Our emotions are often less complex than we imagine. Most people think that the things that have hurt you are what cause you to experience emotional pain, and that in order to heal and experience real happiness you must resolve those old wounds. The reality, however, is somewhat different.
You can only feel emotions, including the painful ones, in the present moment. And what you feel in the present moment is determined by what you give your attention to. Nothing can hurt you unless you give it your attention. Most people can make themselves cry in just a few minutes by simply pulling up a vivid memory of something that was, at that time, painful. So why would you give your attention to things that cause pain? Some negative events can hold your attention if you perceive them to be a threat, but most people who ruminate on a negative past are simply unaware that they are doing it or that there is any choice in the matter. Things you are unaware of are outside your control. Learning how to become aware of what you are paying attention to, and more important, how to shift your attention to something that makes you feel better, is one of the most powerful tools there is for improving emotional well-being.
As far back as the 1890s, William James wrote extensively about the relationship between selective attention and experience, making the profound observation that “my experience is what I agree to attend to.” Modern cognitive psychologists have demonstrated through research that we are active participants in our process of perception, confirming that what we think and feel is determined by what we pay attention to. Not only do we have the ability to shift our attention away from painful things and give our attention to more pleasant thoughts or memories — but as we do this, it inhibits our ability to think about the unpleasant painful things. This happens because attention works on an activation/inhibition model: When you give attention to negative things, it literally inhibitsyour ability to see positive things; that’s why psychologists often say that people with depression see a more depressed world. The more you start to give your attention to things that feel good, over time, the more you will start to see a more positive world, and find yourself noticing fewer of the negatives in life.
Once you are aware you can do it, shifting your attention is something over which you can exert complete control. You can choose what you want to pay attention to, and as a result, how you want to feel. The results are almost immediate. Try this with a friend: The next time you are talking with someone who is telling you about something negative happening to them, ask them to tell you about some positive experience instead. Then, notice the change in their facial expressions. When people start to talk about positive events that feel good, they start to smile; it is an almost involuntary reaction.
Does that sound too easy? Here is a tip that will make it even easier. There are only two things in life that you can pay attention to that cause you to experience emotion: Things you want and things you don’t want. Every single thing that you can think of that causes any type of significant emotion can be sorted into one of those two categories. Breakups, job loss, betrayal, death of a loved one — all things you don’t want. Pets, best friends, birthday parties, getting a raise — all things you do want.
You will always know when you are giving your attention to things that you don’t want in life; your emotions will tell you. Paying attention to things you don’t want generates negative emotions, while paying attention to things you do want generates positive ones. When you realize that you are experiencing a negative emotion, recognize in that moment that you are giving your attention to something unwanted and consciously choose to shift your attention to something you want instead. You will start to feel better almost immediately.
This type of proactive avoidance isn’t unhealthy: Joseph Ledoux, an NYU neuroscientist and expert on Emotional Intelligence, refers to it as a positive coping strategy that can give you greater control over your life. Attentional control training has been shown effective in the treatment of depression and anxiety. One way to shift your attention to the positive that we know works very well is to practice gratitude: Things that you are thankful for are all wanted things.
One of the most self-sabotaging things that people can give their attention to is an unwanted future. Nothing in the future has actually happened, yet many people spend a good deal of their time experiencing negative emotions like anxiety, fear, and self-doubt, because they are giving their attention to things they don’t want to occur. Doing this not only robs them of their present-moment happiness, but also prevents them from thinking about the positive experiences they could be creating in their future instead.
Our attention is the gateway to what we experience in life. Learning to notice what you are paying attention to, and how to redirect your attention to things you want, can change not only your current experience, but also the life you create for yourself going forward.
The concept of being in the present moment has become synonymous with our idealized sense of peace and well-being. This idea has been lauded so much over the past decade by psychologists, spiritual leaders, and pop-culture authors that many of us have come to believe that thinking about the past or the future is something to be wary of, if not the very culprit of our mental distress. But as happens with ideas of iconic proportion, when the context is lost, so is the meaning. The phrase being in the present moment comes from the idea of being mindful, which has its origins in Eastern philosophy and religions. Mindfulness is a mental skill that increases awareness through our ability to focus attention, and it is used as a tool in many forms of cognitive psychotherapy.
Despite its origins, mindfulness has nothing to do with religion, nor is it about thinking of any one time frame. Mindfulness is about being consciously aware of thoughts and feelings that are happening in the present moment, as opposed to being in default mode. If you’ve ever been driving and passed your exit on the freeway or arrived at your destination with little recollection of how you got there, you were operating on autopilot, in default mode. To reduce the load of data that our brain has to process, we consolidate the information we’ve learned into automatic or procedural processes. This allows us to do more by thinking less. We are more able to multitask, but the downside is that we aren’t giving our full attention to our experiences and thus aren’t fully engaged, and perhaps, more important, we aren’t as able to make conscious choices. When you aren’t using your mind to consciously decide your actions, you are just doing whatever you’ve learned to do in the past. This can make it very difficult to break bad habits and choose new ways to do things.
The reality is we can only experience thoughts and emotions in the present moment; it is the only place we exist. However, in the present you can, with conscious awareness, think about any time frame, past, present, or future. If your goal is to lead a fulfilling life, then how you allocate your thoughts in these time frames matters. The past is gone. We can never bring it back, except by bringing our attention to it. The present, no matter how awful or sweet it may be, is constantly leaving. It is what just passed. Holding on to it is impossible. The future, however, is constantly arriving. The arrival of the future and the now we live in are one and the same.
For the most part, what arrives in our present to become a lived experience is not an accident. We have the power to greatly influence the future by consciously making present-moment choices that are consistent with the future we want. Practicing mindfulness can slow us down, take us out of default mode, and give us a window of opportunity between thought and action, where we can make a choice to allow a better future.
It is how we think about the future that determines whether the outcome is beneficial. You can think about what you want and how to make it happen, or you can think about what you don’t want and worry about how to prevent it from happening. The first way increases your chances of bringing positive emotions and experiences into your life, while the second causes you to experience negative emotions about things that may never happen; further, it decreases the amount of time and energy you have for creating positive experiences.
Most of the time, when we are operating on autopilot we are simply projecting into the future what we have learned from past experiences and then acting accordingly. If you have had several failed relationships, for example, you may expect that a future relationship will fail as well. Here is where mindfulness can be very useful in changing your future. When you are able to be mindful about what you are feeling at any given moment, you can use this information to help you recognize the type of experiences you are in the process of creating. If you start to think about the future and you notice a negative emotion, such as fear or guilt, you can stop and do a check-in with yourself. Whether the future experience you are thinking of is in five minutes, five days, or five years, ask yourself if it is something you want to have happen. If the answer is no, then this is your moment of opportunity to change the outcome by asking yourself this next very important question: What would I like to have happen instead? As you start to answer the question, you are shifting your thinking into a whole new direction, toward a positive outcome or a solution. As you picture a new, more desired outcome, you have created a target destination, which is the first and most important step in creating any new future experience.
Once you have a destination, you can ask yourself the next very important question: How do I get there? As soon as you do this, you create a cognitive dilemma that activates the brain’s executive network (the problem-solving area of the mind), which will work on helping you generate a solution. The longer you stay mindfully focused on this question, the more new ideas and solutions will come to you. You can then consciously choose which ones to act on. New actions will create new experiences in your present moment.
Mindfulness can play a big role in your ability to consciously create your life. In essence, mindfulness is about being present, not thinking about the present. When we are present we are in our full power to notice our emotional guidance and to own our thoughts and behaviors; only then do we have the real opportunity to create and experience the life we choose.
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