Living the focused life is not about trying to feel happy all the time…rather, it’s about treating your mind as you would a private garden and being as careful as possible about what you introduce and allow to grow there.
This quote, tucked innocuously at the end of the third chapter of Rapt, Winifred Gallagher’s 2009 ode to focus, is life-changing.
Gallagher’s book begins with a cancer diagnosis (“not just cancer, but a particularly nasty, fairly advanced kind”). She realizes that this disease wants to claim her attention, and that this was no way to live what may be the last moments of her life. So she launches an experiment to reclaim her attention, relentlessly redirecting it towards the things that matter most: “big ones like family and friends, spiritual life and work, and smaller ones like movies, walks, and a 6:30 pm martini.”
Gallagher comes away from the experiment with a good prognosis for her disease and a visceral appreciation of a surprising fact: “life is the sum total of what you focus on,” yet most people expend little effort cultivating this focus.
This lack of cultivation comes through clearly in the student e-mails I receive. A recent request for advice, for example, noted:
“I feel overwhelmed and worried about these exams…as I see all this work [accumulate] I have doubts whether I can do it and get the grades or if it’s already too late.”
The student goes on to detail a doomsday scenario ending in his expulsion from college. A similar e-mail I received earlier this week begins:
“I am a rising senior and EXTREMELY stressed out and anxious about graduation, because I don’t have a set plan.”
In addition, I receive, on average, three or four e-mails per week from students obsessing over their qualifications for graduate, medical, or law school. Earning a “B” on a single test in a single class can spark an epic rumination on the student’s imminent failure in life.
These examples underscore an important reality: no amount of planning, productivity, or accomplishment will provide you an interesting and happy life if you allow your mind to run amok — ruminating on what has or could go wrong; fixating on slights and fantasy dialogues with invented nemeses; leaping perpetually to day dreams of some quixotic future where everything finally works out.
This is why Gallagher’s quote proves arresting. She both diagnoses the problem and describes the remedy: Training your mind is crucial in building a good life.
For some reason, however, us in the advice-dispensing business tend to sidestep this reality. It’s uncomfortable, I suppose, to transgress the boundary into the private space of our mental lives. Sure, we’ll occasionally stick a toe over the line, and tell our readers to overcome their fear of failure or to shake off society’s pressure to conform, but the messier mental gunk that coats so much of our inner world remains out of scope.
I want to put an end to this taboo…
I’ll start with an admission: I spend time, every day, tending to my mind. For example, I practice walking meditation each morning, and I use a shutdown routine, backed by extensive organization systems, to free my thoughts from work-related rumination during the evenings. These are just two examples from a large and aggressive collection of strategies I dedicate to cultivating my focus — a collection I review and polish once a week.
This is hard work and the results take time to manifest. But it’s work that I think all but the most naturally optimistic must include in their strategies for self-improvement, and this is why I want to start talking openly about the subject.
If you find yourself in a state of constant, draining, distracting thought, don’t confine your efforts to the outward causes. It’s important, of course, to fix the inefficient study habits that keep your grades erratic, or to reassess your understanding of passion when grappling with job satisfaction, but you should also dedicate effort inward, to weeding your mental garden, preventing the next batch of concerns — and there will always be a next batch — from leeching so many nutrients from your soul matter.
Perhaps the best motivation for this effort can be found in the words of Gallagher, who concludes: “I’ll live the focused life, because it’s the best kind there is.”
(Photo by Joel Bedford)