I came across this excellent metaphor on how to focus attention this week, and I have to share it.
You’re driving down the road, and a giant bug splats on the window right in front of you. Maybe you startle a bit as the splat suddenly enters your awareness. Then what?
You can focus all of your attention on the bug guts splattered on your window. Or, you can focus your attention on the road ahead. You’re still aware of the bug, but your attention is focused on the road.
Let’s say, though, that the bug grosses you out or annoys you and you just don’t want it there (you just cleaned your windshield!). What happens if you try to remove the bug from your awareness? If you try to deny its existence or pretend like it’s not there? That gunk on your car will stand out even more!
Paradoxically, trying not to notice something actually makes you fixate on it more. (Those of you who hate certain sounds know exactly what I’m talking about here). And, if you go more extreme and close your eyes, well, that’s disastrous. Either you have to pull your car over, which means you won’t get anywhere, or you’re going to crash. Neither sounds like a good option.
So, you rule out those options, but you still just do not want that bug to be there. As you focus on the bug, you start thinking…about how nasty it is, how it shouldn’t be there, about how you’re going to grab the paper towels and windex when you get home and clean all the smudges, whatever. It doesn’t really matter what those specific thoughts are. You’re ruminating now, which is a pretty unhelpful mental habit. Your attention is fully absorbed by your thoughts. You’re in your head, which means that you’re not in the moment. You’re actually missing out on real life.
The more we pay attention to the present moment, the happier we tend to be, even when those present moments are unpleasant (like a bug splat). And like that bug, unwanted thoughts, feelings, sensations, memories, events, and circumstances may crop up, whether we want them to or not.
Whether we asked for them, caused them, or had anything to do with them. What shows up in our awareness isn’t necessarily under our control. Where we focus our attention, however, is.
Choosing to pay attention to the things that help move us in the direction we want to go is a powerful psychological strength move. It takes a lot of self-awareness and practice, but it’s so worth it!
“What you do with your attention is in the end what you do with your life.”
― John Green
P.S. A big thank you to Carl Robbins and Dr. Sally Winstead, professional colleagues at the Anxiety and Stress Disorder Institute of Maryland, for sharing this metaphor.