What You Attend To Is What You Get

“For the moment, what we attend to is reality.”
William James

In a lecture recently, Alan Wallace, American scholar and Tibetan monk proposed that,  “If you were to write an essay on the nature of the world, it would be full of what you are attending to.” Our minds are full of what we pay attention to. What we do not attend to still exists, but for us it may as well not.

The baseball World Series demonstrates this. For some fans, the World Series is the important event in the fall. It fills their minds and determines their emotions. They watch the games, read about them, talk to their friends about them and relive key moments in memory. Other people have absolutely no interest in baseball, and if you mention the World Series they are likely to respond, “Oh, is that happening again?” The competition exists, but for them it might as well not. It plays no significant part in the world they construct in consciousness.

What we give our attention to becomes our reality. If we focus on the unfairness of the world, it’s dangerousness, and the evil in it, that becomes what we know. If we add to that a belief in our own powerlessness, we have a recipe for depression. We get the emotions that go with the objects of our attention.

A popular way to connect with others is to play “Ain’t it awful?” We share our views of the bad weather, the bad politics, the latest disaster in the news, the bad boss, the bad people who aren’t like us so we have something to talk about. We may be miserable, but at least we have a connection with the other players in the conversation. The trouble is, we have all that bad stuff crowding our minds and our view of our world torments us.

If we focus our attention on all the evil-doers, we may miss the good-doers. We can begin to think that it really is a dog eat dog world, that nobody cares, and what’s the point of going on anyway? If we spend our time watching TV news, crime dramas and “reality” shows, we may begin to experience the world as dominated by evil and stupid people. The wise and kind are a no show in our reality.

We have the ability to shift attention consciously. We can focus on the bleak or we can choose to focus on the uplifting. We need not passively accept all the input that comes to us. We can change the channel, hit the delete key, or introduce a new topic of discussion. We can also be conscious of our own thoughts and pick and choose to which of them we give energy.


Take time to think about what habitually holds your attention. Is your attention dominated by thoughts of sports, entertainment, the news, politics, your kids, your job, food, your health, your appearance, money, possessions, sex, your feelings, or some other collection of mental images?

Contemplate how the focus of your attention affects both your perception of the world, and how you feel.

Be mindful of your focus and change it when it is directed at something that is likely to diminish your well-being.

Sitting quietly. Think of all the people doing good in the world. Bring to mind the helpers, the teachers, the healers, the relief workers--the people who enact their compassion. Remember all those who relieve suffering.

Make it a habit to return your thoughts to the compassionate wish that all beings be free from suffering.

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© 2003 Tom Barrett