The Focused Life
If all the world’s a stage, where should you shine your spotlight?
image by Gluekit / www.gluekit.com
The following is part of a series of articles on why people are so distracted, and what they can do about it. For more, read A Nation Distracted and How to Meditate.
We’re all amateur psychologists who run private experiments on how best to live. Some of us specialize in relationships and mostly explore bonding. Others concentrate on work and test ways to be more productive and creative. Still others look to philosophy or religion and investigate the big picture: the ultimate way things are. Five years ago, a common-enough crisis plunged me into a study of the nature of experience. More important, this experiment led me to a psychological version of what physicists trying to explain the universe call a “grand unified theory” or “theory of everything”: Your life—who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.
That your experience depends on the material objects and mental subjects that you choose to pay attention to is not an imaginative notion, but a physiological fact. When you focus on a stop sign or a sonnet, a waft of perfume or a stock-market tip, your brain registers that “target,” which enables it to affect your behavior. In contrast, the things you don’t attend to in a sense don’t exist, at least for you. All day long, you selectively pay attention, and more often than you might suspect, you can take charge of this process.
If you could look backward at your years thus far, you’d see that your life—what you’ve confidently called “reality”—has been fashioned from what you’ve paid attention to. You’d also be struck by the fact that if you had paid attention to other things, your reality and your life would be very different.
Attention has created the experience and the self stored in your memory; looking ahead, what you focus on will create the life and person yet to be. Psychology has mostly examined our pasts to explain and improve our lives. If you think in terms of the present and future instead, you might encounter an intuition lurking in your mind, as it was in mine: If you could just stay focused on the right things, your life would stop feeling like a reaction to stuff that happens to you and become something that you create—not a series of accidents, but a work of art.
My interest in attention goes back to childhood, when I ran the usual experiments on its effects on behavior. I saw that by focusing on one thing, you could ignore another. If you concentrated on some enjoyable activity, you could make time simultaneously race and stand still. Staying focused on a goal over time might not guarantee you’d achieve it but was a crucial step in that direction.
Page: 1 | 2
| Next >>