Attention isn’t achieved by stopping everything to focus on one task whenever you want. Nothing of value comes that easily.
You have to train your mind to be attentive and reap the rewards of sustained focus.
As with any workout protocol, attention is a muscle you must regularly flex for it to function optimally. And if you want to get into Flow States, attention is the key that starts your cognitive engine.
Contemplation has been at the root of human practices for millennia. As the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal famously stated, “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”
When you finally sit, you begin to contemplate.
In this regard, the content of your thoughts is not as important as your ability to keep your mind trained on that thought for an extended period of time.
Contemplation science is an essential component of meditation research. Brain scanning technology lets researchers target the posterior cingulate cortex—the brain region that gets activated when we think about ourselves—in real-time.
As with Flow States, this region gets deactivated during meditation.
Scientists used to be hampered by slow technology. Thanks to advancements in scanning machinery, they can now record neural activity in one-minute segments, which they believe will help novice meditators. People love quantifying their experience in a world dominated by analytics.
Seasoned meditators control this same region at will when focusing on the subject of their meditation—by contemplating one thing at a time. Their ability to shut off the valve of distractions is unmatched, but the knowledge is hard-won and well-fought.
In a world dominated by distractions, the art of contemplation is a valuable ally in your cognitive toolkit.
Buddhist monks alter the structure and function of their brains through tens of thousands of hours of meditation.
Meditation reduces neural noise while enhancing signal-to-noise ratios in certain types of tasks. Through regular practice, they’re able to focus on the object of their attention.
Don’t worry, you don’t need to be a meditation champion for it to begin to work on you. Research shows even a few minutes makes a big difference. Regularity is more important than session length.
One requirement of getting into Flow is the quieting the part of your brain associated with identity, the “me” center—the medial prefrontal cortex. This region causes you to take things personally, working in conjunction with the insula (where ‘gut’ feelings happen) and the amygdala (the fear center).
The more time you spend worrying about you, the less you’re able to Flow.
In The Emotional Life of the Brain, Richard J Davidson describes the practice of mindfulness meditation (which is in many ways similar to contemplation) as “a technique in which you observe our own thoughts and feelings moment to moment and without judgment, from the perspective of a third party.”
A Buddhist way of saying it: observing the observer.
The Buddhist monk Nyanaponika Thera describes this process as attending “just to the bare facts of a perception as presented either through the five physical senses or through the mind … without reacting to them by deed, speech or by mental comment.”
Mindfulness is the entryway to contemplation.
First, you observe. From there, you can turn thoughts over in your mind. Focus leads to Flow.
Contemplation is learning how to separate your habitually responding self to the normal process of your thoughts in order to first observe and then, if necessary, change your patterns of thinking. Through years of research, Davidson has found that contemplation meditation can rewire your neural responses.
In other words, you learn how to change yourself.
In the process, you may just Flow more often.
The origin of the word ‘contemplation’ is rooted in the Latin contemplāre: to look at fixedly, observe, notice, ponder. Contemplation also includes the word ‘temple’ (from Latin templum), representing a sacred place where we sit and reflect. It represents a state of mind in which we focus our attention on deeper awareness and insight.
Contemplation is a defining feature of what we term ‘mind.’
As the saying goes, the mind is what the brain does.
Researchers have long had difficulty defining ‘mind.’ One of the best comes from UCLA neuropsychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel, who writes,
Mind is a regulatory process that can be monitored, measured, observed and modified. The mind is an embodied and relational process that regulates energy and information flow.
Amazing how top neuroscience researchers use flow to describe the mind. Flow is a natural human condition, one that has become harder to achieve due to the influx of distraction technologies stealing our attention.
Fortunately, just as your mind can become victim to fluctuations of distraction, it’s also the way out of this bind.
Training your brain with contemplation exercises is a pro tip for getting into Flow States. Your brain needs to be unleashed on a regular basis so that it can think about thinking.
This refreshing activity helps you focus better when you sit down to work.
The distractions aren’t able to distract.
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