When Winifred Gallagher was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive cancer, she decided not to let the diagnosis, or the disease take over her life.
Instead, Winifred began what would become a powerful practice. Focusing her attention on the good things she experienced throughout the day and tolerating – but not paying the cancer (and its brutal treatment regime) any more attention than she absolutely had to. Winifred not only survived, but also discovered much about the power of attention. Her discoveries also delivered her a bestselling book Rapt – Attention and the Focused Life
Without a serious diagnosis or bad news to contend with, we humans are still prone to negative bias when it comes to our mental state. Some more than others. This is a hardwired survival instinct.
If we can’t remember mistakes and bad experiences or examine risks then we are apt to repeat them, which would mean we wouldn’t live very long.
So to hack the system we have to change our mental patterns and there are many ways to do this. One of the simplest, is the three things method, a journal exercise. Before you go to bed each night, jot down three things that you loved about the day.
If we look for the good in life then we will get more, if we look for the bad then we shall instead see that. The brain is excellent at finding information to support whatever we are looking for and it will filter out or rather, turn down the volume of anything that is not required. I have witnessed my three things turn into a page and more of happenings that I have loved about my day. After I turn out the light my brain is still coming up with little happiness bombs as I recall another thing and another. If there was no other result than this lovely way to go to sleep, I would be stoked. What I’ve noticed though, is a happiness hangover extending into my daily life. My brain wakes up looking for the good stuff, and because it is looking, it finds it.
I’m also feeling the clarifying effects of being two weeks into my digital minimalism challenge. My brain is no longer cluttered with other peoples junk and is not surprisingly, sharper as a result.
What I am noticing by being more present, is how many people around me are clearly not.
Yesterday I was in the post office waiting in line to be served. I noticed a woman at a table as I walked in – she was hooked to her phone texting whilst her small child wandered around the shop. She was vaguely aware of her daughter, and would call out (without taking her eyes off her phone)
“Come back here Zoey”
The child would loop back and begin talking to her mother who replied (without taking her eyes off her screen, thumbs still flying over the keyboard) in mumbled distracted sentences, that didn’t really make sense.
I was feeling sorry for the daughter, who, noticing she had my attention, began to chat to me. Her mother moved over to the next line, still texting and calling to “Zoey”now and then on automatic pilot, the child stayed in my line and continued talking to me.
“Next” announced the server
The mother was nose in her phone and didn’t notice she was the next person in line that the server was referring to.
“Next” said the server again, this time really loudly
The woman now had all of our attention but hers was gone. She continued texting oblivious to the situation.
“You come over then mate” sighed the server in resignation, motioning to the guy behind her
This man walked around the woman (with a fair bit of stink eye that she didn’t notice) and was served
The distracted woman finally glanced up a few moments later and was attended by a new server who was opening up a new line.
I can’t help but wonder if witnessing the unconsciously rude behaviour in this woman yesterday was just a reaction to my own focus on the subject of attention in general lately.
Because that is exactly what attention does. It hones in on whatever it is we are thinking about and draws that thing to us. The more attention you pay to attention and use it – the more powerful the results are.
If there is any secret to “The Secret” or law of attraction, then it is simply that applied attention works – seemingly magically.
Why are some people more fortunate than others? Perhaps they are just more conscious and aware. Because of this they see opportunity as it arises.
Why are some people constantly raving about the crap that happens to them? Are they, by contrast less fortunate? From their litany of complaints they are certainly awake and paying attention. Perhaps they just notice all the bad things and their ever helpful brain keeps bringing them more doom to mull over. If you asked the same person what they have loved about their day, aside from ducking a backhander, you may find they struggle to reply. Sadly, they may be blinded by the negative filter which they have so firmly attached to their brain.
We have to train our brain to look for the positive, and we have to practice gratitude when we notice something to be grateful for. Happy doesn’t just happen like some sort of fairytale. Sometimes you have to go and find the light switch at the end of the tunnel yourself, and turn it on, and change the bulb and maintain the power supply etc. Some people are more naturally optimistic and bubbly than others, but anyone can learn to hack the system in their favour.
Life is difficult. This is one of the first tenements of the Buddhist faith. This simple statement recognises that we all struggle at times. I do believe however, that we are able to minimise our suffering by using the one thing that is ours to control – no matter what – and that is where we choose to direct our attention.
Directing our attention towards the good things in life, the things we are grateful for and love having and doing is not a denial that there are also hard things to deal with and do. But it does mean that for the majority of time – we are focusing on enjoyable things. And that has got to have an uplifting effect on our lives, our moods and on the experience of those people we come into contact with.
On an end note, this method of focusing on the good and minimising the time spent on focusing on the less desirable aspects can also obviously be applied to relationships.
It won’t change the person but it will change your reaction to them and that in itself can cause quite interesting things to occur sometimes. Including getting such great results that you wind up wondering if you (or your thoughts and reactions) were actually the problem in the first place .
Also, if you can’t find anything good to focus on right now, don’t beat yourself up. The very worst thing you can do with a feeling you don’t want to have, is to focus on it, or worse, feel bad for having it.
Do the maths (bad + bad = badder) and you can see where I am going with this and I’ve been there – it’s very frustrating. I’m working on a post at the moment which is currently a jumbled up mess of different ideas. Once I’ve straightened it all out I’ll link it back here.