What does it mean when we say that?
What does it mean to pay attention?
Usually, when we think about “attention,” we’re focusing outward—as in, paying attention to something or someone outside of ourself. Or even paying attention to ourself—but in an outward-oriented way.
We “pay attention” to a person we’re talking with, to Facebook or Instagram or Twitter. To the latest Lady Gaga song, to the latest episode of “Game of Thrones,” to the Porsche you just passed on the 95, to the hottie in the checkout line. To our stories. To what we need to do, to work on, to fix. All those things outside of ourself.
This type of “paying attention” is externally focused. It’s a particular type of paying attention called exteroceptive attention. “Extero” as in “on the outside,” “external.”
But there’s another type of “paying attention.” One that focuses inward rather than outward. That type is called interoceptive attention. “Intero” as in “on the inside,” “internal.”
This second, inward type of attention often goes unnoticed but is far, far more powerful. It has a far greater impact on how we feel, for instance. On whether we are happy or sad or angry or bored. It has a far greater impact on how we experience ourselves, others, our lives, our world.
So what does it look like—this internal, rather than external, type of paying attention? Basically, it involves bringing attention to your internal landscape. All that stuff happening inside your body-mind.
I’m talking about feelings and emotions and physical sensations. Not the “stories” we tell ourselves about those feelings, emotions and sensations, mind you—and this is an important point.
I’m not talking about the stories and conceptualizing and “thinking part” of feelings, emotions, sensations. We’re already (too) good at focusing on that part.
Here, we’re bringing attention to the immediate, raw experience—in this moment—of feelings, emotions and sensations. Their landscape and texture and patterns and fluctuations as they are right now, without overlaying anything extra.
So why bother? Why bother looking inward and attending to these moment-by-moment feelings, sensations, emotions…watching—witnessing—their rise and fall, their ebb and flow?
Well, for one thing, this internal environment—rather than anything happening on the outside—is what ultimately determines our experience. It is what ultimately determines our experience of and relationship to whatever else is happening in our world.
That’s why it’s possible to feel shitty even when you have the perfect partner or house or are surrounded by beautiful scenery. And why it’s possible (believe it or not) to feel happy even when you’re caught in traffic or stuck dead-last in a slow-moving coffee line.
Now, really smart science-y people have spent a lot of time studying these two types of attention and how they work. And what they’ve found is that inward-focused attention—interoception—uses very, very old parts of the brain. By “old,” I mean in an evolutionary sense. In other words, these parts of the brain existed in early humans long, long ago—long before newer parts of the brain came into being.
These older parts of the brain are less involved in the “thinking muscle” and very involved in our deepest instincts, preferences and needs.
They lie close to the core of our physical sensations, our emotions, our fears, our attractions, our aversions, our cravings and our addictions.
They are what gets triggered. They are what makes us fall in love.
They are what lights up and starts firing and begins attaching to and consolidating deep, core beliefs. (And when such beliefs form in response to trauma, abuse, heartbreak or loss, they are often limiting core beliefs, in that they limit and how we see and express ourselves in not-so-helpful ways.)
Outward-focused exteroception, by contrast, is all about the newer, thinking brain. The parts of the brain that conceptualize experience and tell stories about self, others, sensations and experience. We frequently think of these newer parts—like outward-focused attention—as being more important. They are, after all, at the forefront of our conscious mind (figuratively and literally—in the prefrontal cortex, for instance).
These newer brain parts are louder, more obvious.
But those older parts of the brain we mentioned—the ones related to inward attention—are the deeply powerful ones. And, more often than not, they’re the ones that determine what direction the newer, louder, more obvious parts of the brain take.
Accessing and leveraging these older, deeply powerful parts (and thereby affecting the “thinking” parts) is totally possible. It just takes practice using that inward-focused attention—practice using interoception.
Interoception lets us bypass all the noise and clamor and distraction of outward-focused attention. Getting around all this, we mainline raw, in-the-moment body-mind awareness. Awareness free of conceptual self-evaluation, judgement and stories.
So, how do we do this? And why?
As for “how”—as in, how do we shift from outward-focused exteroception to inward-focused interoception—bringing attention to all that’s going on inside us, inside our body-mind, without overlaying anything extra, without getting caught up in judgements, stories, distractions, need-to’s…
Well, there are lots of ways. Lots of practices. Meditation, breathing exercises and yoga to name a few. Also tai qi and qi gong.
These practices exercise—and strengthen—our interoceptive muscle. (Meanwhile, they give our “thinking muscle”—the one that gets trapped in conceptualization and judgement and stories—a break, helping us relax that muscle while strengthening the interoceptive one.)
Now, I’ll warn you, doing these practices in a truly mindful, inward-focused way can be uncomfortable.
This is because turning attention inward and looking—really looking—at what is playing out in the body-mind often means turning towards, sitting with and getting curious about feelings and sensations that are uncomfortable. Painful even. Or sad, or scary.
But you know what?
Constantly distracting ourselves with outward-focused attention won’t make the uncomfortable or unwanted internal feelings and sensations disappear anyway. In fact, ignoring the difficult parts tends to make them last longer and grow stronger. They thrive in the dark. They grow more powerful when hidden.
By bringing internal attention—interoception—to the difficult sensations, we can start to change them. We can start to heal them.
And, even better news: You don’t have to be an expert or figure out some complicated process to do this. It happens on its own.
The very act of paying close attention to uncomfortable internal sensations—not the stories surrounding them, but the raw experience—causes them to soften, to lessen, to lose their stickiness and their power.
This usually takes a little while (those sensations didn’t form overnight, after all, and they won’t disappear overnight either). But it’s common to feel at least some relief fairly quickly. And with time, as your interoceptive muscle gets stronger with use and practice, the healing speeds up, gaining momentum.
Yogis and Buddhists and tai qi practitioners have known all this for millennia. And now science-y research people have proven it. Bringing inward-focused attention to uncomfortable sensations and experiences—really getting curious about them and sitting with them, straight-on, without external distractions—causes those uncomfortable or painful sensations and experiences to lessen and heal.
One reason for this is that interoceptive practices (including breathing, meditation, yoga, tai qi and qi gong) circumvent the messages and stories and states of mind that consume our newer “prefrontal cortex.”
This is important because our prefrontal cortex isn’t so good at thinking us out of depression, anxiety, anger, stress or the feeling that we can’t “turn our mind off.” Indeed, trying to resist or think our way out of such states often makes them worse.
So, rather than resist, we can choose to face the difficult parts straight-on. We can choose to bypass the newer, thinking parts of the brain and get closer to the source. We can choose to hold steady and sit in our shit.
This type of “therapy”—using practices that exercise and strengthen interoceptive awareness—is empowering.
It gives you a tool that is totally yours and always accessible. One formed by your mind, your breath and mindful, focused attention.
Using this tool, you get to direct and further your own healing. Your own recovery. Your own transformation.
So where do you go from here?
Well, one place is working with me—and getting support strengthening your interoceptive muscle. This is helpful for changing eating patterns…and manifesting change and healing more generally.
Go here to find out how it works.
For a playful take on paying attention to—and changing—unhelpful patterns, you could also start with my free newsletter.