Don’t you love the new-ish ability of our cell phone cameras to shift their point of focus through the picture? So you can decide which part of the image you want to be in focus, and which part will be sortof out of focus? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could learn to do the same?! To consciously shift our focus. To choose where we want to place our awareness, to be able to direct our attention at will. This would allow us to shift our focus off of things that we deem less than ideal, less helpful for our well-being; things like fear, anger, regrets about the past or worries about the future? And we could then consciously shift our awareness instead onto things that are better for us, that help us be present, joyful, grateful, connected? Things like gratitude practice, compassion (for self and others), time with loved ones, slowing down to appreciate the beauty around us…. and on and on. What would YOU choose to focus on? Take a minute to think about it.
Wanna know the good news? We CAN! We CAN learn to do this. It just takes practice. And this is one of the main benefits of practices like mindfulness and meditation (and of course yoga as a moving mindfulness practice). These practices train us to:
1. First become aware of where and what our focus and awareness are doing at any given point. Most of the time, unfortunately, we are totally unaware, while our minds and emotions are off galavanting about, jerking us around, dragging us through complicated gyrations and whirlwinds, without any real conscious approval from us. Because, let’s face it, if we COULD choose, we would never choose some of the places our minds go, right? But our untrained minds develop these habits (remember negativity bias) in an attempt to try to protect us, not realizing that the actual result is usually more suffering.
2. Next, once we begin to notice these fluctuations of our awareness, we can begin to understand how each one makes us feel, how it deeply affects the quality of our everyday experience. For example, when you find your mind running off to crazy fears, how does that make you feel, physically or emotionally? Muscle tension, stomach upset, heart palpitating, breath shallow, irritability, impatience? Not ways we would CHOOSE to feel, right? How about when you are exercising, or working in the garden, praying, meditating, laughing with your best friend, or petting your cat? Do you feel relaxed, peaceful, heart full and open, grateful, hopeful, confident? These are things we WOULD choose if we could, right?
3. And then, through practice, we learn to consciously direct our focus, our awareness, to the places of our choosing, to the places that we know will help us feel our best. We begin to recognize more quickly when we are falling into a less favorable place, and we consciously move our awareness to a better option. For example, when I notice my mind falling into a pit of fear or judgement (which of course are totally normal, but just aren’t my favorite places to stay), I’ll usually take a few deep breaths, and then choose how I’m going to pull myself out of it. Make a gratitude list, repeat a prayer/mantra/song that relaxes or soothes me, set positive intentions for a loved one or for myself, a few minutes of square breathing or stretching, or a quick change of scenery like going for a walk, taking a hot shower, or checking on my plants. By practicing mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or other mind-body exercises, we learn which tools work best for us, and then we get good at quickly putting them into action when needed.
What is most interesting about all of this is that it is really a pretty simple thing to learn to do. It just takes practice. And our minds are sooooo amazingly powerful once we just learn to use them for our benefit, rather than being drug around unwittingly by those wild and untrained thoughts. Swami Vivekananda said “The powers of the mind are like the rays of the sun; when they are concentrated, they illumine”. By learning focused awareness, we can direct that power like a laser beam, to illumine and develop our strengths. And while this skill would be helpful to anyone, it can be particularly helpful for us as cancer survivors, as we navigate through all of the extra ups and downs that having cancer brings.
So keep practicing, learn to consciously bring things into or out of your awareness at will. Focus on the things you choose to focus on, shine the light onto your best and highest self, and see the overall quality of your experience grow and blossom.