In our fast-paced world there are many claims on our attention. This can lead us to prize parallel processing – giving intelligent attention to multiple things at the same time – as a virtue. As my title implies, I take issue with this, but without dismissing the practical value of parallel processing. In fact, it’s greatest virtue may lie in its use for managing our attentional focus.
Parallel and Dedicated Process
The potential variety and complexity of what occurs in our experiential field, our field of consciousness, becomes actual for us only if we see it, attend to it, and recognize its distinctive presence and claim as something meaningfully separate for our attention. That kind of openness to experience would not be possible without some capacity for attentional breadth and parallel processing – it’s a virtue.
The same qualities of attentional focus that create this abundance, however, can interfere with our capacity for excellence and virtue in some single area of activity that requires our best efforts. And it’s our capacity to notice this requirement and to respond by stopping something that can be most critical to our effectiveness in that area of activity.
A simple idea. But if we indulge heroic claims to personal capacities for parallel processing, we may unwittingly limit our freedom to let go and to stop something so that we can effectively start something else. It’s with this caution that I reframe the practical, time-limited buffering role of parallel processing as a strength and means of achieving excellence.
The Power of Stopping
Exercising this kind of freedom in the use of our mind and its powers of attentional focus is greatly affected by our capacities for emotion regulation. Of course, emotion regulation, as the term regulation implies, occurs from a state of conscious awareness of one’s emotion and one’s freedom to moderate and calm one’s emotions. And the most direct path to that is a cultivated practice of breathing.
Yes, a practice of breathing! Breath is so simple, and thankfully so automatic, that we don’t need to pay attention to it to sustain vital processes. However, when this vital process itself becomes the object of our attention, then the added layers of attentional activity, and the overabundance of parallel processes (thoughts, feelings, worries) that swarm conscious life become available for regulation.
In fact, in simply noticing these layers of experience they lose their automatic powers to compel our attention. And it’s in that moment that we can freely choose to disinvest attention in one thing (issue, thought, feeling, worry), and focus more attentive energy on observing another thing. Moreover, when this attention is accompanied by an attitude of curiosity, our freedom grows.
This has been a microanalysis of one way to achieve emotional freedom. There are many approaches to such mindfulness practices – what I sometimes prefer to describe as “freedom practices.” If you don’t have such a practice, you may wish to explore and experiment with some to find one that is most fitting for your lifestyle, personality, and temperament. Freedom and happiness seem to travel together!