you practice the more you will begin to see how your mind wanders less and less. In the beginning you may feel like your actually thinking more thoughts, but in reality it’s not that your thinking more, it’s that you are just now beginning to really notice the movement of your mind. Your attempting to break its spell. It is an arduous journey. Meditation compliments this practice.

Next time your on the subway or in a public place, observe someone in this way. If you are alert, you may subtlety sense that this is a completely different way of observing the world, it may seem familiar yet very novel. If you can catch it, this sensation is just the one of simply being “here” in this very instantbeing very present. You may even feel an intimate connection with the person. This is a tiny glimpse of awakening. This is because this exercise in attention grounds you, it gives you a more stable point of observation.

This experience happens occasionally on its own, but we have no psychological orientation, no idea of what actual phenomena is taking place that we simply brush it off and don’t make much of it, although we felt that it left a sense of wonderment within us. Try this with someone you know, and they may even start to look like a stranger to you, you will realize it has actually been a long time that you really took a good look at the person. This is because we carry a mental of picture of them, so we feel we already know them and no longer really pay close attention.

How does this relate to language learning (learning in general)? Well, the more self aware you become the better you are able to recall information. When you are truly aware, when you are dividing your attention, you are able to recall everything that surrounds the moment. Since your attention doesn’t get lost in objects as much it is more available to take in a greater amount of “impressions” through all your senses. This causes you to see the world in a new way. Colors seem brighter, everything seems vibrant, HD like.

This is key in developing strong memories. If I am observing a person on the subway, and she uses a phrase, I can see in what context she uses it, be observant of her body language, the tone in her voice, etc. So when I later recall the event all that information is available to me. Usually our memories are so poor that we only know that something took place, but lack the details surrounding an event. Yet it is in the details that truly make the difference.

Like I mention in my you-tube video, what happens is you start creating a stronger different type of memory. The more you learn to divide your attention the more you will learn to “objectively” observe yourself, while simultaneously remembering yourself in the moment. This is radically different way of observation. This is what creates the vivid memories. It’s kind of like developing spider-mans “spidey” sense.

Learning to divide your attention is the beginning of real self-observation. Through proper self-observation you will come to know Thyself. Start today, remember to practice this constantly. You will start, then forget. Keep coming back to it. The more you do the more you will “remember” your SELF. You will begin to break the minds spell. It is a long journey, but it is well worth the effort once you realize what it means to your life. I wish you the best on your journey.

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