Sustained attention as the root of both spiritual and educational practice

“While I read the first draft of this post I kept telling myself, ‘I love this’, ‘This is fantastic’, ‘I need to try this’. Dr. Gabriella Buttarazzi does a fantastic job in explaining why sustained attention is key when we teach and learn. And because we need to be spiritually balanced to be able to engage properly in teaching and learning, sustained attention gains an additional layer of relevance for all of us who participate in educational practices. So, dear readers, my advice for you now is: breathe in, breathe out, focus on the reading (emphasis on ‘focus’), enjoy and learn.”

Denise Santos
Photo by Danielle Barnes on Unsplash

The root of all knowledge 

Like many educators in higher education, I come across the term cognition and various cognates consistently when engaging with educational theory. What I find interesting is that cultivating attention in our students is seldom discussed in the literature. For example, synthesising, analysing, evaluating and thinking critically are much valued and practiced, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, but without the most obvious piece of the puzzle being addressed. That is, that without sustained attention none can even begin to flourish. What I find especially fascinating about the relationship between spiritual and educational practices – upon which most of my own educational research is based­­ – is that sustained attention is the root of both.  

In educational practice, sustained attention is a pre-requisite for building further cognitive capacities that are more complex, such as category formation and multiple simultaneous attention. Educational endeavours have largely been concerned with turning our students’ attention outwards, knowledge as out there. More recently, there has been a shift towards turning students’ attention inwards, knowledge as in here. Similarly, in spiritual practice, sustained attention is the basis for then developing the more elevated qualities of mind including heightened self-awareness, awareness of others in relation to us and awareness of the world beyond our immediate needs and spaces. And therein lies insight, hidden in plain sight in the present moment, and only with sustained attention can it begin to be uncovered.  

If we, as educators, take a moment to reflect upon our own experiences and education, we can begin to recognise the situations, states and environments that hinder and optimise our own attention. We can also perhaps recognise shortly thereafter the connection between our capacity for sustaining attention and our performance, productivity, engagement and sense of wellbeing. And this, of course, is precisely the same for our students.

Sustaining attention is presence: the human brain and the Default Mode Network (DMN)

The Default Mode Network (DMN) of the human brain involves past thinking such as rumination, and future thinking such as anticipation. It also involves thinking about others and self-referential thoughts, such as mulling over a past interpersonal conflict as well as general mind wandering. The DMN’s constant fluctuation between past and future thinking carries an evolutionary explanation.

There is a mismatch between the causes of our past and future thinking and our responses to them. This is because we have inherited from our early human ancestors a complex survival mechanism suited to previous life circumstances very different from ours. That mechanism worked well for nonhuman primates and later for human hunter gatherers who were entirely concerned with averting threat and the speed at which reactions had to take place, but it has worked far less well for us as our cultures became as complex as they are today.

Practices that relax the DMN therefore induce attention to the present moment, which in turn can have positive consequences on our capacity to engage with deeper and more complex educational happenings, as well as enhancing our sense of wellbeing by engaging us in life, with others and what we are doing or experiencing more fully (Garrison et al., 2015). There are three practices in particular that relax the DMN which then enable us to be more present and therefore cultivate sustained attention. In order of effectiveness, these are:

  1. Intense physical activity;
  2. Intense intellectual tasks particularly those that are concerned with problem-solving; and
  3. Meditation.                                          

There is an automation in the human brain that is not ‘by default’ in our conscious awareness. Learning to understand the DMN, its automation and how it impacts on our thinking is not for the purpose of erasing past or future thinking altogether since both have their utility: past thinking enables us to recollect positive memories, future thinking enables us to recognise trends and emergent patterns for example. Habitual engagement in any or all of these three practices coupled with intention essentially trains the mind. As such, learning opportunities emerge through enhanced presence-centredness and we can lengthen our capacity for sustaining attention overall through practice.

Engaging in practices that matter for building our capacity for sustained attention

Thanks to contemporary scientific and interdisciplinary research, a number of advancements in academia have been made that now accommodate varied experiential modes of learning and alternative ways of knowing. This means that we as educators are more equipped than ever with a set of practices and techniques from neuroscience, psychology, philosophy and other disciplines. For example, we have all by now either heard of or practiced mindfulness, a secular meditative practice originating from the Theravada Buddhist tradition. It is now standard practice for educational institutions to offer mindfulness sessions and courses in many countries in the world.

A number of varied meditative practices can be drawn upon to cultivate sustained attention in our students and ourselves in educational settings. Many of these practices are culturally responsive and can be adapted and tailored to suit the personal needs or preferences of our students, as well as the specific requirements of the modules and courses in which we teach. I interweave meditative practices throughout all of my university modules and courses explicitly, which means that I make it clear in the module or course description to ensure that students are aware beforehand. Sometimes the relationship between the course content and the meditative practices is intuitive.

To give one example, I have taught my contemplative reading workshop The Heart of the Tao, based on the founding 400BCE Chinese classical text of Taoism to students with an interest in philosophy for many years now. As the text is laconic but at times elusive, meditating at the start of the workshop to still the mind and during the workshop to explore the meaning of the themes, key words, selected lines and verses supports understanding by creating time and space for contemplation and engagement.

Other times, the relationship between the course content and the meditative practices is less intuitive, but there are a number of creative ways to interweave the practices. The following are five types of practice that I recommend exploring and consider interweaving into your own modules and courses. 

Practice 1: The observation of an object of focus without judgement or qualification

This observation is not limited to sight but rather could include any or all of our senses as well. The object of focus could be, but is not limited to:

  • Our own breath;
  • Our own body;  
  • The view from our window;
  • An object right in front of us or close by, on our desks for example;
  • An image of any kind;
  • A word, phrase or piece of text; or
  • Something we see, smell, touch or feel on a walk outdoors.

This is the most basic of practices but highly effective if engaged with regularly. Within the classroom, this could be as simple as taking time to centre ourselves by focusing on the breath for a few minutes, before engaging in the reading of a complex or emotive text (Kaszniak, 2011). This type of observation can also be used in various ways such as to teach descriptive writing or argument formulation free of judgements and biases. There is not one spiritual tradition that does not also uphold its own version of this practice (Goleman & Davidson, 2017). By way of illustration, the classical yogic practice Trāaka, first introduced in 1500CE text Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā involves meditation on a candle flame as the object of focus.

Practice 2: The observation of your own thoughts coming and going in constant flux

The observation of your own thoughts is a practice that is directly linked to heightened self-awareness. It is also a practice that supports sustained attention because thoughts can be fleeting and observing them and ‘capturing’ them with intentionality is exercising the attentional muscle of the brain. Some of my favourite practices include:

  1. A practice called The Morning Pages devised by Cameron in her best-selling 1992 book The Artist’s Way: A spiritual path to higher creativity is a free writing practice for emptying the subconscious mind;
  2. The practice Mindfulness of Writing presented by Ergas in his 2019 article Mindfulness in, as and of education: Three roles of mindfulness in education as an alternative mindfulness practice that involves taking an inventory of the mind wandering that occurs, a novel approach to the practice;    
  3. A practice known as self-inquiry meditation, or Atma-Vichara, is a practice of questioning the truth in one thought at a time, ideally by first writing it down and then observing and scrutinising it from different perspectives;  
  4. A meditation practice that involves noticing our emotive reactions and the consequent feelings they engender as and when they arise in the body, describing the feeling and sensation of the emotion in detail. This is a practice that can also heighten self-regulation and social and emotional intelligence.

All of these take observation to a deeper level when it can become transmuted into various forms of awareness: of the human mind, of the self, of others, of reality and the world around us to name a few. Writing the thoughts down though, however, is a means of getting students firstly, to pin these thoughts down so they work with them with more clarity and secondly, to observe their thoughts more objectively. They may begin to notice repetitive mental chatter that is untruthful and does not support their educational growth, such as thoughts that are attached to feelings of imposter syndrome. As such, this practice is useful for inviting students to engage in a variety of descriptive, creative and reflective writing tasks.

An important note to make with this type of practice for cultivating sustained attention is that it is unsuitable for all students and should be drawn upon with sensibility and caution. The reason for this is simple. If a student is already anxious or has a history of mental ill health focusing intently on their thoughts and the emotions that they generate may cause them more distress. While free writing and other similar writing practices can be both therapeutic and educational, they can also reopen old wounds and so must be engaged with in the classroom judiciously. 

Practice 3: Engaging in practices that induce your Flow state with frequency

Renowned educational psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed the concept of Flow – a meditative state of being fully engrossed or in the zone – first introduced in 1990 in his seminal book Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Six aspects of Flow include:

  1. Intense involvement with and attention to what we are doing;
  2. Pleasure in what we are doing that creates a kind of ecstasy;
  3. Certainty that you know what we need to do;
  4. Feeling competent, and that the task is a challenge but within our abilities;
  5. No sense of time passing;
  6. Finding reward in the process as well as the result. 

Encouraging our students to become acquainted with what induces their Flow state is a healthy first step for any course of study. Flow could be introduced in the very first class of a module or course, as a getting to know each other activity for instance. It could instead be introduced as part of induction week activities whereby students are introduced to the enticing happenings outside of the degree programmes that they may wish to participate in with others students who share their personal interests.

In an educational context, it is helpful for students to become acquainted with practices that induce their Flow for a few other reasons:

  1. If a student realises that creative writing induces their Flowstate, perhaps they would then decide to pursue becoming an author as long-term goal, and thus, then engage in their learning and extra-curricular activities with more clearly demarcated ambitions;
  2. They might decide the exact opposite. As I did in my early university career, I discovered that painting was a practice that induced my Flow state only when I was not confronted with the pressure of working on a professional brief. Upon discovery, simply creating time and space on a regular basis for the practices that induce their Flow state might be what is needed for a student to feel a greater sense of fulfilment.
  3. Practices that induce our Flowstate, different as they are for everyone, offer reprieve from the types of educational activities that a student can find cognitively challenging or less stimulating, despite recognising their importance for educational attainment. As such, Flow practices offer time and space for creative being.   

Overall, while it might not be obvious to educators outside of creative disciplines, psychology and sport to teach students about Flow, at least introducing students to the concept of Flow at some point within a module or course offers them the opportunity for heightening their self-awareness and wellbeing. 

Practice 4: Savouring

In this short video, Professor Lea Waters for The Guardian describes the term and practice of Savouring, a daily practice of attempting to feel fully and extend our positive experiences by focusing on them more intentionally. As a practice, it encourages not only the sustained attention of the moments that bring personal pleasure, but also the acute appreciation of those things, which can generate in us an overall fulfilment throughout the day. When joined up, a series of savoured moments can make the day more pleasant or less arduous. At a time when student wellbeing, and staff wellbeing for that matter, is at the forefront of our institutional priorities, we could all benefit from a little Savouring

Practice 5: Digital Detoxing  

The global pandemic has been a difficult but insightful time for many of us. On the one hand, we have never been more connected. On the other hand, we have never been so heavily dependent on the distant interactions and forms of engagement that are mediated through the screens of our digital devices. Digital wellbeing is a topic that has garnered serious consideration in recent years, with the large-scale BBC research and development studies and others such as psychology studies on conscious technology habits (Davis, 2019) seeking productive ways to mitigate the negative consequences of digital devices and bolster their positive consequences.

Photo by Joshua Reddekopp on Unsplash

One recommendation is engaging in Digital Detoxing, something that is pertinent to overall improved wellbeing and also improved attention. Some ways of engaging in Digital Detoxing include:

  1. Disconnecting from all digital devices at strict points in the day or after a strict point at night. This is fundamental for creating time and space to turn our attention inwards rather than outwards to external stimuli;
  2. Reducing the number of push notifications, non-essential apps and other regular pings that cause habitual disturbance on any given day;
  3. Selecting one day per week when digital devices are not used at all (I like to call this a ‘sacred day’ and usually select a Saturday);
  4. Going completely offline during our scheduled holidays by informing family, friends and the institutions we are affiliated with in advance to expect this periodical hiatus;  

While the digital world is here to stay and we are seemingly moving towards a hybrid model working and studying, we can still minimise some of hindrances to our attentional capacity that can come from a relentless dependence on our smartphones and other devices.

As educators, encouraging our students to turn off their phones or turn them in altogether in our classrooms can also positively impact their capacity to sustain overall attention. I recognise that some educators have different views on how draconian and counter-productive this classroom approach can be, particularly with adult learners and university students. Minimising the use of these devices is not always possible or favourable, but rather something worth considering more strategically and thoughtfully. As an illustration, in Radical presence: Teaching as contemplative practice, O’Reilly (1998) describes a silent writing task in the university classroom as an attempt to create a moment of spaciousness.  She writes of incorporating silent meditative writing practices at the start of the class (to help students find their centre), in the middle (to help students brainstorm) and at the end of the class (to help students reflect on the day’s discussion and come to an experience of closure). In these moments in the classroom, it is pertinent and appropriate to request that students put their phones on silent.  

Closing Thought

Practices alone do not work; it is the intention that our students have coupled with the practices that cultivates sustained attention over time. Thus, our role as educators is twofold: firstly, to introduce our students to the notion of cultivating their sustained attention and its role in their flourishing and educational growth. And secondly, to explore, experiment with and interweave practices for cultivating their sustained attention when and where congruent and fruitful in our modules and courses.


Cameron, J. (1992). The artist’s way: A spiritual path to higher creativity. New York, NY: Tarcher/Putnam.

Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Davis, T. (2019). Outsmart Your smartphone: Conscious tech habits for finding happiness, balance, and connection IRL. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.

Ergas, O. (2019). Mindfulness in, as and of education: Three roles of mindfulness in education. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 53(2), 340-358. 

Kaszniak, A. W. (2011). Meditation, mindfulness, cognition, and emotion: Implications for community-based older adult programs. In A. Hartman-Stein & P. LaRue (Eds.), Enhancing cognitive fitness in adults: A guide to the use and development of community-based programs (pp. 85–106). New York, NY: Springer.

Garrison, K. A., Zeffiro, T. A., Scheinost, D., Constable, T. R., & Brewer, J. A. (2015). Meditation leads to reduced Default Mode Network activity beyond an active task. Cognitive Affect Behaviour Neuroscience, 15(3), 712–720. 

Goleman, D., & Davidson, R. J. (2017). Altered traits: Science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain, and body. New York, NY: Avery.

O’Reilly, M. R. (1998). Radical presence: Teaching as contemplative practice. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

6 thoughts on “Sustained attention as the root of both spiritual and educational practice”

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post! I’ve been practicing mindfulness/meditation for a little while, and now I’m encouraged to try to incorporate it into my teaching. I will definitely come back to this post and some of the references mentioned as we start preparing for our next term.

    • That’s great to hear, there are multiple ways to do this, but first I strongly recommend reading Oren Ergas’ article (cited in the article). Typically, there are three ways to integrate in educational settings and programmes of study:

      Mindfulness “in” education – as a therapeutic intervention for stress-reduction etc., which we would typically see being offered by wellbeing services in higher education but also my educators;

      Mindfulness “as” education – embedded within the curriculum and pedagogy as a form of first-person inquiry for knowledge-seeking, essentially as a whole-person or integral approach;

      Mindfulness “of” education – a little more challenging, as Oren puts it, it ‘radicalise the ethos of critical pedagogy’, when mindfulness moves beyond the terrain of personal transformation into personal and social transformation.

      A combination of all three as far as I am concerned, although my work tends towards the “as”, whereby I integrate a range of meditative practices into my courses, modules and programmes of study.

      It’s really useful to consider the “in”, “as” and “of” so you know where best to place these wonderful practices and how to talk about them with students.

      Do keep in touch, I am more than happy to talk about some ideas with you further, this is my true passion in life! Good luck.

  2. Thank you so much for this brilliantly written article, Gabriella. You have inspired me as I am writing a paper on a similar topic for a postgraduate course I am doing. I had not heard of the term “sustained attention” before. You opened up a new door for me!

    • Thank you Jane! Sustained attention is often referred to as “single-pointed attention” or “closed-awareness” (as opposed to “open-awareness”). In classical yogic philosophy, it is referred to as “dharana” (broadly translating as concentration), and it is necessary precursor to “dhyana” (broadly translating as meditation), in Theravada Buddhist practice, it is often referred to as “samatha” (in both Pali and Sanskrit), and is a necessary precursor to “vipassana” or “vipasyana” (Pali and Sanskrit). And other traditions, such as modern Confucian and Zen Buddhist practices have similar concepts and practices in their teachings, and I guess there are many others I have yet to learn from/about. Enjoy the exploration, I always do!


Leave a comment