We have a skill set available to us, the potential for which is hardwired into our brain design, giving us the power to focus our attention on whatever we choose, and thereby, draw to us a deeper perception of that which we give our focus. So, for example, if we spend our days focusing our attention on building a physically stronger body, then we wind up perceiving ourselves as stronger on deeper and deeper levels, and it becomes fact. If we take this a step further, there are a number of studies that show people can learn new skills, heal wounds, reverse paralysis, and grow muscle tissue, just by focusing their attention on thinking about performing those same actions. Our focus is not only how we notice things, and take account of the details, but also how we relate to the world, how we experience life, and how we create more of the things we want in our lives.
Dr. Joe Dispenza, the nuero-scientist featured in the films What the Bleep Do We Know? and What If?, and author of the book, Evolve Your Brain, has made a study of the power of human focus and tells of one study in particular in which participants were told they would be learning how to play the piano. One quarter of the participants were shown and given regular time to practice certain scales and other active elements of piano playing. A second quarter was given the same amount of time to play, but no instruction whatsoever. A third section was given information and instruction and then told to mentally rehearse, and for the same amount of time as the others played, this group sat imagining themselves playing. The fourth group did nothing, as they were the control group. The researchers hooked the participants up to MRI scanners so they could tell which parts of the brain were being stimulated by the various activities. They discovered that the second group (the free players) had as little stimulation and brain development as the group that never showed up. But more surprising, and more to the point, the group that just imagined themselves playing showed just as much stimulation and just as much development in the exact same portions of the brain as the group that was actually practicing. !
The bottom line is, if we give our attention to something, and focus on it regularly and with clear intention, we can create change – change in our perceptions, change in our awareness, even change in our abilities. In fact, depending on the particulars, we can create just as much change with our minds as we can with our hands. But the key is developing the skill of focusing our attention and keeping it focused long enough to have the desired effect. To have the experience, as Dispenza puts it, of timelessness, of being completely absorbed in the thoughts, feelings, and mental experience we are working to cultivate, and repeating that experience regularly.
A simple focus-building practice is doing only one thing at a time and finishing it completely before moving on. It may sound too easy to be good for you, but I challenge you to experiment with it for a day. With every activity that you take on – whether it’s going to the bathroom, brushing your teeth, writing your memoir, or spending a couple hours in the park with your kid – give yourself completely to the activity, and let nothing distract you from it until it is complete enough for the present moment. So this means, no texting while eating, no talking on the phone while driving, no working while playing. You may find it more difficult than you’d like for a daily practice, but giving yourself the opportunity to work with it regularly will build those focus muscles into super focus muscles – the kind that can change your life.
Another fun focus activity (and this is also Dispenza’s idea) is to choose something in the morning – an image, an object, an idea, anything – and hold it in your mind throughout the day watching for how your focus will draw more of the experience of that thing to you. So let’s say you pick “a blue bucket” as the mental image on which to focus, and revisit during the course of your day. Then you just sit back and watch how that blue bucket shows up in your day. If you hold your focus on the image for 10-20 seconds at a time and revisit it more than once during the day, seeing it clearly in your mind, I guarantee you that you will perceive it somewhere else – either a picture, or a real blue bucket, or some mention of a blue bucket in someone’s meandering story you happen to overhear as you pass them on the sidewalk. Don’t believe me? Give it a shot.