Developing attentional flexibility: the 12 states of attention

I just took four more days of training in biodynamic craniosacral therapy, and what I learned about practicing it has made me want to revisit the 12 states of attention.

Attentional flexibility is a skill that has many uses. Here’s an example: Someone has a chronic pain in their left leg, sciatica. Let’s say the person is seeking professional help in the field of alternative medicine and doesn’t want to take painkillers or see surgery as a solution, but meanwhile, there’s the pain, which can be wearisome, frustrating, and debilitating.

What if the person could transform the pain felt specifically in the left leg by diffusing it all over their body, so there was less pain spread more widely?

What if the person could then move the pain out to the skin, and then outside of their body?

What if the person could find a place on their body that was not feeling any pain and focus their attention fully on that place? What would happen to the pain?

What if the pain had a color or sound, and it changed to a healing color or sound?

These are examples of attentional flexibility, which can be a useful skill not only in managing pain, but also for dealing with any kind of state that we’d rather not be experiencing – depressive thoughts, negative self-talk, any kind of “stuckness”.

Attentional flexibility may not be a “permanent” solution to some problems, but it can create a sense of spaciousness around problems, provide options, and allow one to have a broader experience of life.

In biodynamic craniosacral therapy, a practitioner can use attentional flexibility to bring attention to his/her own body and specific sensations of biological and energetic processes, to his/her connection with the client, to the client’s processes, to the unit of client/practitioner, to the space inside the room, out to the horizon and beyond, to intuitive thoughts that arise, and more.

Attentional flexibility can be learned by practicing the 12 states of attention. What follows is a reiteration of a blog post I originally published in October 2010:

The three main senses we use are seeing, hearing, and feeling, or visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. (Not to minimize tasting and smelling, but they tend to be used in more specific contexts, often connected with food.)

Each of these three senses can be experienced externally and internally. For example, I can see the computer in front of me, and I can close my eyes and remember the image. I can also imagine the computer morphing into a piano. That’s Visual External and Visual Internal (remembered and imagined), VE and VI for short.

You can further expand your sensory acuity by practicing using each sense as broadly and as narrowly as possible. For example, look at a pixel on your screen, then attend to everything in your range of vision flooding into your eyes. Those states are Visual External Narrow (VEN) and Visual External Broad (VEB).

Yes, of course there is a middle, but for learning attentional flexibility, it can help to experience the extremes, which is often where our “growing edge” resides.

You can do this with hearing as well. You can focus on one sound in your environment (or in your memory or imagination), and you can focus on all the sounds. Is your environment noisier than you thought?

A man who has been a teacher for me came up with the 12 states of attention. His name is Nelson Zink, and he’s got a pretty amazing website, Navaching. Click here to read about the 12 states of attention. He’s got a lot to say and he says it well. (And check out his other pages. It’s pretty fascinating, containing a lot of shamanic skills. And read his book, The Structure of Delight.)

The point is that through our conditioning, most of us come to favor some states and neglect others.

If you enjoy having more resources, you can practice these states and gain awareness skills. You never have to be bored again, and you will reach more of your potential!

So when I meditate and do a body scan, I may bring to awareness the sensations of my scalp, then my forehead, ears, eyes, cheeks, nose, mouth, chin, neck, and so on down my body, bringing each area into awareness one at a time (Kinesthetic External Narrow).

Or I may attend to sensations inside my head, chest, and belly (Kinesthetic Internal Somewhere-Between-Narrow-and-Broad).

When I practice whole body awareness, I am using the Kinesthetic Internal/External Broad state of attention.

The kinesthetic sense is actually a lot of senses, including balance, proprioception (knowing where my foot is in space), temperature, tactile, muscular tension, and so on. Emotions are usually classified as kinesthetic as well, since we feel them in the body.

Check out Nelson Zink’s website and practice the exercises given, if you like. It will bring you gifts of knowing yourself better, experiencing more of your full potential, and resources to alleviate suffering.

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