Intentional Focus

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“There are two kinds of people in the world – those who walk into a room and say ‘Here I am’ and those who say ‘There you are.'” ~ Abigail Van Buren

Looking east this evening at the sunset’s reflection on the Sandia (‘watermelon’ in Spanish) Mountains, I was reminded of the elusive green flash. Green flashes are optical phenomena that sometimes occur right after sunset or right before sunrise. The green appearance usually lasts for no more than a second or two. They were first observed and photographed in 1960.

I say ‘elusive’ because I have witnessed countless sunsets from mountain tops, Key West, and San Diego beaches where I focused on glimpsing a green flash. And once, it presented.

That flash would have been missed had I not been focused; had I not been concentrating on it, exclusively. Yet focusing can be challenging for many people.

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Every minute of every day, thoughts, desires and sensory experiences stream through our minds. Each wants our attention making it near impossible to focus. Our minds (well, at least mine) tend to drift to other matters when we try to focus on one thought, subject or activity. Truth?

In the last 10+ years there has been an unconscious shift from encouraging focus to belittling it. And it often happens without us noticing. As soon as multitasking became the rage, focus was quietly relegated to a space of lesser importance.

I consider focus and concentration, interchangeable. What is interesting (as well as encouraging) is that researchers have found that concentration is driven by interest, and interest is driven by attitude. If your attitude towards a specific person or project swells with interest, intrigue and passion, concentration becomes profoundly easy.

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Lack of focus is a common killer of making things happen. If you want to realize a dream, accomplish a goal or deepen a personal connection, pay attention to your attention. Stop yourself from getting on a wrong train of thought early – before it leaves the station.

We get so busy with our ‘stuff’ that it’s easy to forget others’ needs and our affect on them. If it’s significant to you, consider the value in focusing on the importance of caring and compassion for others, of seeing through their eyes. Be mindful of distractions, the frequency with which they interfere and the impact they have on your focus. Distractions can be stealth-like stealers.

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If you want to manage what you focus on, these three actions might be helpful:

  1. Plan some joy!
  2. Take a break. Boredom and distractions invite procrastination. Find a comfortable balance between the activity at hand and the level of focus it truly requires.
  3. Consider less multitasking. The truth is you cannot see that green flash (or whatever you have your sights on) when you are doing multiple things at once.

In Those Five Minutes

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“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you can help them to become what they are capable of becoming.” ~ J. W. von Goethe

The firefighter at your door sternly states you have five minutes to gather whatever you choose and evacuate your residence. A physician summons you with news that you probably have no more than five minutes with a dying loved one. You’re entering emergency surgery and asked to consider an organ donor consent. You’re on a flight when the captain instructs passengers to brace for impact.

In times of uncertainty, danger, or impending loss we are forced to transcend the thinking that usually dominates our everyday awareness. Without notice, you have to make lightening-quick decisions to which you haven’t given much prior thought. Shifting from the trivial to the critical usually exceeds your brain’s speed limit. And you’re likely unfocused and unsure about what to do. In those precious moments are these important…

  • your degree(s)
  • your age
  • technological conveniences
  • what you control
  • social media
  • what’s on the news
  • your investments
  • what you look like
  • global politics
  • how you’re acting
  • material possessions?

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I suspect not. You’re dealing with a racing mind, feeling physically exhausted and depleted, and scrambling to make sense of the seemingly unfathomable. What can you say, think, do? Is this a space in which you anticipated being?

When standing at such an edge, uncertain about the future, one can hope to draw strength from knowing what really matters — for those five minutes… what to grab, what to say, how to react and how to decide, with compassion.

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There’s a purpose here. It’s to encourage thought about what you value and to invite aligning your life with same. Because possessing clarity about what matters, matters!

In anticipation of having only five minutes, would confirmation of any of these help?

  1. Be yourself. When living as a passionate, inspired being, the only challenge greater than learning to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes is to walk a lifetime comfortably in your own. Let your heart lead and take your brain along. When you’re clear and comfortable about what matters to you, making tough decisions can come more easily.
  2. Be a front-runner. Associate with others who share your values and aspirations. Don’t find yourself in a position where social gravity draws you into an unenlightened world and obscures who you are, what you know to be important and how you embrace, confidently, being at choice.
  3. Don’t stop remembering why. Many of us have tendencies to lose touch with what we loved as a child. The social pressures of adolescence and later professional pressures squeeze the passion out of people. Remember what you enjoy doing, with whom and why. You only need to be good at being and valuing you, and being there for others.

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Very Hard Things

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“One of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart that you can’t utter.” ~ James Earl Jones

I recently lunched with three friends. We enjoyed a casual conversation that, at one point, meandered into various thoughts and experiences about courage. The things no one else is doing. The things that scare you. The things that define you and that make a difference between living a life of mediocrity or outrageous outcomes.

It got a little deeper. We generally agreed that hard things are the easiest to avoid; to pretend they don’t apply to you. The sense that ordinary people (like us) accomplish great things because they often do the hard things; the things that take courage. Being the demure one among we four, I decided to ask the others what the hardest thing was that they ever had to do. Truly, the most gut wrenching act or decision. And lunch took a very different turn.

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I’m not going to go into what was disclosed. Each of us had a very personal story, just as you and others have. What I will share is that as I was driving back to my home office, I cried. Because I realized how fragile I have been and at times, still am. Especially when we must muster whatever courage we have and deal with life’s hardest things.

Not always do people get the lessons and character they ought to — out of the hard things in life. Some are not good learners in life’s school. Some grow bitter in disappointment and lose some of their innocence. Others have their vulnerability pierced when they endure trial.

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There aren’t many ways to avoid very hard things. It’s part of thriving. Yet there are counter-balances to dealing with life’s biggest challenges; actions to redirect your energy and attention. If you seek or need to refocus, especially after having dealt with something very hard, here are three considerations:

  1. Find beauty in small moments. Don’t wait for the next big thing to happen — winning the lottery, kids, promotions — find peace in the small things that happen every day. Enjoy the pleasure of sharing something you enjoy with someone else; holding hands with your partner; a quiet cup of coffee in the morning. Noticing small pleasures on a daily basis can change the quality of your life.
  2. Start a family. I don’t mean have kids. Make the decision to have a family, which means giving of yourself fully to another person or several people. Risk being vulnerable by sharing your fears, quirks, and failures with someone else; you might find it makes you even stronger. Find someone or some people with whom you can share love, mutual respect, and trust.
  3. Practice self-compassion. People often find it easy to offer support to others at a cost of being less compassionate to themselves. Research shows that people who are kinder to themselves, who don’t get bogged down in personal imperfections and weaknesses, are more likely to be in better health.

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Being in “The Zone”

“Flow with whatever may happen and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting whatever you are doing. This is the ultimate.” ~ Chuang Tzu

I intentionally chose this photo. It is the one place, a single activity, in which I can find myself in “the zone.”  According to Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, being in the zone or in “flow” is a single-minded immersion and represents the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. It is when emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand.

Many of us have been in the zone. And describing how it feels there is unique to each individual. Some people can get ‘there’ easily; they have conditioned themselves and know what it takes to experience a feeling of spontaneous joy while performing a task, although being in the zone is also described as a deep focus on nothing but the activity, not even oneself or one’s emotions.

Being in the zone is often associated with peak performance, commonly practiced by serious athletes, writers, and musicians. But it can align with gardening and painting just as easily. In this state of completely focused motivation, one can side step the chaos, the busyness, the rat race of everyday life. And simply be, accepting whatever you are doing.

People find themselves in the zone when in the presence of nature, meditating, or at willful solitude. We often think we need a structured vacation or a getaway to be able to focus on one task. Not so.

If the prospect of getting into the zone appeals to you, here are four steps that can help to pave the way:

  1. Choose a singular task. To get the most out of your mind you need to concentrate all your attention on exactly one thing and one thing only. It ought to be something that you are truly interested in, your most important task at the moment.
  2. It’s important to have energy. If you’re barely maintaining consciousness due to a late night of cocktails or a restless night of sleep, getting into the zone is going to be difficult.
  3. Find the right environment. Figure out the setting(s) that facilitate your flow, be it a crowded coffee shop or a quiet library, and work in them whenever possible. An uncrowded swimming pool works well. 🙂
  4. Emotions are key. Being in the zone requires finding the feelings that allow your subconscious to take over. Music can help activate these emotions. Find songs or artists that put you in the right mood and block out distractions.

 

Why Dogs Sniff Butts

 “Like the herd animals we are, we sniff warily at the strange one among us.” ~ Loren Eisenley

Stay with me; I’m going somewhere thoughtful here.

A dog lover, they’ve been part of my life for decades. So naturally, I was drawn to a recent article titled, “Why Do Dogs Sniff Each Other’s Butts? It’s More Complicated Than You Might Imagine.” Turns out, it’s all about one canine literally sniffing out important information about the other; its gender, emotional state, diet, and more. It’s like communicating with chemicals. As part of its olfactory system, dogs nerves direct the chemical information it detects directly to the brain so there’s no interference from other odors. Keep this “no interference” in mind.

Which brings me to the actual focus for this post. As humans, we also process information by:

  • Being quiet inside and really listening as a way of being aware of our own feelings as well as the feelings of others and;
  • Being aware of habitual negative patterns of thought, behavior and communication and then making positive choices to better serve ourselves and others.

When it comes to effective, meaningful communication, there is probably not a more important skill than listening. Not just hearing but truly listening. Listening is challenging for many people because we are often:

  • Focused on the physical appearance, social status, or the clothing of the person speaking. Maybe even judging them.
  • Planning on what you have to do once the conversation has ended.
  • Devising a solution while the other person is sharing a problem.

Hearing refers to the sounds that you hear. It’s what many people do. Listening requires more than that: it requires focus. Just as canines use their acute sense of smell to enhance communication, we can further develop our skill by listening with our eyes and our heart. Think Golden Rule: How do you want to be listened to?

Most of us believe we’re good listeners. If you want to become an even better listener, consider these ideas:

  1. Avoid letting the speaker know how you handled a similar situation. Unless they specifically ask for advice, assume they simply need to talk it out.
  2. Listen without interrupting. Often, people want to interject their own thoughts. (Yes, we know we do.) Does your body acknowledge that you are listening? Use smiles, nods, and expressions of understanding to communicate to the speaker that you are listening. It is important for them to know their words are respected.
  3. Want to listen. This is unique. You must have an intent to listen. Sometimes you don’t want to listen. At other times, your actions may indicate that you don’t want to listen when you really do. And at still other times, you may be unaware that you don’t want to listen. We can be as good a listener as we want.

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Left Brain, Right Brain

“A creative idea will be defined simply as one that is both novel and useful (or influential) in a particular social setting.” ~ Alice Flaherty

We have many creative people in our world. Many, conveniently, blog among us. In the WordPress Reader I recently found a Chris Delatorre post. He’s a creative thinker and (if you’ll pardon the simple word) doer.

Being creative or artistic doesn’t mean you know how to draw or play an instrument. Being creative is a way of thinking, a way of viewing the world. Creative people simply use the right side of their brains more than the left. The enduring question with creativity has always been whether the defining factors come from nature or nurture. Everyone can learn to be creative to some degree, but new Cornell University research has revealed that the extent to which we’re born creative may be greater than previously thought.

As a hardwired ‘left brainer,’ I find some comfort in now knowing this. 🙂

In one of his posts, Chris writes that he believes science and art ought to make a home together. In this video, Max Cooper creatively depicts life coming into being, blooming and then vanishing. I’d be challenged enough to find the right words to express that, let alone create what he has visually.

Researchers have also confirmed that creativity flourishes in solitude. With quiet, you can hear your thoughts, you can reach deep within yourself, you can focus.

If exploring the right side of your corpus callosum is something that interests you, here are three easy enablers:

  1. Pause from business thinking. Or any kind of thinking that requires intense focus. While it might be challenging to step outside ‘business mode,’ the mind sometimes needs a rest from bottom-line thinking. Consider taking a mental vacation and indulge in something you’re passionate about. Then come back, refreshed, to the task(s) at hand. You may see things in a very different light. Being with beautiful things (art, nature, passions) creates connections that we often neglect to notice.
  2. Shut down your inner critical voice. Notice I said “critical.” Don’t think. Disable the part of your brain that observes what you’re doing. This is your ego, your sabotage, your self-consciousness. Be in the moment (I know, I say this often). Stop second-guessing everything you’re doing. It serves no purpose to be hard on yourself. Remind yourself that you are creative and that you’re doing what you’re doing not to impress anyone.
  3. Experiment and play with possibility. It’s easy to dismiss unusual or different solutions which you haven’t tried. People often think of all the possible ways that something won’t work. And they easily dismiss the idea of experimenting. We can’t foretell the future even though many would like to. Simply go forward into it in a creative and exciting new way.
Source: Getty Images

Source: Getty Images

Like a Shag on a Rock

“I lived in solitude in the country and noticed how the monotony of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind” ~ Albert Einstein

Australian slang can be a complete mystery to people not from there; as with this title. When “shag” is used as a noun, the expression simply means that one is lonely or exposed, seeing as the regular behavior of a shag is to stand on a rock with its wings outstretched to dry off after diving for fish.

In the past week I read two articles that had me rethink the topics of solitude and being alone. In the Northern Hemisphere it’s vacation time. What could be better than an ice-cold beverage and being alone with your thoughts. As it turns out, just about anything. According to research from psychologists at the University of Virginia and Harvard, people would rather do something – even engage in a little masochistic distraction – than do nothing. On average, most respondents said they didn’t enjoy having nothing to do. The study can be found here.

In a Bloomberg article, doctoral student David Reinhard at the University of Virginia stated, “It seems that the mind may want to engage with the external world, even if that engagement involves pain.” He added, “We may seek out technology because entertaining ourselves with only our thoughts is difficult and technology is an easily available alternative.” “But because we often seek out external stimulation from technology we may then lose practice with entertaining ourselves with our thoughts and that in turn makes it more difficult and less enjoyable.”

Although loneliness and solitude are often thought to be the same experience, little could be further the truth. Loneliness manifests itself as a sense of emptiness and isolation while solitude creates a sense of communion within the self. In loneliness we ache. In solitude we feast. In loneliness we have no one. In solitude we are one with the self.

Personally, I’m comfortable being a shag on a rock. I use that space to ask: What’s really important to me? What do I really want? If you are looking for ways to clear out the clutter or the noise and celebrate who you are, here are three simple ideas:

  1. Start a morning ritual. Wake up little earlier and squeeze in some alone time before you start your day. You can meditate, pray, journal, draw. This process can also give you time to focus yourself before the day.
  2. Be your own muse. When you’re alone, you are the only one stopping yourself from doing something. Discover new foods, people, places, cultures. When you’re alone you have more time to create something meaningful. Get inspiration from your alone time!
  3. Hole yourself up. You can do this in your office or at home. Close the door or find quiet space or use headphones with calming music. Let others know to not disturb you. The key is to find a way to shut out the outside world. Then, be at peace with your thoughts.

Anticipating Risks

“Perhaps extreme danger strips us of all pretenses, all ambitions, all confusions, focusing us more intensely than we are otherwise ever focused, so that we remember what we otherwise spend most of our lives forgetting: that our nature and purpose is, more than anything else, to love and to make love, to take joy from the beauty of the world, to live with an awareness that the future is not as real a place for any of us as are the present and the past.” ~ Dean Koontz

It doesn’t seem that 11 years have past since Aron Ralston amputated his arm, five days after he was trapped by a boulder in the beauty of a remote Utah Canyon. Alone with no one knowing his whereabouts, he was literally at life’s brink. The sheer will to experience his future while in extreme danger, now makes for an inspiring life story. A story that could have had a different outcome.

Many of us make (conscious and unconscious) choices about how we want to experience wellness, financial freedom, relationships, adventure, and professional success. And there are people (guides, actuaries, underwriters and extreme sports participants) who meticulously plan and model events and possible outcomes. They prudently assess risk.

Aron Ralston didn’t expect what he encountered. Yes, it was a freak accident yet he planned for his outing poorly. And he nearly lost his life. Aron is an extreme example. In your everyday life, do you adequately (if not thoroughly) consider risks? Do you rethink activities to recognize dependent events that could lead to an extreme event? Do you plan for and anticipate the unexpected?

There are countless ways in which to plan for the unanticipated. It simply takes intentional time and effort. Whether you want to mitigate your fears or fulfill your dreams (a pretty broad range, right?), here are three considerations when planning potentially risky endeavors:

  1. Have conversations with people who have ‘traveled the path you’re considering.’ Learn what their experiences yielded. Factor for unlikely events happening. And plan for risky scenarios, even if they have low probabilities. It’s not always the obvious or likely that manifests.
  2. Prioritize hypothetical situations and gauge how you would logically and emotionally react and respond (there is a difference between the two). Understand how you deal with stress and anxiety. Even after losing 40 pounds in five days and drifting in and out of delirium, Aron Ralston summoned the strength and determination to focus.
  3. Share your well-developed plans with others. As attractive and exciting as ‘soloing’ might be, consider the advantages of partnering with someone. Shared experiences are valuable and memorable, too!

I invite you to reflect on these as you plan business decisions, personal ambitions, and all that is important to you.

Present Moment Mind-set

“But non-doing doesn’t have to be threatening to people who feel they always have to get things done. They might find they get even more ‘done,’ and done better, by practicing non-doing. Non-doing simply means letting things be and allowing them to unfold in their own way. Enormous effort can be involved, but it is a graceful, knowledgeable, effortless effort, a ‘doerless doing,’ cultivated over a lifetime.”  ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn

Yes this is the longest quote with which I’ve opened a post. Consider reading it again.

Recently, I wrote about patience. And no sooner did I share thoughts about the art of patience, then mine was tested. 🙂 I am rarely one to become angry with an individual who is lost or confused. My inclination is to understand and help, if possible. But if we have a driving experience in which we find ourselves feeling impatient, we can become agitated. The flip side is that by experiencing these feelings, we have an opportunity to see ourselves and monitor/change our reaction(s). So what did I do?

Here is something to ponder: As we age, chronologically, do we become more thoughtful and accepting of others’ behavior or do we become impatient and increasingly opinionated? My take is that whatever is showing up in our current experience is meant to be there or it wouldn’t be. This helps me put things into perspective. And even if you do not believe in fate, what happens in the present moment helps us to consider that everything has a useful meaning or purpose.

Put simply, being in the present moment (similar to flow), with any given situation, is about losing yourself in whatever you are doing – forgetting about the outside world and choosing to instead, focus your perspective. In my driving example and from a place of awareness, I can then choose to feel compassion for those who are banging their steering wheels and honking their horns at a confused driver, rather than join in (which I did not).

If mindfulness and being in the present moment seem an attractive ‘space,’ these three acts may help:

  1. When you eat, just eat. (Note to self:) When you are eating, do not think or read about something else or type a blog post. Just eat. Pay attention to what you are eating. Experience it – the taste, the texture. Savor the moment. Just do what you are doing now, and nothing else.
  2. Accept things. Acceptance of an unpleasant state does not mean you do not have goals for the future. It just means that certain things are beyond your control. Sadness, stress and/or pain is there whether you like it or not. Better to embrace the feeling as it is.
  3. Do one thing at a time. Quite often when we multi-task, our attention is never 100% where it ought to be. Not all multi-tasking is negative, but we can focus on being in the present moment for the task at hand. If you try to do one thing at a time, your goal for mindfulness would be easier and you would likely feel less stressed, yet still productive.

Intentional Awareness

“Don’t always believe everything you think.” ~ John Fulton

Here are some modern maxims: You are what you eat. You are what you wear. You are what you do. You are what you think. Do you believe any of them? Especially the last one? If your thoughts are like mine, they’re always changing and sometimes have little to do with things that I’m actually doing or want to do. Quite often, thoughts can distract and sometimes capture our attention to the exclusion of all else.

In awareness practice, we become more aware of what’s going on within us and around us by choosing where to place our attention. We can choose to place our attention on our thoughts, or on our breath or our body. We can choose to just notice our thoughts without being them; without having to believe them, judge them, or take action on them. Then we are free to choose how we respond to life.

Awareness can be considered as a simple system which produces clarity around your emotions, thoughts, and feelings, and gives you more choices.

Taking this a step further, awareness can be heightened when coupled with intent. We tend to associate intent with complicated actions that require our full attention and effort to succeed. For example, walking a tightrope, taking a test, or taking a vow are all tasks that require us to be fully present and single-minded. Intent has the power to transform seemingly mundane tasks into significant experiences.

In today’s world, however, we are doing one thing and thinking of something else, or even doing three things at the same time. There is nothing wrong with multi-tasking, which is necessary at times. However, balancing this with doses of intentional activity can provide valuable insight into the benefits of focusing on one thing at a time; being fully present with whatever invites your awareness.

You can apply intent to any situation by simply saying, “I am aware that I am now awake” or “I am aware that I am driving to work” or “I am aware that I am preparing dinner” or “I am aware that I am breathing.” As you acknowledge what you are doing in any given moment, you own your actions instead of habitually performing them. And in owning your actions, you realize how often you act without intention and how this disengages you from reality. Imagine what would happen if you were intentionally aware every moment of every day?

As you intentionally focus, here are three ways to be more aware:

  • Filter your thoughts through multiple lenses. Ask (for example), How would Einstein think? How would God think? How would my father think? This dialogue helps to broaden your perceptions, and open your own views on life and situations.
  • Observe new things. We have so many habits and routines we become oblivious. Start by noticing everything you do with a new consciousness. Begin slowly and build upon this capacity.
  • Take an honest look at yourself. Assess your strengths and weaknesses to gain knowledge and increase performance. An honest self-assessment allows you to identify with and understand the wants, needs, and viewpoints of those around you. This will help you excel at building and maintaining relationships, listening, and relating to others.