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Mindful : June 2014
Taking Tension Out of Attention Thanks to computers, smartphones, television, and other technology, our senses are extremely busy. The more our bodies strain to pay attention, the more our minds space-out. Chris McKenna suggests ways to help us go from tense and strained to relaxed and focused. “You need to concentrate harder!” How many times did I hear this phrase—or some variant of it—during school. My second grade teacher delivered it as a hostile ba rk f rom the back of the room during study hour, and I immediately felt it in my gut. It made me feel like my classmates and I were being lined-up against the wall, bolt-upright, in militar y formation. We felt a palpable sense of what I would now call “ner vous system activation”, and it was definitely not conducive to absorbing and retaining information. For many of us the act of paying attention is intert wined with a subtle (or gross) sense of strain, a physiological effort to pull it all together, and—in many cases—a low-g rade fight-or-flight response. We felt threatened. In remembering his own school- ing, Keith Johnstone, one of the masters of modern improvisational theatre, recalled: “If you screw your face up and bite on your pencil to show you were ‘trying,’ the teacher may write out the answer for you. In my school, if you sat rela xed in thought, you were likely to get swiped on the back of the head.” Over my years of teaching meditation in youth mental health, juvenile justice, a nd K-12 education, I see two main modes that people shift between on the attention spectrum, in their effort to be present. The first mode is cha racterized by the coupling of contracted, unskillful effort and focused attention. In this mode, we usually bring much more effort than we need as we attempt to stay connected to a mental or physical task. Signs of this way of acting are fairly easy to observe from the outside: tight and shallow breathing, deep tension in the facial muscles, strain in the eyes, unconscious contraction or gripping in the hands and shoulders, chest, and → Chris McKenna is the Program Director of Mindful Schools and has taught mindfulness practices to diverse youth & adult populations. Illustrations by Nomoco in practice insight June 2014 mindful 71