Today’s post is a continuation on and elaboration of my December 11, 2010 post: “Think About What You’re Thinking About.” It offers a somewhat different perspective on the basic concept of disciplining your mind to notice and focus on what can potentially serve and motivate you. This instead of allowing our thoughts and emotions to follow their often natural drift toward a potentially negative, unhappy outcome. I say “natural drift” because evolution has biased us towards perceiving the risk / danger in situations rather than the opportunity. After all, primitive humans who lived in a very hostile environment with access to little protection from adversaries – human or otherwise – and were wary would tend to outlive and out-reproduce those who were physically or emotionally less on their guard.
I’ve had occasion this past week to pay particular attention to what I was “featuring” in my mind. Unfortunately Leo, the fantastic part-bobcat pet of mine that I blogged about in late October, has been diagnosed with untreatable malignant cancer. The tumor (which is on his back) appeared out of nowhere very suddenly 2 1/2 weeks ago, and in that short period of time has grown enormously. As Leo is only six years old, the terminal diagnosis was particularly upsetting (cats can typically live 18 or 20 years).
Grief is one of the most fundamental emotions wired into us, and it is intense. Yet I’ve noticed that I have a degree of control over it, if I choose to exercise it. My emotions have been unusually volatile. They have ranged through all of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ well-known five stages of grief, although in unpredictable and varying order: denial, anger, “bargaining*,” depression, and acceptance. They have also ranged into happy, grateful. and tranquil (equanimous) places.
In part the fluctuation is explained by changes in Leo’s behavior. When I notice ways in which he is acting like his “normal” self I tend to be reassured and peaceful. When I focus on his “abnormal,” behavior (loss of energy, reduced purring) I start to envision his deterioration, suffering, and death, and my emotions follow. But what I do have control over is what I choose to notice, and where I allow my attention to rest. When I’m in sessions talking with my clients about career or their relationships, Leo is out of my mind. I make the choice to shift my attention to my clients’ issues rather than the grief with which I am dealing. True, grief can "sneak up" on you, welling up from deep inside. But from that point you can begin to decide how long you want to remain in the grief, and therefore when it's time to notice something else about your experience. The same principle applies to other intense emotions, even those like anger and hatred which are fueled by adrenalin. Very tough to place part of your awareness on what you're experiencing and whether you want to continue, tough but possible.
It’s easier when you have a scheduled source of distraction than when you’re left to your own devices, but again with practice you can “schedule” the distraction (the alternative focus) for any given moment. Diverting my attention from my grief felt in a way dishonoring of my love for my pet, but what purpose would have been served by my remaining locked on to the grief?
The key to my ability to shift my focus, and hence my emotional state, has depended entirely on my noticing what I’m noticing. There’s a part of me that remains outside of the emotions that I’m feeling at any given time, that is a neutral observer of the drama being enacted in my life. It’s an observer that is within each of you, but that, to be strengthened, must also be repeatedly noticed. We’re generally unaware of this observer because we tend to immerse ourselves so fully in what we’re feeling at any given moment that the more distant but more objective view is obscured. A good exercise to strengthen your ability to get in touch with your observer is to set a phone alert to go off every hour. When the alert sounds, write down where your attention is at that moment (writing is a more powerful tool than merely thinking about what you were feeling). Just as for certain scenes a movie director instructs the cameraman to zoom in on a particular aspect so that we notice it, we can develop the ability to turn our noticing in just about any direction. A GPS can direct you to just about any place, but it needs to know where it is before it can do so. Notice what you’re noticing.
*Bargaining involves the hope that death can somehow be avoided or delayed if the proper “sacrifice” is made. Usually the negotiation for an extended life is made with a higher power in exchange for a “purer” or “holier” lifestyle.