- TWIL (This Week I Learned)
This week I learned about attending: It’s difficult and I’d rather not.
I’ve nearly finished “The Mind and The Brain” (30 more pages!) by Jeffrey Schwartz
, a UCLA psychiatrist who I naively thought I could learn from back when I started my MSc in mental health counseling back in 2006.
Hmmm. Quick side story in “visualizing”. When I was a gymnast, back in the 1970s/80s, we were taught a sports psychology technique where you carefully visualize yourself accomplishing a routine. It took effort to attend to but I am thankful that it was part of my childhood. Because I just do it. Even now.
The thing is, I think, I learned this as a child (and also, in an extremely abusive setting), and had a child’s sensibility for a long time: if I attended to a visualization and it doesn’t materialize “perfectly” I could get pretty down.
I could see myself at UCLA, learning from Jefferey Schwartz. That didn’t happen — and I have been unable to finish the practicum / internship for that degree — but I have diligently studied mindfulness and my understanding of attending / of how to pay attention has grown over the years.
As an adult, I have that lovely balanced appreciation of not achieving what I (thought) I wanted but definitely learning what I needed to learn. That often happens through attending to what we (think we) want…
One day an old Cherokee man sits down with his grandson to teach him about life.
“A fight is going on inside of me,” he says to the boy. “It’s a terrible fight between two wolves. One is evil – he is full of rage, jealousy, arrogance, greed, sorrow, regret, lies, laziness, and self-pity.”
He continues, “The other is good – he is filled with love, joy, peace, generosity, truth, empathy, courage, humility, and faith. This same fight is going on inside the hearts of everyone, including you.”
— Mateo Sol
“The effect of attention on the brain offers a rational, coherent, and intuitively satisfying explanation for the interaction between mind and brain, and for the causal efficacy of mental force. ” — Jeffrey Schwartz “The Mind and The Brain”
That twist on the ending that Mateo Sol provides highlights the importance of not starving out a part of ourselves that we feel shame / regret / anger / or grief around. We do need to hold space for, balance, sit with, those things as well, so that we come to integration.
Honestly, attending, paying attention, is both the simplest and possibly most challenging thing we do / don’t do :)
Do you worry? Feel anxiety? Ruminate a bit? Pay attention to stuff that is unhelpful?
Do you avoid paying attention to things that are unpleasant?
Is it hard to stay focused long enough to finish learning something you know you should learn? Etcetera! <= The answer is actually YES to all if you are human :)
Attending, paying focused attention requires effort, requires an acceptance, requires compassion…
But…consider this. Did you know…that if you actually start attending to that thing in your life that requires your effortful attention, your brain will listen to you and new pathways will form making that new way, new learning, new thought pattern easier and easier and more and more natural until it requires little effort? It’s true. It’s just really challenging to start…
Consider a small change you would like to make. Perhaps you find yourself saying negative things about yourself at certain times. Perhaps you find yourself worrying about things without actually taking steps to solve the issue. Perhaps you find yourself speaking negatively about others.
Let’s start: Dr. Schwartz came up with a 4 - Step method over twenty years ago that’s highly effective. It’s really really hard to start. It takes effort and will and more effort. But … it works!
- Re-label — each time you have your unwanted thought, re-label it. Call your thought what it is: instead of “I have to do X” tell yourself “I am feeling a compulsive urge to do X”
- Re-attribute — Call it what it is: “an intrusion, a false message, a glitch.”
- Re-focus — This is the most challenging step, but it does get easier. You replace your old behaviour for a new behaviour. Compassion, patience, acceptance are so important. You simply, gently, persistently, rewire your brain by consistently taking a different action, saying a different thing.
- Re-value — with time and attention, you begin to actually re-value your behaviour. The old behaviour becomes a simple distraction, something you no longer need. Your new behaviour becomes who you are.
5. Level-UP / Go Deeper
Practicing mindfulness is one of those things, I think, that seem so easy that we all say we want to do it…but…well, life gets in the way. After this fire season, after the pandemic…
I think that is where compassion comes in. Do what you can, keep moving forward, reward yourself tons for small wins. Over time, it can become so clear that the work is cumulative, the effort pays off.