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How Attention Shapes Experience

An awareness practice for commuters.

Key points

  • Difficult, painful, or frustrating moments naturally pull one's attention.
  • Attention and awareness have a powerful impact on experience and mood.
  • It's possible to intentionally broaden one's attention beyond present difficulties, and this practice can benefit one's mood.
Source: by Josh Bartok with permission
Hazy Moon of Enlightenment
Source: by Josh Bartok with permission

This post was written with Josh Bartok.

Recently, I was driving into the university where I teach, running a little bit late (as usual). I noticed that I was staring daggers at every car in traffic that didn’t let me turn in front of them or that had the audacity to cut me off, feeling hostile and frustrated. I realized I was actually practicing hostility and frustration, fueling those unpleasant states of mind so that these feelings were actually growing with each car and each iteration. When I instead choicefully turned my attention to practicing generosity and patience, making space for a car to get in front of me, I noticed that my mood improved. Similarly, when I practiced attention and appreciation, noticing that the trees are starting to get buds on them despite the cold, I felt a similar lift.

As adrienne maree brown notes in her book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, “What we pay attention to grows.” This means that our attention and awareness have a powerful impact on our experience and, thereby, our mood. Negative, frustrating, hurtful events naturally draw our attention to them. And that makes sense: We need to notice when we are hurt or in pain so that we can address the things we are able to address and care for ourselves and what matters to us.

However, this natural response of paying attention to problems can also turn into a way of amplifying (“growing”) distress that isn’t actually helpful. Me angrily noticing every driver that didn’t let me turn in front of them didn’t actually get me to school any faster—and focusing on my angry story about them (what I imagined was their lack of consideration for me) led me to feel less generous and connected to the fullness of my experience. Moreover, the quality I was interpreting as inconsiderateness could also have been their own inattention, their own lateness, or a myriad of other things (see the post "Breaking Free of Our Rigid Narratives" for a deeper dive on that).

This doesn’t mean we should ignore frustrating things. Instead, we can broaden our awareness so it also includes less frustrating, or even pleasant and meaningful aspects of our experience. We can make a point to notice when someone is kind or when some aspect of our physical environment is pleasing. We can even notice that our lungs are breathing and our hearts are beating and add those to the things we are growing with our attention. Practicing this during something as routine as a commute can help us build the skill to apply it in more complex and dynamic situations elsewhere in our lives.

Awareness practice

Here’s the general shape of an awareness practice for commuters (who drive):

(Take care to only use this practice in a way that allows you to also attend to the safety needs of driving and traffic.)

Begin by noticing how your body feels in the car. Notice the feel of your breath in your body… your bottom on the driver’s seat... your hands on the wheel. Come fully into this moment as you are driving to your destination. Then, notice what is pulling your attention. Maybe the traffic is dense, or you keep missing lights. Or people aren’t driving the speed you think they should be. Or you think people are driving too close to the car in front of them or too far. Acknowledge whatever pulls your attention. Recall that getting pulled in this way makes sense and it is human to notice and evaluate.

And then gently notice if there is anything else you can see or notice during your drive. Do you see any colors or patterns you enjoy? Are there birds around? What do you notice on the street or up above? Are there human beings existing in their lives nearby who you can imagine having experiences similar to your experiences? Is there a way you want to drive that’s consistent with how you want to be in the world (e.g., letting people switch lanes in front of you, smiling when you catch someone’s eye, waving thank you when you turn in front of someone)? Are there any ways you can use your attention right now to grow something you’d like to grow?

If you don’t drive, you can of course also use these practices while walking, riding the bus, or taking the subway (Jonathan Kaplan provides some additional suggestions for subway meditation here). You can even practice on the “commute” from your bedroom to your home office if you work from home, or the “commute” to the kitchen during a break.

I practiced like this yesterday. As I waited somewhat impatiently to merge onto the highway, I noticed a pigeon was picking up sticks and bringing them underneath the highway overpass to build a nest. This helped me experience the waiting differently, with wonder and even a bit of joy—and I was almost disappointed when I had to drive out of sight of the pigeon building a new home. When I arrived on campus, I continued to broaden my attention so that I was taking in my experience more fully, rather than focusing narrowly on things that were frustrating or difficult. Doing this also helped me to respond with more balance and perspective when difficult moments arose, because I hadn't spend the last hour cultivating agitation.

Of course, simply shifting or broadening our attention doesn’t address all the challenges of our lives, or the chronic injustice and pain we may be experiencing—and yet it can help to replenish our resources so that we are more able to effectively work with those challenges and more able to appreciate and even enjoy routine elements of our lives.


brown, adrienne maree. (2017), Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico, California: AK Press.

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