To achieve any goal, the ability to focus and concentrate our power of attention is crucial.
The modern world vies for our attention in a million different ways and through a million different avenues- television, the internet, clever marketing, partying, worries about money and existential threats to our survival… just to name a few.
Most people do not take any intentional steps to combat the inundation of information that unceasingly overloads our nervous systems. Instead, we end up getting caught up in the riptide current of noise and confusion.
With attention and focus scattered in a million directions, many are rendered too distracted and impotent to self direct their life course. As a result, the majority of men and women end up taking the path of least resistance – being a product and propagator of whatever direction the culture leads them; a worker and a consumer.
If we don’t consciously choose where to direct our attention, we will be unable to push past barriers and persist through the inevitable trials and challenges that life will hand us. Further, we’ll have little control over the stories our minds generate about ourselves and the world, and will become easily discouraged.
To combat this trend, we must take active steps in our lives to harness and draw in (concentrate) our powers of attention.
When it comes to achieving goals and creating things of unique value for others, focus and attention are more important than ability or talent.
You could have all the ability and potential in the world, but with a distracted, diffused mind you will never achieve that which requires diligence, persistence, and consistent effort (anything worthwhile).
Your life will be lived on automatic. You’ll give up at any sign of adversity, or get lost in the glittery distractions of the modern world.
Success Is A State of Being
When you think of success, what comes to mind? For most, it is the realization of a goal (money, status, prestige, strength, etc.). Success is conventionally defined in terms of achievement. Dictionary.com defines success as, “the accomplishment of one’s goals.” Basically, to succeed means to reach a desired finite point in the future.
I’d like to present a different definition of success. To me, success is something that can only be attained in the present moment. Success is a process, not an end result. It is a choice to persevere through challenge and persist right now. After all, right now is the only time we can ever take action.
Success isn’t about outcomes and the momentary pleasure that comes with reaching a goal. It is about attitude and action.
In any moment, we can choose to be successful by giving our 100% focus to the tasks at hand. Reaching our goals will be an inevitable byproduct of a successful attitude towards the present moment.
Success is the ability to direct attention and effort towards that which is most essential. A successful person accepts his current position in life without judgment or worry. Obstacles in the way are merely seen as challenges to overcome and grow from. He then works consistently and deliberately, day in and day out, to achieve his goals and change his circumstances.
If you had the choice, would you choose to worry, complain, or feel sorry for yourself? Would you choose to become apathetic and give up when faced with challenge? (Read This: Own Your Emotions)
Engaging in these mental/emotional habits is true “failure,” since they do nothing except get in our way and paralyze us from taking action.
So, would you engage in these destructive thought patterns if you had the choice not to? Or would you choose to develop a successful relationship towards your circumstances and the present moment?
The Power of The Placebo Effect and Framing
Framing, or the narratives we tell ourselves about the events and circumstances of our lives, is a hugely important determining factor in cultivating a demeanor of success.
Science has repeatedly shown the power that the placebo effect has on our lives. Many write the placebo effect off as inconsequential (“It’s just placebo”).
More stock should be given to this phenomenon, however.
The placebo effect basically shows that our fundamental beliefs about situations directly affect the outcomes, and oftentimes in profound ways. If we believe that a sugar pill is actually an anabolic steroid, it will have a much more powerful effect on us than if we think it’s just sugar.
All else being equal, what we think can literally influence physical matter. Such is the power of our minds.
I do not necessarily mean this in the cliché “law of attraction” sense that merely thinking a certain way completely shapes our reality. But certainly, our consistent mental and emotional patterns do produce certain corresponding neurochemical reactions in the body.
We also selectively attend to information in our environment that validates our frame, which then turns it into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
[Quick example: If we are constantly thinking anxious thoughts, we will produce cortisol in the body, our minds will be less open to seeing solutions, we’ll be less charismatic, and be overall less primed for good things to happen to us.]
A lot of times, our internal mental states are determined by our external circumstances. People tend to give more energy and attention to “what is” than what they want to create.
If we’re poor and out of shape, our thoughts tend to turn towards how poor and out of shape we are, which only serves to fuel the fire of that paradigm via our daily (lack of) motivation and (lack of) actions.
If we’re healthy and wealthy, our thoughts tend to reflect that external circumstance, which also pumps momentum into that paradigm.
Regardless of the present circumstances of our lives, we can maintain consistently positive mental/emotional attention towards our goals. Action combined with a proper mindset/frame will produce the most profound results.
If we realize that to a degree, what we believe to be true can have a substantial impact in shaping the trajectory of our lives, then we can essentially choose helpful frames and omit ones that hurt us. We can then brainwash ourselves into believing these frames regardless of our present circumstances.
Doors will open up where only walls used to exist in our previously undisciplined use of our minds.
Other Real World Effects of Framing
Most of the time, most people are not consciously choosing their narratives. The narratives happen automatically and often are not useful or beneficial. Further, a lot of these frames are deeply embedded into our psyches; they are implicitly and explicitly instilled in us by parents, peers, school, the media, and past experiences.
The Neo-Darwinian “survival of the fittest” mentality, for example, frames the world through a competitive and selfish lens, where species must struggle and compete within and amongst each other for resources (as opposed to a world where species cooperate and live in an interconnected, symbiotic web).
Our relationships to the planet and one another reflects this collective framing of reality, and we come to feel that life is a competitive struggle to survive and gain resources (in essence a scarcity mindset).
In a blog post, Scott Adams (a political/social commentator and creator of Dilbert) talks about the palpable real world effects that framing has had upon America in relation to the presidential election.
He says, About half of the citizens of the United States think they elected a president who will “drain the swamp” in Washington DC and negotiate good trade deals for the public. But the other half believes they are living in 1930s Germany and the next Hitler just came to office. Those are very different movies, yet we all sit in the same theater at the same time. It’s trippy.
In this example, you can see how powerful framing and narratives are in determining our experience of the world. The same baseline reality has generated two entirely different narratives within the American public.
The differing interpretations of the election illustrate that people confuse the narratives overlaid onto reality with reality itself.
Aside from physical sensations, much of the negativity (or positivity) experienced by people is predominantly a result of the story/interpretation (frame) and NOT the event itself.
Frames powerfully inform our decision-making processes and can generate positive or negative emotional states within us without anything changing in our physical environment.
Any framing of reality is a relative perspective at best and, as in the case of the election, can be replaced with other equally convincing narratives.
Complaining, feeling discouraged or sorry for yourself, despising your current circumstances, guilting and shaming yourself or others, and worrying- are all framings of reality that are counterproductive and hold us back (how much do these patterns reflect the behaviors of the “Social Justice Warriors,” who in my opinion reflect very poor management of the mind and emotions?).
Looking at “setbacks” as challenging opportunities for growth and transformation is also a frame. Seeing yourself, no matter the ups and downs, as on a constant path of growth and development is another frame that is helpful to you.
Some of these frames are useful, and some aren’t. What’s important is to realize their interchangeability.
With increased focus, awareness, and attention comes the ability to consciously select the frames that are beneficial and stop running the frames that are counterproductive.
The Limitations of Framing
Any interpretation (frame) of reality is, by definition, limited. To frame is to explain, and to explain is to define something in specific terms. When you put full faith in a certain narrative, you have to omit lots of information that would contradict or invalidate that narrative.
This is not always problematic (and can be beneficial in certain instances), but it can cause us to formulate opinions based on a very biased, narrow and incomplete sets of information.
It’s not just negative framings of events that serve to limit our perception of reality. Positive frames can be just as detrimental. Hitler once stated, “By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise.”
Being “positive” and “optimistic” is certainly unwarranted in many cases (such as if you were living in Nazi Germany). It often leads to denial and pretending that our circumstances are better than they actually are out of a fear of facing reality.
The sensationalist news media excels at creating narratives based on incomplete or partial truths that have the effect of misleading people about the nature of the world they live in. Imagine that globally, a million good things happen in a day, and 4 bad things happen. If the media only reports on the 4 bad things that happened (because negative events garner attention), people will be led to think the world is more dangerous and evil than it actually is because they will never hear about the good things going on.
They develop a framing of the world based on very incomplete information. This limited frame is then mistaken for the total picture, when it’s actually just a very partial truth based on limited information.
If we believe that the threat of a terrorist attack is always looming over the horizon, for example, we will make much different decisions than if we realize the minimal chances of one occurring. We will be much more willing to give up our civil liberties in exchange for protection from an exaggerated threat.
Throughout history, narrow framings of reality and the accompanying set of agreed upon cultural assumptions have led to mental enslavement and the control of the masses by the few.
Transcend and Include: Cultivating Body Awareness to Use Our Minds Effectively
As Eckhart Tolle says, Strictly speaking, you don’t choose to think; Thinking happens to you. The statement “I think” implies volition. It implies that you have willfully chosen to think what you think (or that you think in the first place). For most people, this is not yet the case. “I think” is just as false a statement as “I digest” or “I circulate my blood.” Digestion happens, circulation happens, thinking happens.
Most people are unconsciously and automatically interpreting, judging and analyzing whatever is going on around them based on an inability to control their thoughts and frames.
We gain a false sense of comfort in believing we understand the world around us, but the downside is we become trapped inside of a very limited perspective (and life situation). We exchange the uncertainty (and potential expansion) that comes with not knowing for the comfortable prison of certitude.
Simply enough, this pattern can be combated with the cultivation of body awareness. Body awareness sharpens and concentrates our focus, which in turn helps us to refrain from adopting narrow personal and collective frames by activating the witness/observer within us.
When you can witness your thoughts and emotions without completely believing in them, you can choose to stop telling negative stories (and deluded positive ones).
As we hone our attention, we no longer will automatically put full stock in whatever narratives our minds churn out.
Body awareness cultivates your power of attention. For many of us, our attention is usually scattered outwardly into the external world and in thinking. When your attention is directed internally, you draw it out of distractions and literally concentrate it into bodily sensations.
As you make this a habit, your ability to choose where to direct your attention increases. Not to mention you become much more tuned in to the needs and desires of your body. Attention becomes like a beam of light that’s concentrated through a magnifying glass. Concentrated attention literally makes us more powerful and effective.
Indirectly, our resolve and ability to endure is strengthened as we become more “embodied” and grounded in our present moment reality.
This enables us to face life’s challenges head on instead of running into a pleasant mental fantasy, distraction or anxiety.
In a 2011 study in the Journal of Neuroscience, Dr. Fadel Zeidan and colleagues discovered that an increased capacity to direct attention into the body (via meditation techniques) effectively reduces a person’s subjective experience of physical and emotional pain by 27% and 44% respectively (a margin larger than the effectiveness of morphine and anxiety medications).
They go on to say:
Because meditation likely alters pain by enhancing cognitive control and reframing the contextual evaluation of nociceptive information, the constellation of interactions between expectations, emotions, and cognitive appraisals intrinsic to the construction of the sensory experience can be regulated by the meta-cognitive ability to nonjudgmentally sustain focus on the present moment.
Much of the time, thinking (and framing is an aspect of thinking) distracts us from feeling and inhabiting our bodies.
To achieve these results, I’m not necessarily asking you to sit in the lotus position and meditate. I don’t do this and it’s not necessary to achieve the results found in the study (although it could be helpful for you).
Simply making a habit of feeling into the body, fully engaging the senses, occasionally paying attention to the breath, and sitting with our emotions while going about daily life is all that’s required to generate focus and presence.
By making this habit a part of your daily life, you begin to separate your awareness/attention from stories and narratives and become aware of the neutral, baseline reality.
It is only at the point that we transcend frames/stories that we develop the power and ability to choose frames that are truly useful to us. When we can sense the world without judgment of it, we can then choose constructive judgments that serve to inspire and motivate us.
The Future Belongs To Those Who Can Focus
Now more than ever, the ability to choose where to focus our attention is the most important commodity we have. It is the highest determinant of success or failure.
We must develop the ability to choose our frames while at the same time practice drawing our attention inward, thereby increasing our powers of awareness observation and objectivity.
It takes concentrated effort and personal will to go against the current of culture and pave your own path.
If you are not in control of where you put your attention, the momentum of culture and society will literally consume you. A lack of focus and vigilance allows for external entities like corporations and manipulators to swoop in determine our opinions for us, as is being done currently in our consumer society (If you have time and interest, I highly recommend watching this four part BBC documentary on the matter).
I probably don’t need to convince that we are currently entering a brave new world. Technology has made many jobs obsolete, and the middle class is being hollowed out. Economic uncertainty continues to increase, and working for a corporation and having your livelihood dependent on factors out of your control is no longer a sustainable path. As a result, the world increasingly belongs to the creators and innovators.
In order to thrive in a rapidly changing world, we must grab the bull by the horns and take our lives into our own hands.
Learning to unplug from the multitude of distractions that vie for our attention and regain our powers of concentration and focus are essential to thriving in the coming years.
About The Author
Mike Wuest is a writer and personal trainer who motivates people to live life on their own terms. His goal is to deconstruct the personal and collective cultural mythologies that keep us apathetic and enslaved to disempowering belief systems.