It’s the end of the workday and you’re only one item away from completing your to-do list. All at once, your kids are asking for dinner, you’re looking down at that list, and your phone is ringing – it’s your boss. Are you focused on that single item that you couldn’t finish today, fearing your boss will be disappointed? Or are you seeing 10 other items that you checked off? Are you deeming yourself the parent who failed to prepare dinner on time, or the one who provided their kids a nutritious breakfast and lunch? We often think about focus quantitatively (e.g. how focused am I?) Perhaps what we should be considering is not always the quantity, but the object of our focus: what am I giving my attention to?
During one of the free mindfulness sessions that I held over Zoom, one of the group members, Marian Wolfsun, experienced a profound shift in focus during her practice. She was kind enough to write about this experience and share it with me, so that I could share it with you.
Marian’s Shift In Focus: From Pain To Appreciative Joy
I feel like I am trapped in a broken body, a prison which keeps me suffering. As someone who deals with several auto-immune diseases, pain is a big part of my life. I can’t walk much, some days not at all, and resent the limitations my body imposes. I got stuck with some bad DNA.
This week in my mindfulness online class with Shalini, we were asked to write about how we feel about our bodies. Inwardly I groaned. Of course, my immediate thought was “terrible, bad body” and how it hurts so much all the time. How cursed I feel, and my long list of complaints and grievances.
But as I started to write that, for some reason it dawned on me that I was able to do the assignment, and in that moment, I became startlingly aware that I could hold a pen. And then I thought about how I was able to see in order to write anything down. I thought about the exercise we’d done at the beginning of the class where we’d closed our eyes and listened to sounds and all of the sounds I’d heard. I thought about the relaxation meditation we’d done and the pleasure of the deep breathing I’d experienced.
This body that I was so immediately ready to curse, made it possible for me to think, to write, to see, to hold things, to hear, to speak, to take deep breaths, and feel the softness of my shirt against my skin. My body made it possible to enjoy the icy fresh water going down my throat as I sipped from the mug next to me. My body made it possible for me to be here… to be alive.
Thoughts began to tumble into my mind, all of the things I’d been able to experience this past week, simply because I’d been alive in this body. The call with my son where he’d asked for advice and then told me he loved me. The lilac I’d cut from the bush outside, and put in a tiny vase, and breathed in over and over just delighting in its scent. The ridiculous TV special full of YouTube videos that my partner and I had laughed ourselves silly over. Those amazing bagels we’d ordered from New York that were chewy perfection.
It was a profound revelation to genuinely be able to appreciate my body for the many, many ways in which it works stupendously well. Brilliantly, really. Remarkably, if I don’t say so myself. I can still hold the truth that my pain and suffering, and hurts and disappointments, are all real, and hard, and relentless. But the joy of all it can do, and the gratitude for that, bloomed like an unexpected, warm and loving hug.
Marian’s experience is a testament to the joy, expanded possibilities, and relief that this type of practice can bring. I’m grateful that she chose to share this, as moments like this remind me why I do this work.
Filtering The Incoming Information: Sensory Gating
From sights and sounds to feelings and thoughts, a near endless stream of information is entering or circulating through our brains at any given moment. In fact, our bodies send 11 million bits of information to the brain per second, yet only 50 bits can be processed by the conscious mind. A variety of brain regions, especially the reticular activating system, thalamus, and medial prefrontal cortex, are involved in sensory gating, or the brain’s ability to filter incoming information. This essential cognitive function occurs automatically, without our conscious awareness, and ultimately helps us focus on one or a few things at a time.
Going from 11 million bits to just 50 bits in a matter of milliseconds is truly remarkable. This system sounds pretty great, right? Well, it worked quite nicely for our ancestors of eons past, but for the anxious and unfulfilled humans of today, it presents a major issue: selective perception. This is our tendency to filter out the things we see or hear that contradict our beliefs and views, while continuing to internalize information that reinforces our ideologies. As our belief system is developed and reinforced by our selective perception over time, we ignore information that could actually be beneficial to us.
Let’s return briefly to the example of the busy parent with the unfinished to-do list, the hungry kids, and the boss waiting on line 1. In the absence of mindfulness and meta-awareness, this parent might allow themselves to feel bad about everything that’s wrong in this situation. In terms of sensory gating and selective perception, they are only allowing into their consciousness the information that fits their own narrative of never being good enough. With mindfulness, however, they can take a pause and rest their attention on the breath for a few moments. After doing so, they can reset and refocus on all the things they did accomplish during the day, the fact that their boss is truly grateful for them, and that more often than not, they are a responsible and caring parent. What they choose to focus on, becomes their experience of their reality.
Mindful Focus: Steps To Build On What We Want In Life
In order to reach our goals, we need to be clear about what we want to achieve. Setting clear intentions—intentions that don’t create striving or attachments, but instead provide clarity and direction—is important. Notice the difference when you say:
I hope that I am healthy.
I want to be healthy.
I intend that I am healthy.
Intention is empowering and provides more agency than hope and wanting.
Feeling gratitude for what we’ve already achieved and all that is working well in our lives brings appreciative joy, which, as we explored in a previous post, has been found to be foundational for our success.
What we’re choosing to focus on is often happening without our conscious awareness. We can’t change what we can’t see. By bringing awareness to our thoughts and beliefs, we have the ability to investigate with compassion whether the stories we’re telling ourselves are true. Try one of my free guided meditations to build awareness around these thoughts and beliefs.
4. Shifting focus:
Once we bring awareness to our current thinking patterns, we can consciously shift our focus to other facts and information that support our intentions.
5. Take action:
During the day, choose thoughts, words, and actions that support your goals. When feeling overwhelmed, pause, take a few breaths to calm the mind, and ask yourself, “What is most important right now?” Make a list of your action items and prioritize what’s most important.
If you’d like to try the meditation to focus and the exercise to gain awareness of your thought patterns, check out the recording below. The meditation begins 18 minutes into the video.
Feel free to share your thoughts, insights, and questions below!