Paying Attention…on Purpose

Paying Attention…on Purpose
Photo by Romain Vignes / Unsplash

Before you ask, no, this won’t devolve into a rant about the “attention economy.” At least, I hope it won’t.

Paying attention is a bit of a trigger for me these days.

Can you blame me? I was knocked off my bike by a driver who hooked an un-signaled right turn through the bike lane I was in. Leaving aside the driving habits of Seattleites these days (I need to remember I also drive here...)—is it asking too much to just look around every once in a while?

I digress.

I think this focus on our lack of focus started in earnest in 2020 when I was knocked off my motorcycle by an inattentive driver who ran a stop sign (for those of you keeping score, that's inattentive drivers - 2, Jesse - 0). That's when I started seeing more and more examples of how we as a species are having an increasingly difficult time doing it.

I’ve been an on-again, off-again meditator for something like 20 years, and in that time I’ve mostly practiced a form of Mindfulness Meditation.

Without launching into a “sure to bore you to tears” historical explainer, the bottom line for me is simply that my mind only has two settings when it comes to attention—either I can’t stay focused for more than 5 minutes, or I fall into a rabbit hole only to emerge into the daylight, hours later, blinking like a bear emerging from hibernation.

Mindfulness meditation proved the best way for me to train my brain to do what I ask of it. That is, to focus when I need it to focus and wander off in wonder only when I let it off leash.

This brings me to the first version of this idea of paying attention with a purpose beyond not walking into a wall—or running into a dude on a motorcycle—from the founder of Mindfulness therapy himself, Jon Kabat-Zinn.

"Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally...”

Let’s break that down and look at each piece separately for a minute.

“...awareness that arises through paying attention...”

Right off the bat, Kabat-Zinn is drawing a line between awareness and attention that might strike you as unnecessary. After all, most of us meander through life figuring if we’re aware of something, we must also be paying attention to it. Think of the last time you were at the front of the line at a traffic light when it turned green. How long did it take you to notice the change of color and move your foot off the brake and over to the accelerator?

I’m guessing more than you’re comfortable disclosing to strangers. So where was your attention? You were clearly aware of being at a traffic light (at least, I truly hope you were). But were you paying attention to it? How would things have been different if your full attention was on that light?

“...on purpose, in the present moment...”

This is the bit that resonates with me the strongest. How can you be paying attention NOT on purpose? Well, let’s think about that for a second. What was the last movie you watched? How far into it was the first time you found yourself elbowing the person next to you and asking, “What’s he talking about? When did that happen?!”

You thought you were paying attention to the movie, but maybe you were only peripherally aware of it playing while your attention was on...I don’t know, a conversation you had with your boss last week. Or the parent-teacher conference next week. Or the argument you had with your partner right before the movie started.

So it’s not a stretch at all to say you’ve probably spent a fair bit of your waking time NOT paying attention to what you thought you were paying attention to, yeah?

That ‘present moment’ comment opens a whole ‘nother can of proverbial worms, and those buggers are terrifying to try and get back in the can so I’ll leave you with a suggestion that if you take one thing away from reading this essay let it be this:

Focusing on the present moment is a great way to avoid many of the pitfalls being discussed and will start you in the right direction for lasting mindfulness.


Uh-oh, speaking of cans of worms. Forgive me for causing 90’s flashbacks: “can open...worms...everywhere!”

Kabat-Zinn is making one of the toughest requests of all, he’s asking us to be kind to ourselves.

When you find your attention wandering away from the present, from whatever is right in front of you right now, don't get upset with yourself. We’re all human, after all, and being human comes with some caveats.

This whole dive was triggered by a comment John Green made in a talk...sometime. He said that when you want to get a handle on what you’re thinking about or what to write about, look at what you pay the most attention to. His line was, “Pay attention to what you pay attention to.”

What I can’t decide is if Green’s line is an updated version of Kabat-Zinn’s, or if it’s a different beast altogether. Or is that a difference that doesn’t matter? So what if it is different, anything that gets you thinking along these lines is a good thing as far as I’m concerned.