This last weekend Thom, Kloe and I took a short trip down to Baja Mexico to visit friends. We hadn’t been to Rosarito in years and we hadn’t visited our longtime friends Larry & Jose since they bought their stunning condo perched on the rugged coastline. We had a wonderful time—lots of great conversation, plenty of laughter, tasty food, soaking in the hot tub, playtime with Kloe and her new dog girlfriend Tasha, a couple of bottles of nice wine and even a sip or two of the “new” almond tequila. But toward the end of the mini-vacation we hit a slight “hitch.” Luckily, we both quickly remembered that we “get to make it up” and decided to ignore the hitch and focus on the good. After all, did we want to remember the fun from the amazing previous four days, or the small “black dot” towards the end? And as usual, what we chose to focus on and remember, is up to us.
I learned the illustration of the “black dot” from a workshop teacher of ours named Tom Costa. Tom, or Dr. Tom, as he was called, used a large white board to make his point. On a completely blank whiteboard he used a black marker and put a dot, no bigger than a quarter, right in the middle. Then he told us not to look at the black dot. Easier said than done. Like a wreck at the side of the highway, or a blemish on someone’s cheek, our eyes and attention are normally drawn to anything that stands out and looks different in any landscape in our line of vision. While our brain uses that automatic response in order to make our days flow more smoothly, if we let our unfocused subconscious rule our lives, then we spend our days concentrating on the “black dots” rather than the blessings.
I realize that this idea is very similar to the one I just wrote about last week when I urged us all to “Be About Your Business.” But if you’re anything like me you can use a reminder like this one just about every day. I know, just like you, that what I focus on, largely determines the quality of my experience. I also know, again like most of you, that what I think about, I frequently bring about in my life. I’ve read the Buddha statement, “what you dwell upon, you become” so many times I can recite it in my sleep—but that doesn’t mean I am immune to black dots when they show up in my life.
And guess what? According to scientific studies, the ability to focus gets worse as we age unless we do something to strengthen the process. A report recently published in the “Journal of Neuroscience” suggests that older adults are usually less capable of filtering out distracting information than those much younger. An example of this is the age-old problem of not being able to find your keys. According to the study, because older subjects appear less able to filter out irrelevant information, when looking for anything specific they are more likely to be distracted by clutter. In other words, without the ability to focus on any item you are searching for (i.e. keys) your mind will be equally attracted and distracted by everything else you encounter. Hence, it will be harder to find those darn keys!
In fact, similar studies in ageing adults say that decline in memory performance also leads from the same inability to ignore irrelevant information when forming memories. Studies using electroencephalogram (EEGs) show that when confronted with conflicting information, a distraction occurs within 200 milliseconds after it appears. That means that our minds absorb data faster than a blink of an eye, and instantaneously decides whether we will pay attention, process or ignore it. Obviously this is happening so quickly that trying to consciously ignore a problem or distraction is virtually impossible.
Unfortunately, younger adults aren’t off the hook either. A recent project at Stanford University proves that today’s multitasking adults and high-tech jugglers also find it both hard to focus on one thing at a time or concentrate on anything for any length of time. According to project researcher Professor Clifford Nass, “They’re suckers for irrelevancy…Everything distracts them.” Not only are video gamers and heavy iphone/ipad/computer users frequently distracted and unable to focus, the study went on to prove that these same multi-taskers do an equally lousy job at remembering data.
So what’s the solution? The answer is fairly simple but not necessarily easy. More than anything, we need to train our subconscious brain to focus on what we want in our lives until it becomes our default. The way to do that is to consciously utilize practices and techniques every single day that help us make the art of focusing a habit. Here are a six ways to do just that:
#1 Meditate. Taking the time and learning to meditate is likely the single most profound thing you can do to reverse the effects of aging, multi-tasking and technology on your ability to focus. If you don’t like the idea of meditation, then think of it as training your brain to focus for a short time every single day. Because guess what? —That is pretty much what meditation is all about. While some groups think it is a religious practice, and it can be, it is also any practice that requires you to focus on something (or nothing) for a length of time.
#2 Limit technology when possible. While we all know that technology can positively benefit our lives, we tend to ignore the fact that it is distracting us from concentration and reducing our ability to focus.
#3 Reduce multi-tasking. Face it, research shows that even though people believe that multi-tasking makes them more productive, dozens of studies show that it can fracture our thinking and distort our focus. If you want your thinking to be at its best and come up with the best and most creative solutions, it is wise to take on one thing at a time.
#4 Cut back on your email. Okay, this is a hard one for me. But I just discovered that a study done by the University of CA, Irvine, and the U.S. Army found that people who avoid email on a regular basis are less stressed and more productive. This study went on to show that people who use email regularly “switched windows an average of 37 times per hour!”
#5 Spend time in nature. Spending time in a natural surrounding is both good for our health and for our stress levels. Not only does it remove distractions, it also puts us more in tune with the world around us and helps us discover where we fit in the overall Universe.
#6 Create art! There are so many positive attributes involved with creativity that I can (and probably will!) write an entire blog post about it. But keep in mind in order to create anything you have to focus, and that is training in itself. When you think about it, art flows out of clarity of mind and a focused intent—obviously a great way to teach our minds to focus.
So where do black dots fit into all this? Think about it. If I can’t stop thinking about the one small hitch/problem/irritation that occurred yesterday in spite of all the other good that has happened since, I have a focusing problem. Same thing if we spend much of our day talking about what’s wrong, instead of what went right. Or if the only thing you remember hearing your spouse/lover/roommate/boss say was that one criticism out of piles of positive feedback all week, you may be unable to filter the bad from all the good. Make no mistake, if our life seems to be filled with black dots, we’ve made our focus of them a habit—and it can be changed!
As usual, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know—just reminding us both of something that we forget far too often. Plus, I’m not denying that sometimes bad, painful or difficult things happen that deserve our attention—only that in spite of it all we are the ones who decide how we will see those issues, what we will remember, and what stories we will tell about the experience. Of course, most of the time the things that happen to us on any given day contain a little bit of this and that, plus some great and some not so great events. Fortunately, if we have properly trained our unconscious to ignore the black dots and focus on the good, our days will be filled with fond memories and happy moments.
“The trick is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.” ~Carlos Castaneda
“Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have – life itself.” ~Walter Anderson