This post is the second in a series of posts I’m calling “Tools in Your Pocket,” the powerful (and often overlooked) tools we all can leverage to create more of whatever we’re after in our lives.
This next tool in the series is perhaps the most useful and versatile one of all – our thoughts — because everything else in our consciousness flows from there. Thought work, the practice of awareness, inquiry, and calibration of our thoughts, is perhaps the single most potent way to change our experience of the world and what we can create within it.
Remember our need to control things? Our own thoughts are the most effective place to apply that energy.
To begin, simply notice that your thoughts are separate from, and therefore not 1) who you are, or 2) reality. Thoughts are sentences in the brain. These sentences in our brain create our emotions, moods, our lived experience. Our brain constructs tens of thousands of these sentences each day – they enter our stream of thinking rapidly and surreptitiously throughout our waking hours. Our direct, concrete observations of what we experience with our senses (“It’s sunny outside”) are interspersed with assumptions, opinions, judgments and predictions about ourselves and other people. We call all of this “reality,” when in fact it’s more of a virtual reality – a story our brain is writing in real time.
If our entire experience of the world, our emotions, and our behavior stem from these sentences in our brain, it’s worthwhile to consider some of the default settings of the brain that created them.
1. The human brain evolved to protect us from physical danger. Its primary job is to detect threats in our environment and keep us safe from them. Over time, it has developed a negativity bias: The brain attends to negative information more readily and is more likely to store it, learn from it, and think about it repeatedly.
2. Another evolutionary adaptation of the brain is efficiency, ensuring our basic survival needs are met while saving energy for emergencies. To do this, the brain has developed a kind of “low battery mode” setting wherein it uses habitual thinking to oversimplify information, generalize complexity, and recycle previously used thoughts, over and over.
3. The human brain is also a pattern-recognition machine, and it loves to organize information into patterns and stories. It connects dots of information into a narrative structure to better remember and understand them—this becomes a story. Once that structure is established – the initial storyline – our brain selectively scans for evidence to support it and filters out information that doesn’t fit.
This beautiful machine between your ears, just doing its best to protect you, is writing a story for you, about you. The story it constructs has more of an effect on your emotions, your mood, and your life than any external event or circumstance.
This beautiful machine needs you at its control panel.
Left to its own devices, your brain will offer you a downer of a story, often a nail-biter too — with darkness lurking around every corner. It will be rife with assumptions, predictions, mind-reading, black-and-white oversimplifications, catastrophizing. The plot points are often well worn: based on old, outdated programming. This narration is not what we want to put in charge of how we feel. It often perpetuates the opposite of what we’re trying to create, whether it’s a goal we’re going after or what so many of my clients say they want most: more internal peace.
How do you liberate yourself from your thoughts? It starts with perspective. Step back from the stream of sentences in your brain before reacting to them. Step onto the safety of the riverbank and let the stream flow by. Become the observer, watching the parade of thoughts your brain offers. From the edge of the riverbank, you can catch, examine, and release your thoughts. Decide what to keep and what to let go.
Select one thought that seems to have particular import. You will know it’s a potent thought when you feel the rush of emotion it creates. Ask yourself: Do I know without a doubt this is true? How is this thought serving me? What emotion is created when I think it? What story am I telling myself? Is this thought really just a habit?
While we can’t get out ahead of all the thousands of thoughts we think each day, we can begin to observe them differently. Observing takes us out of reactivity. Observing takes us out of the fray, into the eye of the storm: our own mind. Observing allows us a window into how we create our own emotions and experience, and how we can make change — from the inside out.
If you find these tools helpful, please share with friends, family, colleagues — anyone who could use them!
(Pictured: Fable, demonstrating the power of undivided attention.)
Today’s post is the first in a series I’m calling The Tools in Your Pocket, and we’ll start with your Attention.
Often when we want to feel better or do better, we seek fixes and solutions outside of ourselves. If you’re a Control Enthusiast like me, you know what I’m talking about. We try to change our circumstances. We try to control other people. We buy things. We overestimate the potency of what’s “out there” and underestimate what we have within us.
If you read my first blog post, you may remember I talked about finding the space in which you choose your response to any given situation. “The Tools in Your Pocket” are tools you already have for leveraging in that space. These tools are always available to you, at your disposal; you need only be aware of them and use them with intention. Like any tool, they’re not useful sitting in a drawer somewhere. Like any tool, the more you practice using them, the more useful they will become.
The first tool I’d like to highlight is your Attention. Attention is the concentration of your focus, through your senses and your thinking, on anything, to the exclusion of other things. In every moment of your waking hours, you are paying attention to something. By the time your head hits the pillow at the end of each day, you’ve given your attention to thousands of things, events, tasks, people. This often happens by default, and that’s the problem.
I want you to think of your attention as a powerful laser beam, literally containing your life force. It sends your energy and your power to whatever and wherever you direct it. If this sounds overstated, think back to the last time that you felt someone give you their full attention: fully present to you, holding space for you, listening deeply. Feeling someone else’s full attention can feel as potent as the rays of the sun. And like any energy, your attention is finite, precious.
When we’re in default mode, we let our attention, a conduit of our energy and power, be frittered away. We give it away to things undeserving of it. We multitask. We let our phones siphon off hours of our attention each day. Because of our brain’s negativity bias and its evolution in protecting us from danger, we automatically employ much of our attention scanning for threats in the environment. We overspend our attention — and therefore, our energy — on the things least worthy of it: the vague email from a colleague, the weird look someone gave us in a meeting, the upcoming dreaded event on the calendar. Attention is a precious resource to be allocated, and if our brain is left to its own devices, it will squander it.
Whatever we give our attention, we are giving our power. This is why it’s so important, inasmuch as you can, to be intentional and conscious about where you direct and redirect your attention, moment to moment.
To be more deliberate with your attention, this powerful “tool in your pocket,” ask yourself throughout the day: What is currently most worthy of my energy and my power?
Hint: It’s most often the things you can actually control.
Here they come! Small, but mighty.
One of the joys of this work is the chance to collaborate with amazing people I admire. I have long been a fan of Dr. Laura Jones and her colleagues at Whole Health Concord, and this month I’m proud to contribute to their Healthy News column.
You can view my article, Inner Skills for Managing Stress: Small, but Mighty, here:
I hope you’ll check it out and share with anyone who could use it!
(Pictured: Fable, local expert on the art of un-hurry.)
How we do anything becomes how we do everything. If you, like me, find yourself in a flurry of busy-ness much of the time, trying to fit as much as humanly possible into every minute of your days, consider carving out a pocket of un-hurry for yourself.
I get it: there’s so much pressure to do more, be more, and you’re doing your best to meet the demands and needs of your life. But here’s the thing: at some point, RUSH becomes our only speed, and we get stuck in that gear. Time scarcity infects our mindset. We transfer a frantic energy to every moment of our waking hours, injecting a false sense of urgency into everything we do. We never get a break from it.
Pause for a minute and ask, when is the last time you did something slowly, on purpose? Lingered. Dallied. Took your time…instead of feeling like you were borrowing time. Has your patience with yourself and others evaporated? Do you notice a tight, rushed feeling in your chest even when you’re supposed to be relaxing?
If this resonates with you, consider claiming and designating a small part of your day, a particular activity, where you will downshift, on purpose. You need only a handful of minutes for this to create a positive effect.
In this container of time, promise yourself: you will not hurry; there will be no rush. Maybe you’ll leave for work with enough time to stop and get your favorite coffee, and actually taste and enjoy it. Maybe as you’re doing the dishes, you’ll let this task take whatever time it needs, allowing yourself to be present to the smell of soap and the feeling of warm water on your hands.
Whatever activity you choose, narrate the experience to yourself. Your brain will need some reminders as you shift gears. Tell yourself that just now, there is no hurry. Let those words sink in. Let your brain and your nervous system feel the pleasure, the exhale, of deliberately slowing down. Welcome to your pocket of un-hurry.
Welcome back. Today I’ve set out some flowers for you. In this space there will be flowers — lots of flowers. Because they’re beautiful, of course…but they are so much more than that.
I don’t think of flowers as a splurge or an indulgence – I think we need them, just like we need art and music. We need reminders that life is beautiful, in the midst of all the chaos.
It’s not only their beauty that inspires us – it’s their transformation. Just weeks or months ago, they were seeds. Scattered randomly, inert. Buried in the cold, dark earth. Seemingly powerless…but stirring inside. Not yet knowing light, but able to imagine it enough to move toward it. Did their need to break open feel like pain or hope, or perhaps the pain of breaking itself compelled them to hope? What else could they do but grow? And so they did.
They trusted their yearning, their will to grow, and became something magnificent, astonishing, unrecognizable to the selves they once were. Their life cycle is half hardship, half glory — and all too short – but they give themselves to all of it, moving bravely through its seasons.
Here, outside the overwhelm: what stirs there inside you, if you quiet yourself enough to listen? What would you like to become in the weeks, months and years ahead, if you allowed space for your own yearning? What light compels you to grow? This is so worthy of your attention. You are so worthy of your attention.
Flowers are gestures of care, tokens of love. Let’s have lots of them here.