I tried to think of a catchy title, something that would make you more inclined to read this. Something like, "You can't see the stars if you are chasing the sun", but as its cold in Colorado I could do with some sun chasing. I also thought about "You can't catch a bird with your head in the sand", but all I could think about was why would I want to catch a bird and head in the sand is both impractical and an already used up cliche about fear. So here I am, cutting to the chase.
Attention trumps intention.
We hear a lot about intention. Intention is your aim, your plan, your destination. You may have smaller intentions on the way to a larger destination, but your intention is always the thing you are going to do in the future, the thing that you haven't done yet. It is a pre-action, a pre-success, and/or a pre-failure.
Attention is what you are doing right now. It is the thing that you control and it is the thing that controls you, your future behaviors, your future beliefs, your future you.
We like to think that we are capable of truly thinking for ourselves. Maybe we have the capacity to do so, but in working for us, our brains work against us. When we understand how, and why, we stand a chance at charting our own course.
Our brains are wired for survival and for pleasure. I'm having a hard time thinking of anything desirable that doesn't fall into one or both of those categories. Chocolate, sex, not getting murdered.
The thing that we have to watch for is when our brain's "help" is useful, or drawing our attention into something that hijacks our intentions.
Emotions are the brain's way of steering us towards survival and pleasure. It chooses easy, less scary, and popular every time. Examples...
It is easier to look at other people's work on instagram than it is to post your own.
It is easier to get caught up in angry conversations than to distance yourself for clarity.
It is easier to stay in bed than to go to the gym.
It is easier to go with popular opinion than to consider alternative perspectives.
You are wired to go with the current so before you step into a river you better make sure you know where it ends.
I know who I will become, and what I will believe based on the direction of my attention.
There are sounds, voices, and ideas coming from all directions. They are a mixed bag. Some are mostly true, some mostly false, some mostly important, some mostly not important. The loud, seemingly urgent calls for attention usually get it. And they usually are not the most important although our brains will tell us otherwise. My eyes will go where I focus my ears, my head will follow my eyes, followed by my shoulders, my hips, my feet, my future.
The rare person who will get where they intend to go is the person who will realize that their attention is a limited commodity. You cannot give your whole attention to world hunger, homelessness, injustice, discrimination, natural disasters, climate change, celebrity divorce, social media and every other valid (or invalid) complexity this world has and be of any use to anyone. Most people will spread thin in too many directions or give up due to overwhelm.
I have big goals. I want a different life than most people have. Not better, but something my own that reflects my potential and desires. My time, energy, and resources are limited so I must protect them. I am reminded of the poem, "The Road not Taken" by Robert Frost. At a fork in the road a traveler must choose one path, he cannot walk both.
Here are a few reminders to myself, you are welcome to borrow them.
Pick a battle you can win. Know what you can change and what you can't.
I probably can't fix World hunger. Not hunger in the United States, not in Colorado. Today, right now, I can't even fix it in my small town. I don't have control, I don't have reach, I don't have the resources. But if World hunger is my battle, I can make my neighborhood my battlefield. I can feed my struggling neighbors. And after that I can find a way to expand my small circle. Maybe I didn't help everyone, but I did help someone and that's a real start.
Upset about American politics? Me too. And I don't even understand them. I have no power, and no control over such a big institution. I can't even have actual, infallible knowledge of past and present events. What I do have are 3 choices.
1. Give my time to complaining about things I cannot fix such as big issues, history, or other people's behaviors
2. Leave and try to be useful elsewhere
3. Stay and make improvements within my circle of influence.
Listening and learning is important. As I grow I can choose to recognize and name errors and injustices, and adjust my behavior and beliefs without sacrificing action on the altar of public outrage. Which leads me to ...
2. Anger isn't action.
Yes it can propel change, but in this age of dopamine-dispensing social media most people don't move past the anger into usefulness. I can spend my time on FB feeling really upset about XYZ. I can spend hours reading comments and contributing fuel to others who are also really upset about XYZ. Awesome. I found something I care about. Now can I get off of facebook and make a difference? Am I upset for a marginalized population? They don't need my unorganized time online but maybe they could use my friendship in real life. Do I want to save the Earth? Maybe I should go pick up trash while I think up a workable plan of attack.
Emotion alone is not action. It isn't fixing anything, it isn't saving anyone. EMOTION ROBS INTENTION OF ATTENTION. And Attention wins every. single. time.
2. Watch out for external validation.
This is a really hard one because it is dangerous when it is for good or for evil. This one speaks to both survival and pleasure. It feels good to be popular and popular cavemen probably lived longer. It feels good to get swept up in the thing that brings you belonging and acceptance and praise. It can rob you of humility, of work ethic, clarity, autonomy, individuality and eventually your long term goals. We can easily become blind to who we are when we care too much about who other people think we are.
3. Give grace
Sometimes I get frustrated. Sometimes I am not painting as well as I think I should be. Sometimes my brush feels heavier than it is, my progress too slow, too minimal.
I remind myself here about Grace. Grace for myself, kindness for my efforts. Being a good friend to myself, to my different selves. My mother-self, my wife-self, my artist-self, my woman-self, my growing / learning/ struggling infant self. I must also remind myself to offer Grace to others at every opportunity. Who or what do I put on a pedestal? When can I accept an apology, or forgive without one. When can I show kindness when retribution feels justifiable? How can I get out of my own way and let others do the same?
4. I don't know what I know; I don't even know what I don't know.
A piece of sand can't know the entirety of the ocean. It just can't. It may never understand the depth, never see the rocking ships and distant shores, or know the life it sustains.
I know I can only do so much, know so many people, care about so many issues. And if I want to do anything well, If I want to blow the ceiling away and do something extraordinary I had better choose carefully what gets my attention. I sacrifice all else in any given moment to the thing I am focused on. If I am not in constant check with myself I will certainly step into the easiest rivers, follow the loudest voices, and loose the path less traveled by.
The Road not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.