Your focus matters.
I know, I know. I sound like a broken record. But it’s a point worth repeating: your focus matters.
What we focus on determines what we feel.
What we focus on determines what options we perceive to be available to us.
What we focus on determines our goals and what we consider to be important milestones in our projects.
And, perhaps most importantly: what we focus on determines what things mean to us.
Nowhere is this more evident than in what we do with our focus during times of struggle and difficulty.
During times of struggle and difficulty, we can focus right here, right now, in the moment— and, in fact, many people who advocate radical “mindfulness” tell us that’s exactly what we should do. Don’t focus on anything other than right here and right now.
(I don’t always agree with the advocates for radical mindfulness…but we’ll come to that in a moment.)
If, during times of struggle and hardship, we focus only on the right here, right now…we’re likely to burn out and give up.
After all, if all that truly exists is right here and right now, and right here, right now sucks…then why on earth should we labor on?
During times of struggle and difficulty, however, we have other choices on where to place our focus. For example, I like to put my focus on how this current struggle is strengthening me and preparing me for something greater.
A good illustration of this is running. At any given point in a run, your legs are probably going to hurt. Your lungs may sting. You may be tired and sweaty. A snapshot of a runner at any given point in a run might yield a picture of someone who is not having a great time, right then, right there.
Enduring that only makes sense if that run is preparing you for something else.
When I get tired or achey on a run, I shift my focus to how this run is conditioning me for longer, more interesting runs.
I distract my brain from the momentary pain to the longer-term gain.
It’s a simple skill— but it’s one that, once we get some practice with it, can transform even our most painful moments.
By contrast, there are some times when the here-and-now, “mindful” focus is a more productive skill to employ.
For example, there are situations when, in the long term or big picture, we’re going through a season of struggle. We might be broke; we might be mourning a loss; we might be in the midst of a project we didn’t choose or we don’t enjoy. There might be nothing, at this moment, that is on the horizon that we’re looking forward to or working toward.
In these instances, it pays to narrow one’s focus to just what’s happening right here and now.
What are the here-and-now pleasures that can be taken from this present moment?
A good cup of coffee? A beautiful sunrise? A good song on the radio? A pleasant fantasy?
In his classic book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” psychiatrist Viktor Frankl discusses the many, many times he had to turn his attention from the big picture to the current moment in order to keep going. He was interred in a Nazi concentration camp, and to focus on the big picture meant to digest the fact that he was being victimized by horrific abuses of power and witnessing inhumane treatment on a scale never before imagined.
But in order to keep his sanity, Dr. Frankl focused on returning his focus on the present moment. Even as a prisoner in a concentration camp, he was able to fin momentary sources of comfort and beauty which were able to buoy him to the next moment.
Our focus very much matters.
Among the most important skills we need to develop is knowing when to broaden our focus, and when to narrow it.
We need to get good at knowing how to shift our mind’s eye so that WE are in control of our focus, instead of someone else.
If we let other people control our focus, not only are we at their mercy when it comes to our thinking patterns and feeling states, but we risk losing sight of our values and goals…which are literally what make life worth living.
Get good at controlling your focus.
Accept it’s your responsibility to manage your focus.
Accept that you CAN manage your focus.
Determine that you WILL manage your focus.
No matter what.
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