“What we focus on, expands.” ~ Julia Fehrenbacher (and others)
Now and then, the simple truth of a statement like the one above hits me with the unexpected force of a sucker punch. It’s not that Julia’s observation is surprising, or at least it shouldn’t be. I know how powerful attention is. I relearn it all the time: when, in the eleventh hour of a deadline, I finally buckle down and do the work; when, in conversation, I stop planning my next statement long enough to truly hear (and then truly connect with) the person sitting across from me; when, on my yoga mat, I get quiet and centered enough to still the shaky instability of a challenging pose.
I understand the value of focus, but it was that other word that caught me off guard. The idea of expansion. The idea that things expand and contract – not just in my mind, but in my life – according to how I think about them.
That’s a powerful idea.
And it’s not what Julia and I had originally been talking about. Originally, I’d been telling her about a possible business opportunity. A woman on the other side of the country was interested in selling my yoga cards in her studio. I had no idea how to do that. True confession: I had to look up “wholesale.” And when I did, I was pretty sure that I didn’t have the margins to make it happen, hadn’t set up my tiny little heART-based business in a way that would accommodate that kind of growth. I was frustrated and felt like a failure. Already. Less than four months after opening my virtual doors.
Julia told me, in essence, to stop it. (Yes, I’m paraphrasing.) She said (very sweetly and as only she can) to stop focusing on what I lacked – business savvy, experience, anything remotely resembling a plan – and focus instead on what I really wanted and what I could do right now.
So I did. I buckled down. For a week, I focused on getting educated and taking action. I researched suppliers and shipping options, built a spreadsheet, worked out an inventory system. I don’t know yet what will happen with this first opportunity, but I know I’m ready for the next one. And while I was focusing my attention on making something good happen (rather than on how ill prepared and inexperienced I was), I thought of a whole bunch of other ways to expand my business. And my art. And my life. It’s all scary as hell to me… the kind of scary that makes me know I have to try.
What we focus on expands, and…
“It’s a mistake to think you can limit and expand yourself at the same time.”
In the midst of all my panicky shenanigans, I came across a stunning video, based on David Foster Wallace’s quietly heroic 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech. In that speech, David Foster Wallace talks about the “boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life,” the parts when we’re standing in a slow-moving line, or dealing with a frustrating bureaucracy, or stuck in soul-sucking traffic. He says our tendency then is to see everyone and everything as an impediment, obstacles that stand between us and where we want to be. In those moments, we make a choice, he says, often unconsciously, about how we see the world and how miserable we let it make us.
If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
That’s heady stuff (and haunting, given it came from David Foster Wallace). I also think it’s true. And not only do I believe we can change our lives by changing how we think about them and what we focus on, I think we can change the world. Positive action has a domino effect. Love begets love. I believe that. Focus your attention on what is beautiful in the world, and you become part of that beauty. You expand it.
And before you tell me that being happy isn’t as easy as simply thinking yourself happy, let me say that I agree. It’s not. That said, every day we are surrounded by people who, like us, are going about the business of living their lives. That there’s just this one planet, and we all have to share it, is a given. We don’t have a choice in that. We wake up, get out of bed, and launch ourselves out into the world, altering, however slightly, the trajectory of everyone we interact with. We can do it wrapped in our frustration, dread, and helplessness, or we can do it with a sense of humor and possibility.
That’s the part we get to choose.
What we focus on.
What we expand.