The ability to decide is merely the ability to give attention. Whether we realize it or not at the time, we have chosen to look at whatever “has our attention” and have decided to turn away from everything else.—Hugh Prather
In the not-so-distant past, I traveled every week and often returned home on late-night flights.
One evening, my departing flight was very late; I was fatigued and would have a long drive home after landing. The best way to pass the waiting time was to find a relatively empty gate and nap.
I found a completely empty terminal. Shortly after I sat down, a forty-something woman took the seat just two away. She, too, was looking for a quiet space—but not to nap. She was calling a girlfriend to talk about her boyfriend. How curious, I thought; with all the empty space surrounding us, she was sitting next to me.
My quiet spot was no longer quiet. What should I do? Should I move? I needed to rest, but I restlessly listened to her conversation while checking my email.
Resistance to the moment, judgment, and anxiety are all signs that our awareness has become so contracted that we have surrendered our power of attention.
Contracting into our thought-based interpretation of reality means change becomes impossible.
“For to be wise is only one thing— to fix our attention on our Intelligence, which guides all things everywhere.” —Heraclitus
Her conversation continued, loud enough for me to hear. I was annoyed and disappointed, but then these questions came to me: Why was I treating her talk as relevant to me? Isn’t my need for rest more important? Seconds after those questions arose, I fell into a deep sleep.
I no longer heard her conversation after deciding it was irrelevant to me. My power of choice was restored the moment I observed I was choosing to be upset. I could make a different choice only when I decided the external event was not the source of my distress.
I awoke about a half-hour later, head drooping but feeling refreshed. The woman had gone.
Years after this airport incident, I’m still learning that lesson. From the comfort of my home, my head can be filled with noise that is not relevant to me. Paying excess attention to the chatter in your head is a form of multitasking. No matter how good you think you are at multitasking, it doesn’t work.
“Einstein didn’t invent the theory of relativity while he was multitasking at the Swiss patent office.”—David Meyer
How much attention I pay to that chatter determines the quality of my day. What difference is there, in truth, between irrelevant external chatter and irrelevant internal chatter?
Too much of my thinking involves thoughts of low-grade irritation. “Idle” thoughts have consequences.
Anxiety, dread, depression, worry, and all other forms of fear are offerings from my ego that do not have the power to “grab” my attention. They don't arise from reason or from truth. I am free to quietly observe any kind of fear, and if I will simply look at it, inner stillness can guide my actions. But the moment I assume that any solitary passing emotion is “the way I feel,” I lose control of my mind.—Hugh Prather
The ego part of our mind values conflict; the stories it weaves allow us to be the heroic victims. My story that night could have been how an inconsiderate person stopped me from getting needed sleep and how I, the “hero,” persevered anyway. Blah, blah, blah. I may have been right, but I would have won the booby prize.
Internal chatter maintains its hold by being in opposition to others. Notice when thoughts of conflict have a perverse gravitational pull in your life.
If you are quick to answer, they don’t, notice the next time you feel irritated or angry over a trivial event. Does a part of your mind value being upset? When you are willing to admit an attraction to conflict, you begin to restore your power of choice.
The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.—Marcus Aurelius
That evening at the airport, my conflict dissolved when I changed my mind and paid attention to what was relevant and meaningful in my life.
We are always determining our purpose, and our choice of purpose will determine what seems relevant to us.
Admittedly, not all conflicts are so quickly resolved. Yet, in many disputes, our internal chatter and unnecessary judgments about someone else’s motives impede a solution.
From the chatter's viewpoint, that night at the airport, there seemed to be only two choices: go storming off or be annoyed. There was another solution, but first, I had to stop justifying my feelings of annoyance.
Our ego’s goal is to make us mindless so that we attend only to our ego’s voice.
If we believe in our ego’s voice, that’s on us. We don’t have to believe that voice. That voice is not who we are.
It’s time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet. What’s in my thoughts at this moment? Fear? Jealousy? Desire? Feelings like that?—Marcus Aurelius
Sometime today, tune in to the low buzz of irritation, complaining, opinions, etc., running through your mind. Are you identifying with this chatter? Are you trying to resist the chatter? Are you trying to numb the chatter with habitual behaviors?
What do you have to believe to be true to see more of your thinking as irrelevant?
What good are you avoiding by giving attention to your chatter?
To slow the velocity of your thinking, allow irrelevant thoughts to pass harmlessly through your mind as clouds pass through the sky. As your thinking slows, Goodness takes center stage. That night at the airport, the highest need Goodness brought to my attention was my need for a nap. Other times it might mean I stop procrastinating on a needed task or reach out to others with kindness and compassion.
If you can observe the chatter, you can’t be the chatterer. Who you truly are is what remains when the chatter is gone. Your thoughts, ever-changing, do not define you.
Recognize the ego’s strategy keeps you blaming others and circumstances instead of exercising your power of choice. Without exercising the power of attention, you remain mindless. You have about as much choice as a non-player character (NPC) in a video game.
Although it may not seem like it, at this moment, we have come to a fork in the road. We decide where our attention goes, and our choice will make all the difference.
Thanks for reading Mindset Shifts—Essays by Barry Brownstein! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Your ability to perceive and respond to collective energy is yet another superpower. Thank you for this. A perfect opportunity to reclaim my attention.
Barry, once again your timing is excellent. I’ve benefited greatly from your essays and this is no exception. Thanks for being my teacher. V