Your Attention Matters: Narrowly Focused or Broad and Receptive?

How you attend affects what you perceive.

How you attend affects what you perceive.


The mindset you bring to situations affects what you perceive (McGilchrist, 2009). It’s important to know the difference among mindsets so you can choose appropriately, because once you start out a situation with one mindset, it can be hard to switch. Here are three basic mindsets. (a) The active, deliberate mind is focused on forms, caught up in categories and identity. (b) The receptive mind is formless and oriented to being with others. (Brainstorming uses the receptive mode initially—letting ideas flow. But once someone starts to criticize the ideas, the mode has shifted and it is hard to get back to the creative flow.) (c) The self-protective mindset is defensive and focused on safety—whether through withdrawal, opposition, or control.

Let’s start with the one that is less developed in the modern world but central to our humanity. 

The Receptive Mode: Being-With

The receptive mode is about being alert, listening, not resisting what is (Tolle, 2005). It is the aspect of the mind that is more creative and open. You might be in it when you daydream with a sense of stillness. It is often associated with right–hemisphere directed style of attention (alpha brain wave). This approach to situations is intuitive, random, holistic, synthesizing, subjective and integrative. It is diffuse attention, perceiving connection and oneness. Receptive openness is the ability to be in the moment and feel one’s body energy and the energy of other living things. It is the ability to see “the whole.” Receptive openness allows you to let go of what you think (opinion) and what you feel (emotion).

This is the mode of Indigenous Wisdom or the Kinship Worldview. It is the mode that the higher order, mystical, forms of world religions emphasize. It is described as Presence or true consciousness. 

In a social situation, in the receptive mode you recognize the other on the level of being. You notice the uniqueness of the situation, the individuality of the person or entity. You welcome difference. You are not threatened. You delight in what is beautiful. You treat the other as a Thou, as a sacred partner in Being. You coordinate with the other in a unique interpersonal dance. In this mode, the world is brighter and you feel at peace.

The receptive mode is the welcoming mode towards others. 

The Active Mode: Focused on Forms

Schooling generally focuses us on active mind what is often ascribe to left-hemisphere-directed processing (beta brain wave). It’s characterized by logical, sequential, rational, analytical, objective processing that looks at parts and perceives categories. It focuses on forms of things, on evaluating and doing. The active mode is more verbal so it tends to dominate our attention but it is also more narrow and limited in awareness. Once you are processing a situation this way it’s REALLY hard to switch to the other mode (receptive openness). This is typically a relationally-detached way of approaching situations with one’s ego.

In a social situation, you are in the active mode when you categorize the other person, for example, as male/female or ‘smarter/handsomer/bigger than me.’ You are more likely to treat the person as an object, for your use, what is called an I-It approach (Buber, 1970). You compete with the other or fawn over someone you think enhances your worth. But you are detached emotionally from them as a Being.

The active mode is the judging mode towards others. 

You probably are quite familiar with active mode practices. But there are ways to do them better, for example, through judging the credibility of the source, critical thinking and reflective judgment


A. Judge the credibility of the source:

    • Check the source’s background: Are they an expert? What kind of expert? Is it the kind of expertise relevant for this topic? 
    • What are the basic assumptions/biases they have? 
    • Are they biased by a financial interest?
    • Look at the empirical evidence, the kind of data presented and how it is reviewed. Are the data sources reliable and valid?


B. To think critically (Flew, 1998):


  • Judge the validity/invalidity of arguments and evidence (arguments are based on evidence but not all “evidence” is equal); 
    • Propositions are true or false
    • Arguments are valid or invalid
    • Refutation involves showing a proposition is false based on invalid arguments
  • Apply logical necessity (C is divorced, so she must have been married) versus logical sufficiency (B is a Frenchman, so that is sufficient to say he is a man; but to say that A is a man he is not necessarily a Frenchman) 


C. Reflective Judgment (Kitchener & King, 1994) is a developmental process that moves from a to b to c, with the latter more advanced:

(a) The word of an authority figure is to be trusted because certainty is possible.

(b) All judgments are relative, a matter of opinion—anything goes.

(c) There is always some uncertainty in judgments, but valid decisions can be constructed based on weighing evidence carefully in light of the context. Judgments should be re-evaluated when new data or methods emerge.


The Self-Protective Mode: Focused on Self-Safety

In each situation, we subconsciously determine in milliseconds at the neurobiological level whether or not we feel safe (“neuroception;” Porges, 2011). When we feel safe we activate our habitual patterns of relating to others, based on our capacities. When we feel unsafe, we shift into a self-protective orientation (Narvaez, 2014). 

If our early life, in the womb and/or after birth, was stressful, we are likely to have developed an easily-stressed neurobiology. Our primitive survival systems are set up for easy triggering (Narvaez, 2014). We are likely to perceive threat in social situations. When triggered, blood flow shifts to mobilize us for flight or fight, so we don’t think very well (Sapolsky, 2004). Our vision narrows, so we don’t perceive as much. We are not very openminded or openhearted. We become resistant to change. 

Self-protective mindsets are defensive and focused on safety—whether through withdrawal, opposition, or control (Narvaez, 2014). Instead of being open to the presence of the other, we brace against them. 

It takes considerable insight to notice shifts to self-protection in oneself. Paying attention to your body reactions is a way to attend to your neuroception. Awareness is the first step to learning to maintain calmness via belly breathing and other forms of self-calming. 



Each of us has a choice about how to attend and where to place our attention. Where we place it routinely is where we rehearse actions and build our character. Do we routinely choose the connecting attitude of the receptive mode or the separating attitude of the active mode? Both are needed for living wisely and sustainably. The goal is to develop all capacities and use them wisely. 

On the other hand, perhaps we easily shift into a self-protective mode, circumventing any choice of attention placement. Recognizing this is the first step to changing. 

Each of us has the opportunity to face life with openness, relational detachment, or bracing—every day in every way. In each moment we decide—the welcoming receptive option, the active judging option, or the fear filled one. Which will it be?




Buber, M. (1937/1970). I and Thou. (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). Charles Scribner’s Sons. 

Edwards, B. (2012). Drawing on the right side of the brain. Penguin.

Flew, A. (1998). How to think straight: An introduction to critical reasoning. Prometheus.

Kitchener, K.S., & King, P.M. (1994). Developing reflective judgment. Jossey-Bass.   

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York: Norton.

Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory. New York, NY: Norton. 

Sapolsky, R. M. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers (3rd ed.). New York: Holt.

Tolle, E. (2005). A new earth: Create a better life. Penguin.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.