Reclaim Your Attention & Win Back Your Life

From the earliest ages of childhood our mind adapts a lifelong mandate to explore and catalog every aspect of our immediate environment. We are like sponges that soak up the sensory soup our perceptions feed to our developing brains. It is our mission to learn and to label each and every one of these new experiences. The world around us is a very mysterious place and we need to identify our surroundings in order to find out who we are and add it to the story of our life.

For example, when we taste a new type of fruit we undergo a wonderful process of  defining the experience. We determine if it is sour or sweet, notice the texture and the taste, mind how it feels in our stomach, and eventually become a person who does or doesn’t like said fruit. Depending on if it was really bad we could also evolve into a person who doesn’t even like trying new fruits anymore.

The initial labeling experience is like a meditation as during it’s execution we are very much in the present moment. We are effortlessly letting our attention rest on the smallest of details. I am not hesitant to describe it as akin to an act of love in its purest form.

If we do like the fruit, the next time someone offers us a piece we gladly say yes and gobble it up, this time paying much less attention to the act of eating it and simply carrying on with our lives. This frees up our mind to shift its attention elsewhere and continue in the relentless pursuit of its labeling mandate. Do we like this place? The people? The conversation? The atmosphere?

While we are young and know little about the world our lives are filled with the joys of trying many things for the first time. But as we age, and the amount of variety in our lives dwindles. A larger portion of our lives become pre-labelled with its role in the story of me already set in stone. Ultimately this results in us settling into the mundane routine of existence.

Approaching middle age our mind has done its job extremely well. We have seen many things and labelled them all. We have graduated from high school, got a degree, a job, and a family. We have traveled the world, bought a car, and a home. And along the way our mind has cataloged every one of these events and more. The clothes we like to wear. Our preferred route to and from work. The best TV shows to watch. The food we eat. EVERY. SINGLE. THING.

Because how many times do we do something new anymore?

We have families, careers, mortgages, and endless responsibilities so we stick to the things we know. The same khaki pants and plaid shirt (or is that just me?). We listen to the same hit music radio station. We play hockey with the same people on the same night. We buy the same groceries and order the same pizza every Friday night. We “know” everything about our life and we rarely stray.

So finally our mind can relax, right? Wrong. Don’t be silly. Our mind can’t stop. It is essentially fighting for it’s life and it therefore needs to justify it’s usefulness as much as possible. It’s like a corporation that must strive to increase its profits every year, except the currency of the mind is the influence it has over your life.

So it searches for a new problem. A new mandate. As a result we begin to feel uneasy with our station in life. Have I chosen the right career? Is this the right house? Do I need to lose weight? Anxiety begins to rear its ugly head.

Our anxious thoughts get more intense from there. I don’t feel good, am I going to die? Is this plane going to crash? Are my kids going to get severely ill? Did I lock the door? Let me check for the fifth time…

Many of us become so overwhelmed by this lifelong experience of mind domination that we seek professional help to find out how we can fix it. But in the middle of this mind story writing exercise, and subsequent descent into anxiety and depression, we miss the very essence of living.

It is this essence we vaguely remember from our childhood. We got a taste of it whenever we did something for the first time. During those experiences it emerged quite easily as the mind is forced to become a spectator and not the tour guide. Our attention was not held prisoner by thought, and there was space for our very soul to shine through.

Though it happens more sparingly now as compared to our youth, you have definitely felt it.

Maybe you catch a glimpse of it when you travel to a place you’ve never been. Or when you are setting up the latest piece of tech you purchased at BestBuy. It could be your first meal in a trendy new restaurant. Or your first visit to an IMAX theatre. Maybe it’s the feeling of a new couch in the living room. Or a new car in the driveway. The power of the new experience resides not only in the quality of the experience, but in the very fact that it is new. But we can’t depend on financial expenditures for our only taste of joyful living.

These events act primarily as a pointer towards what could you be yours 100% of the time.

This act of liberating attention is very much a spiritual journey. Enlightenment can be simply described as seeing the world without a story, without the myriad of thought filters and labels that you have constructed through decades of living your life. Finding the newness in every moment is a surefire hack for living a happy life.

To achieve this we must re-assert our role as masters of our own attention. We are not the victims of our thoughts, we have simply adapted to the routine of letting the mind run the show. To counteract this powerful, and often negative, influence on our lives I have outlined 5 steps we can take to reclaim the power of our attention.

  1. Awareness – Become aware that a large part of your life is the mind telling a story about what it thinks it knows. Reading this post could be your first step in this direction. Just examine how much of your life is part of a routine, something you do every day, week, month, or year.
  2. Surrender – Acknowledge that maybe you don’t know everything. Maybe… you don’t know anything. It doesn’t take much digging on the internet to start questioning core beliefs you have always taken for granted. For example: Did you know that if you removed all the space within and between the atoms, the empire state building would be reduced to the size of a grain of rice!
  3. Release Control – Stop trying to control your environment. Everything that has ever happened to you throughout your entire life has been inevitable and couldn’t have happened any other way. You don’t need to treat everything like a problem to solve. This type of acceptance is something that came natural to us as an adolescent but is much more difficult in middle age. Over the years our minds have gained both power and influence. Let everything be as it is. Don’t try to create good feelings or prevent bad ones. Just be with yourself and let it be ok.
  4. Notice Every Detail – Stop the practice of simply glancing at things and moving on. Pause and really take a long look. Let your eyes rest upon the smallest part of an object and recognize it as independent of the whole. Make seeing the minutia a priority in your life. Don’t force it, just relax and let the world reveal itself to you. And if you find yourself in deep fog brought on by intense anxiety or other mind activity, rest your attention on this fog and notice every detail about it that you can.
  5. Adopt a Mantra – Create a sentence that can quickly snap you out of a harmful mind pattern. When I catch myself drifting off lost in a world of thought I simply say “Live in the real world” and practice steps 1 to 4. This often happens in my drive home from work. Once I realize it, at the next stoplight I try rolling down the window, turning off the radio, and spending 30 seconds looking at a small patch of grass on the side of the road.

I hope you take this post to heart and that it helps you live a better quality of life. Especially for those that may be struggling.

Thanks for reading 🙂

 

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com/Ruslan Merzliakov

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The Contextual Nature of Religion

Not believing in God because of religion is like not believing in freedom because of politics.

I don’t know how the entire discussion about the existence of God got monopolized by the world’s religious institutions. For sure, there is no doubt that many of the teachings within Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam can offer powerful insights into the nature of God but I give none of them complete monopoly over the discussion, and neither should you!

The number one reason I feel this way is the intensely contextual nature of any spiritual discussion. For example, if you can forgive the pop culture reference… we’ve all seen The Matrix right? And we remember the scene where Neo has to go meet the Oracle to find out if he’s the one. Well she, the oracle, looks at him up and down, tells him to say awwww, and then says he’s not the one. We all know that was bullshit so what gives?

Neo believes he’s not the one (wrong). The Oracle says he’s not the one (wrong). And all of a sudden the truth emerges and he’s the one.

So how would history remember that interaction in the fictional matrix universe? It’s not that implausible to imagine separate religious denominations emerging: one that believe Neo is the one, and one that believes he isn’t. A separate denomination could even believe Agent Smith is the one if they happened to see one of those alternate theory YouTube videos.

Eckhart Tolle has stated that during a spiritual teaching the depth of his answer to a question depends on the depth of the question. There is this intense relationship that only exists in that moment. What all of these spiritual teachers give us is the ability to exist precisely in that moment with us and tell us exactly what we need to hear. When we only read the transcript or watch the video of such discussions afterwards they will never be as valuable to us as they were to everyone who was there.

There’s a wonderful description of David Godman’s encounters with the famous Indian Saint Nisargadatta Maharaj. In the following video David describes an incident where he was pointing out a number of inconsistencies in Nisargadatta’s teachings until finally the teacher interrupts him and says he is missing the point. He says he is not telling him these things so he can develop a philosophy that is rational and free of contradictions, he is simply planting them in his consciousness.

I believe religious texts are filled with such interactions.

Every individual or group in front of Jesus, Buddha, or Krishna brought with them their own combinations wrong perceptions, bitterness, and anger. All of which required different messages or teachings to give them what they needed. It is the intense presence of these powerful religious figures that allowed them to know what that was.

Now if someone were to document all of these teachings and compile them in a book together, they are not likely to provide a very consistent or relevant message to the reader. Especially if the scribe doesn’t always completely understand what the teaching was about, and even more so if it was 80 years after the fact as was the case with the gospels. The loss of context in this scenario is hard to recover from.

The problems always begins in our search for absolute truths. We want something we don’t have to think about, something that is black and white, and indisputable. So we latch on to these ancient books and turn off the discerning part of our brain.

The ideal way to approach any religion, and its corresponding text, is to search for a context you can relate to on a deeply personal level. Don’t look for consistency, don’t look to prove anything, and don’t look to ridicule it. Simply find a situation that seems familiar and hits close to home and read about it.

One of my favourite religious teachings comes from Hinduism.

Krishna and Arjuna were travelling through the forest and came upon a rich man’s house who hosted them for dinner. He had a beautiful home but was very rude, disrespectful, and spent most of their visit simply counting his money. As they departed Krishna blessed the man with even more wealth. A little time later they came across this poor man who had virtually nothing to his name except a sick and decrepit old cow. But he was thrilled that the magnificent Krishna came to visit little old him. He did his best to be the ultimate host with what little means he had. When Krishna left he gave a blessing that even the poor man’s cow should die.

We are all on our own paths, but going to the same place. The rich man needed more wealth to ultimately understand that his happiness does not lie in having more things. The poor man was so close to ridding himself of attachment to things that the most compassionate thing that Krishna could do is help him complete the journey. Now did this event actually happen? Who knows. Does that matter?

Don’t look for right and wrong in these texts. Simply find something that impacts you in a positive way. Something that brings you peace. And something that tells you who you are.