Attention to Attention
Sustaining your effort requires open awareness, which means awareness of time, your environment, and your state of attention. If not for awareness of your attention status, how would you know when it is off the tracks? A brain that’s locked up in a deeply focused state is like a head in the sand. You see only sand, nothing else.
There’s a method to practicing pausing and stepping back. It’s never enough just to learn about attention training. It’s like learning about physical conditioning, if you never exercise, you will never experience the conditioning effect. The same is true for exercising your brain and developing new habits. Focusing on ridding yourself of bad habits is seldom productive and less depressing than cultivating new habits through practice.
My optometrist tells me we see with our brains and that our eyes are only part of a larger picture. I’ve learned that lesson firsthand in eye therapy. My complex vision problems are mild, but for optimal vision, I need more than eyeglasses.
I Practice exercises that I’ve taped to doors in my house. I have others in a folder. I’ve strengthened my ability to shift my visual attention. My speed at shifting from close-up to distance and distance to close-up, from focus on one object to another and back, tracking moving objects, touching an object using location memory, have all improved with exercise.
Mental exercise is like visual training and physical training. There’s no gain without effort. But what does the effort in mental exercise look like? I will be addressing this topic in a July workshop on mindfulness practice for adults with ADHD and/or anxiety. Revisit my website for details coming soon (and read my September, 2022 blog). This is an in-person workshop.
Exercising attention and mental flexibility is good for your physical and mental health and good for your relationships.
Finding Your Place Anywhere
When I approach people who seem withdrawn, they almost always express gratitude for my interest and respect. I suspect their presumptions are as distorted as mine. In truth, all presumptions are distortions. We just don’t know until we know…we’re all naive until we’re not.
I often find the most solitary people at social events to be the most interesting. Like poets and other artists, they quietly observe. Why wouldn’t they appreciate a curious observer of them?
The next time you feel uncomfortable or separate from others in a social situation, try connecting with someone who seems equally uncomfortable or distant. You might create a mutually rewarding experience, or even discover a likeminded friend.
I remember a wedding reception in Indianapolis where the majority packed the dance floor, moving their bodies without inhibition. I felt a little envy. They were rocking and I wasn’t. I was afraid to risk looking awkward in front of others, especially those who sat and watched from their tables, just observing like me. Then it occurred to me that they might be remaining seated for the same reasons.
I decided to experiment, to carry my self-conscious (self-absorbed) mind to the dance floor and try my best to imitate other dancers. The worst thing that could happen is I would look like a nerd and open a path for others to join me. Lonely onlookers might get up and dance and prove that nerds can rock like no one else!
If all avoiders were judging the majority—envying or berating them—and believing we didn’t belong, then we were all having the same experience. We were one with our tribe…so why not dance? Who’s looking at whom, and how much does it matter? I had a blast that night and met many people not too different from me!
I welcome your comments.
Did ADHD Kill J.R.?
We seldom used our full names in recent years. I was TM and he was JR. We first met when we were eleven. He died suddenly a year ago at 72.
JR needed heart valve surgery. He’d get around to scheduling it when it was time. Scheduling and planning were not his strengths. He also planned to lose weight, start exercising, be more active. Doctors said he died from a heart attack. But there’s a bigger picture, an undiagnosed attention disorder.
He never planned to be evaluated for ADHD, though we knew. He planned to read about it and intended to buy a book. I gave him a book that he intended to read, one he’d been asking about. He had good intentions.
Long-term studies have shown that individuals with ADHD are far more likely to die prematurely than those who don’t have the disorder. Accidental injuries and unhealthy lifestyles contribute to a shortened expectancy. Untreated ADHD is a serious health risk.
JR seldom ate at home. There was too much clutter there, and he didn’t cook. He preferred meeting friends at Brown’s Diner or Chile Burrito and taking home undated leftovers. He liked cheeseburgers, fries, tacos, nachos, and shakes. He didn’t think of himself as obese until he nearly drowned in 2021 when his house flooded. He had become sedentary. He could sit for hours watching televised baseball games.
He seemed amused by the notion of having ADHD. Sometimes I chuckled politely, as if equally amused. Sometimes I confronted some of his self-defeating habits. Perhaps not enough. He was okay with the notion of having ADHD, but friends were affected. He had no pause button, no comma or period when he spoke. It’s hard to exit unpunctuated speech. Consequently, calls to friends sometimes went unanswered. He experienced waves of loneliness and mild depression.
Although he could be a difficult friend at times, JR was a lovable mess. He was playful, witty, friendly, and spirited.
If you have ADHD, learn all you can about it. Knowledge can be liberating; denying it can be lethal. Be mindful of your body, the vehicle that carries you through life. Don’t think of your health as something separate from you. There are no independent parts; they are all interdependent.
We are all interdependent. We need each other. You can find others like you in support groups in every region of the country. There’s nothing quite like having support from people who understand and accept you. All you have to do is show up for meetings and experience acceptance and mutual support. ADDNashville meetings are online and available to any adult with an ADHD diagnosis.
I understood my old friend, and I regret not insisting on an ADHD evaluation. I regret not dragging him to a support group meeting where he would have been warmly welcomed and encouraged, perhaps even directed–with compassionate assertiveness–to schedule his surgery.
I welcome your comments.
October is ADHD Awareness Month
October is ADHD Awareness Month. Good thing it’s an entire month; a day would just slip right by us. One of the best things you can do about your ADHD is wake up each morning and say, “Today I have ADHD.” I’m serious. We all tend to deny having what we’d rather not have. But denying having ADHD symptoms is a prescription for wasting time and creating unnecessary relationship problems.
I’ll bet your spouse or partner is aware of your ADHD. That could be a good thing if you share observations of its effects on both of you. Shared awareness is a useful antidote for criticism and defensiveness.
My wife accompanied me to the first ADDA conference in the mid-nineties. Afterward, she let go of her involuntary burden of assuming too much responsibility. She was less critical and more helpful immediately after that weekend. She was more aware of reactions that were unhelpful to either of us. Her increased awareness facilitated my own, as there was less reason for me to be defensive. She quit saying things like, if you cared, you would have remembered, try not to forget next time, where did you last see your reading glasses?
More mindful suggestions saved her from taking responsibility for me and saved me from feeling judged. Here are two examples: What to you think you need to do right now to be sure you’ll arrive on time at the accountant’s office today? (She didn’t tell me what to do), and how long have you been looking for your glasses? (the answer was usually less than five minutes). She once suggested: Look five more minutes and then let me know if you still haven’t found them. Then I’d look as if I expected to find my glasses rather than resign prematurely like a twelve-year-old…a good prescription for being treated like a twelve-year-old.
ADHD Awareness seems like an oxymoron, but being mindful of mindlessness is possible. It requires practicing pausing. Pausing helps us momentarily inhibit selective attention, being brain-locked, often in some activity that is not a priority. If you don’t pause, you will remain unaware that you’ve lost open awareness. You don’t know what time it is, you’ve forgotten your priorities, and you are temporarily unaware of others, most importantly your partner.
If you lose awareness of a partner, it is not fair to criticize that person for being unhelpful. Partners of adults with ADHD often say their biggest complaint is the loss of their mate’s attention. It not only hurts them, it hurts you and your partnership.
Happy ADHD Awareness Month! Awareness is a path to happiness. As always, I encourage your comments and thoughts from your own experiences.
Embrace Your Weaknesses and Failures
I believe in the value of emphasizing strengths over deficits. I’m pleased that ADHD professionals and researchers are talking more about this. At the same time, being strong also means being willing to accept failures and weaknesses as normal. Denying having weaknesses, and being defeated by failure, are not qualities of successful people. Affirmative thinking calls for accepting your strengths and weaknesses alike, and learning from failed efforts. There’s no day without night. Everyone experiences both. And failed effort is effort, which is the opposite of giving up.
Attaching negative meaning to failures and weaknesses is the bigger problem. You are not the failure. You are not weak. Instead of judging your self, only judge your performance. Then you will find creative ways to work around failures and challenges. Many highly successful people have said they learned more from their failures than their successes.
Let me illustrate. My memory is a weakness, just like my right eye. I rely on reading glasses for close-up vision. If I denied the unreliability of my working memory, I would handicap myself. Relying on my unreliable memory would be disabling. Relying on strategies and tools instead would be wise. If I thought of my self as a procrastinator, I would not find creative ways to activate. If I thought of my self as lazy, I would not sustain my effort. If I thought of my self as incapable, I would give up. Competence can be acquired. Any time I said to my mother that I couldn’t do something, she would say, “Can’t never did nothin.”
Is it possible to focus too much on strengths? I think so. After receiving early rejections of my book proposal, I didn’t lose confidence in the manuscript. I was certain those publishers and agents were all wrong, and I was going to show them. But my drive to prove my worth backfired. I was one chapter short of completing my book when I got derailed by writer’s block for a couple of weeks. I had nothing to say because my values had shifted. I had become attached to the idea of becoming a published author instead of staying with my original value of helping people through writing. Thanks to my meditation practice, and reading Phil Moffitt’s Emotional Chaos to Clarity, I saw the disabling effects of abandoning my values. When I returned to my original purpose, writing that next chapter was easy.
We are neither blessed with strengths to the exclusion of weaknesses, nor cursed with weaknesses, absent any strengths. Normal people aim high and sometimes fail. They also aim high and sometimes succeed. Success does not require being exceptional; it only requires exceptional effort. Normal life experiences, by definition, are not special. If you want to succeed, consider releasing any preconceived outcome so you can start and sustain your effort. Getting to the finish line follows many moments of effort. In fact, it comes out of effort. That’s why we call it outcome.
Attention and Intention
Dr. Jamie Ho is a low vision and neuro-rehabilitation optometrist in the Nashville area and one of the brightest people I know. She once instructed me to take breaks from writing, to step back from close-up work at the computer and relax my visual attention by gazing at objects far away. That wise prescription came at a time when my eyes had been blurring from many hours of daily writing. Looking at a screen inches away required more effort and coordination than gazing at a distance. Dr. Ho understands ADHD and has helped children with attention disorders through visual training. What she knows about visual attention applies to attention in general. We can practice directing our attention with intention.
Here’s one example. Getting started on dreaded tasks can seem difficult, and we avoid them. We would rather be in a focused state with stimulating activity than in an open state with a less preferred task. To start and sustain effort on dreaded tasks is easier than you think. Dreading may be the only problem.
Most dreaded tasks require little selective attention, meaning we can relax when we do them. Think of them as a break, allowing you to disengage from the close-up picture and relax into a bigger and softer picture. With softer attention, you will be more aware of other priorities, time, people, your pets, and your physical space. As a bonus, you will appear less selfish to your partner. You can engage in dreaded tasks with ease, listening to your favorite music or remaining silent to be aware of your negative thoughts. When you color your tasks black, they will be dark. They will be lighter when you lighten up.
What comprises a dreaded task anyway? Is it one that takes you away from a preferred activity? Don’t you just love to be intensely focused on your favorite things? Me too! I can deny, as easily as any adult with ADHD, that I need breaks from intense focus (In fact, I need one now, and I’m going to walk my dog in fifteen minutes).
Dreaded tasks may actually require less effort than stimulating tasks, but we continue believing they’re harder and take more time than they do. When we learn to see such notions as the mindless thoughts they are, it’s easier to redirect our attention. Then we can seamlessly tackle them and get them done more quickly. Dreading wastes time and consumes energy.
One way to break through your illusions is by training your brain through meditation. When you’re too close to your habitual thoughts (they’re right there in your brain), you don’t see them. Your head is under water where you see nothing but what’s near your face. When habitual thoughts take the lead, you mindlessly follow them. I’ve done that more often than I wish to admit. On the other hand, when you relax and step back from your thoughts, you can let them be. No effort is required in letting them be. Relaxing is easier than trying. You don’t have to try not to have…or try not to believe…your thoughts. Seeing them and lightening up is enough. As always, I welcome your comments.
In my August 20 meditation workshop for adults with ADHD and anxiety, we will discuss and practice alternatives to your habitual thinking that limits your potential to live with wise effort and mindful intention.
Think You Can’t Meditate with ADHD? Don’t Think About It!
Don’t even try…just do it. The only hard part is starting. Sustaining a routine is hard only if you continue believing your thought that it’s hard. It’s like physical exercise. You’re less motivated to exercise when you’re out of shape, but once you’re in shape, exercise is easy. Put meditation on your schedule and work other obligations around it.
You already know how to focus. You’re a hawk when engaged in stimulating or urgent activity, but where does the time go when you do that? Time doesn’t travel; it’s your open awareness that goes away. You’re probably focused too much of the time…and too often on activity that is not a priority. Your difficulty noticing your brain-lock, and then expanding your awareness, may be a bigger challenge than you realized.
Here’s another point about mindfulness. You may believe you can’t possibly sit and do nothing but breathe. Does the idea of it seem too boring to imagine? What if boredom is nothing more than intolerance of restless feelings? If you continued sitting with restless feelings, you would be tolerating them, right? The thought that you can’t tolerate sitting quietly is only a thought. It’s as empty of substance as the empty cup that held your coffee this morning.
To meditate, you have to be willing to protect time for practice and get close to your experience (feelings, thoughts, life situations), regardless of discomfort. Uncomfortable feelings and situations are often the most useful ones in a meditation practice. They help us realize that discomfort doesn’t harm us. If you’re a little anxious before speaking in front of an audience, welcome to reality. Most of us carry some anxiety into public speaking. It’s not abnormal. You don’t have to rid yourself of discomfort to speak. But when you worry about uncomfortable feelings, you create more of them. The most debilitating part of anxiety is anticipating it. Put simply, being anxious about becoming anxious does not reduce anxiety.
Mindfulness is not about stopping thoughts or changing feelings, but observing them without judgment. It’s not about focusing your attention, but re-directing it. You can learn to reset your attention and change how you relate to uncomfortable feelings through practice, just like you can strengthen your muscles by working out routinely.
I will be leading an in-person workshop for adults with ADHD and/or anxiety Saturday, August 20, 2022 at Nashville Friends House. For details, return to the home page of my website to view the flyer.
Don’t Think Long and Hard
I was uncertain in my young adult years about what career path to take after college. My dad suggested I think long and hard about what I wanted to do. Be your own boss, he said; don’t work for anyone else. He would not have been successful as a career counselor, but he was a successful owner of a family business.
Young adults with ADHD believe they ought to know what to do to earn a living once they have completed their academic work. Those who do are fortunate, but I doubt they are in the majority.
If you are not figuring it out, you may think there is something wrong. You may feel overwhelmed, and you may be getting anxious and depressed, as your less ambivalent peers are moving seamlessly into their careers. I changed career paths so often in the early years that my resume signaled to employers, “Don’t hire me…I’ll be gone in a year.” You can avoid the problems I created. Here’s my suggestion.
Get out of your head rather than further into it. Don’t think long and hard. There are career aptitude programs, like The Highlands Ability Battery, “a journey of self-discovery” ( http://highlandsco.com). There are other assessment tools, career counselors, life coaches, and ADHD coaches. Spinning inside your head is less useful than getting out of your head. Invite other heads to join yours in support of your efforts. Getting professional help is easier and more effective than overwhelming yourself with such a big and important mission. Don’t hurt yourself. Help yourself to available support so you can live well with your ADHD
Artists are often told by well-meaning parents to have a back-up plan. Maybe that’s good advice. Ellis Marsallis is said to have told his three sons, all successful jazz musicians, NOT to have a back-up plan. He thought it would inhibit their efforts to succeed as artists. And Mr. Marsallis modeled for them what wise effort looks like.
It can be a good idea to follow your passion. If you are stimulated by the activity of your work, that stimulation may be as useful as stimulant medication. Perhaps more useful. I welcome your comments and suggestions for your ADHD peers.
Who Do You Think You Are?
Some folks with ADHD think they’re not smart, not creative, not productive, not motivated…not, not, not…fill in the blank. If this is how you think, maybe you should stop thinking about yourself so much and end your relationship with this incompetent slug. You probably don’t label others as harshly as you label yourself. Judging the self obstructs us from proceeding into action. It’s a building block for constructing a negative reality.
Some folks with ADHD think they’re smarter, more creative, and more productive than they are, and they want others to acknowledge their gifts. They feel entitled to rewards despite insufficient effort. If this is how you think, maybe you should stop thinking about yourself so much. You can detach from delusions of brilliance and stop blaming the dimwits who don’t recognize your talent. You probably wouldn’t grant unearned recognition to others. If you can forget the self, you can find a way to sustain effort and accomplish something worthwhile.
Both of these descriptions are consistent with my early adult life experiences. I was a brilliant failure, unappreciated by magazine editors and music publishers who only published junk. I was failing to learn from failure, and I was failing to appreciate that incremental successes are building blocks for constructing a positive reality. Even later in life, I was both an accomplished writer who published a book and a fraud who wrote only one book.
Here’s a two-part solution to these obstructive habits:
- Forget the self who is doing, or not doing, and just do. Evaluating the self is less important than evaluating performance. Forgetting your horrible or brilliant self allows room for failing and learning from it. You’re not who you think you are anyway.
- Know when to pause doing, and embrace being. You don’t have to think of who you are in order to be who you are.
In the 1960’s, Beverly Bruan (1930-2010) hosted a children’s TV program called “Romper Room.” Dressed like a bee and holding up the frame of a mirror, she taught kids to be a “Do Bee” and not a “Don’t Bee.”
I invite your comments. How have you been limited by notions of self? How have you learned to live well with your ADHD or other neurological difference?
Where Did the Time Go?
How often have you asked, “Where did the time go?” Let me illustrate the opposite of inattention, the problem of too much selective attention.
Time doesn’t go anywhere, but our attention goes somewhere. Where does yours go when you lose track of time? My bet is that it goes too deeply into what is in front of you in the moment. Too much selective attention is often misperceived as inattention. A better way to frame this common problem for individuals with ADHD is loss of open awareness. When your attention is so locked up on one thing, you loose awareness of other things, like time, other priorities, and other people. Nothing exists in the present moment except what is right in front of you. A Zen-like state sounds attractive, but there’s a down-side. A broader awareness is no less important. You may need to practice stepping back from the task at hand and not just to zoom in, but also zoom out.
Mindfulness practices can increase your awareness of where you are directing your attention. In an open state of awareness, you are intentionally choosing not to zoom in on any one thing, but remaining open, flexible, and in a relaxed state of awareness. A good analogy is when you stop reading and focus your visual attention on the room you’re in, or if you’re outside, observing objects at a distance, like the tops of trees or the sky beyond them.
When you meditate with open awareness, rather than focusing your attention exclusively on your breath, you’re allowing input from sounds, sites, and sensations of all kinds in the moment…even thoughts. You are allowing your mind to take in more, but without a running narrative about what you’re noticing. You’re simply noticing from one moment to the next what is entering and leaving your awareness.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting there is less value in learning to zoom in on the task at hand with your undivided attention. To activate selective attention is to begin and sustain your focus and effort. It’s just that your attention can get too locked up.
If you are at risk of losing awareness of time, priorities, and other people in your life, you may need more than a strategy. You are likely to forget strategies when you’re in a state of selective attention. Don’t forget your forgetfulness! You may need to use a tool, like an alarm that you can set to go off incrementally while focusing exclusively on one task. The alarm can remind you to step back for a moment, look at the clock, and then proceed, pause, or revisit your list of priorities.
When writing my book, I stared at a small laptop screen for hours at a time. It was blurring my vision. My optometrist told me to take frequent breaks and go outside to relax my vision by looking at distant objects. Looking at something up close for too long requires binocular effort, using both eyes together. It strained the muscles that helped me focus up close. It’s not good to focus up close for too long. Thanks to Dr. Jamie Ho, I began learning ways to open up my visual attention, and then apply the same advice to general attention.