The Power of Focusing
by David McCarthy
I was out driving around in Kingston, doing errands. Traffic was heavy; it seemed everybody had errands that day. It struck me that everyone was really driving badly.They were very distracted and rude, even by New York standards. Then I noticed a very high percentage of drivers were talking on cell phones. Sound familiar? No, this isn’t going to be a finger-wagging article about cell phones in cars, or the shocking statistics about distracted-driver accidents. Instead, let’s take it somewhere positive. Let’s talk about focusing. Moment to moment, we quite literally create our experience with the natural mental activity of focusing.
We sort out and choose our object of attention from the vast array of sensory inputs, and from the internal mix of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. This act of focusing is so natural, so normal, that we usually don’t notice it at all. We just pay attention to, well, to whatever we’re paying attention to. If we create our momentary experience in this way, it logically follows that we have constructed our very lives over time through the accumulated effects of our focus. That’s how people become experts at something, or accomplished in creativity, to give some positive examples.
Author Winifred Gallagher wrote a fascinating book on this subject (Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life [Penguin, 2009]) after surviving a serious bout with cancer. Soon after her diagnosis, she resolved to not let the illness take over her life, whatever the outcome. She lived in the moment and kept up the activities she cherished. After her recovery, she used her skills as a behavioral science writer to thoroughly investigate focus and attention in all its ramifications for human life. Her book is a tour de force of findings on the subject, and its significance for happiness, relationships, work, decision making, health (both mental and physical), creativity, and the spiritual and philosophical dimension of life.
If the quality and nature of our attention is so incredibly important, it would seem it is worthy of observation and study at a very personal level. The human mind is a complicated place, yes? We have habits of attention, and we have styles of attention. Writers on ADHD have talked about “farmer’s mind” and “hunter’s mind,” the former being a sedate, smooth style of attention, and the latter more a roving, searching, and jumpy style. We are each unique, but there is wide agreement—going back to the earliest founders of psychology like William James, or for that matter, meditation masters of the ancient East—that the conscious application of attention is a gateway skill in all areas of life.
Jeff Davis, a highly regarded local writer and writing teacher, lists concentration as one of four essential preparations for authentic writing. As he puts it in his book, The Journey from the Center to the Page (Monkfish, 2008), “With faculties focused on one thing, to-do lists and yesterday’s frets slip away, the mind’s wheels slow down, and its little demons of distraction disappear.” Though focusing is entirely natural (and if you think about it, even when you’re “distracted” you’re focusing on something), it would seem we could learn something by watching the whole process in real time in our own minds. It becomes quite intriguing just to watch one’s play of attention while going through the day, whatever the activity. Though the focus required for a particular task is a moment-to-moment play of will and intention, there is also a level of attention that is an expression of the pure natural presence of our minds. What’s interesting about all this is that, at least potentially, a conscious, intentional focus, and the sustaining of that focus, can bring us more fully in contact with this natural presence or awareness. This does not depend so much on the object of focus, but on the steadying of presence that comes about from full, direct attention. This is, perhaps, a way of seeing why all the world’s wisdom traditions have regarded various sorts of discipline of the mind’s attention as the gateway to inner experience and realization. When we realize that the mind’s presence is natural and continuous, we realize that focusing is just the nudge, the application of attention that brings us to the presence that was always there.
All this is easy to say, but walking the walk may take, as the saying goes, “a little longer.” Nevertheless, benefiting from the power of focusing comes not from some special talent, but more from an openness to observe one’s own mind and a willingness to persevere—to start over again and again. The now is always available to us, despite our relentless talent for avoidance!
At whatever level we cultivate training of the mind’s attention, whether it is for basic safety and well-being, for creativity, or in the quest for wisdom, there is ample motivation for doing so when we see the rewards of living a focused life.