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Focus: How Rapt Attention Changes Who We Are

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I’ve recently started reading Rapt by Winifred Gallagher (book number fifteen on my annual goal list of eighteen relevant books).  While the book has a set of good and bad reviews on Amazon, I found the description and the Kindle Sample interesting enough to buy and read it.  It’s no secret I’m interested in learning as much as I can about attention and focus, so anything that could help improve my understanding of the area even a little bit is worth the $10 investment.

So far, I’ve been quite pleased.  The introduction section of this book has one of the most accurate descriptions of focus and attention I’ve read to-date – and given Refocuser’s subject matter, I thought it would be fun to relay what I found to be the key takeaway from Rapt’s introduction: the grand unified theory of positive psychology.

In physics, the notion of a “grand unification theory” or “grand unified theory” is the holy grail of research, and has been for many years.  The idea is to merge all disparate theories into a single theory that describes everything in the universe – gravity, quantum mechanics, relativity, and so on.  It’s clean and simple, and scientists like structure and order.  When it comes to positive psychology, you could say that a similar unifying theory would help crystallize things into something more approachable for everyday people.  There are thousands of interesting studies to draw upon, and thousands more sources to pull from, but because of this explosion of information, it’s hard to grasp onto it.  People speak often of the many of things you can do to increase the quality of your life, but maybe there is actually a single statement or line of thinking that wraps everything up with a bow; something that everything else hangs off of.  This proposal from Rapt is as close as I’ve found:

Your life—who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.

It is pretty simple, isn’t it?  But it has broad implications.  It suggests that your internal experience is entirely forged by your external experience, specifically the things which you choose to apply your attention to.  And that you have control over it.  You can create your experience by learning how to focus your attention on the things that matter the most to you.  Maybe it’s not easy or natural right away, but it’s possible.  I love that thought.

Attention has gotten you this far.  It’s created the self you know yourself to be.  The time you’ve spent directing your attention throughout your life – from the first moment you were aware of your actions to this very moment spent reading this post – has created a very unique filter for your experiences.  You see things a certain way, based on what you’ve focused on in the past, and that will help determine what you do and who you are in the future.  Everyone internalizes experiences differently based on their own specific filter.

It’s a physiological fact that the things you decide to focus on – whether it’s another person in conversation or building an IKEA desk – are registered by your brain as unique “targets”.  It isn’t pseudo-science.  Subsequently, the things you implicitly choose to ignore (like the cat sleeping behind the desk) by applying your focus elsewhere literally don’t exist to you.  Your brain doesn’t know the difference between non-existence and just-not-focused-on.  This implies that simply by choosing to direct your focus on the right things, and choosing to ignore the wrong things, you’re able to change your perspective to positive effect.

In short: your life is the sum of what you focus on and you can self-direct your focus.  If you’re able to apply your focus like a laser beam, your life would “stop feeling like a reaction to stuff that happens to you and become something that you create: not a series of accidents but a work of art.”

The key to this is learning and then practicing how to do this.  The introduction to Rapt is chock full of down-to-earth explanation for how focus changes who we are, along with some great quotes.  The rest of the book, presumably, will give more specific guidance on what we can do.  Things I’ve talked about here like learning to avoid perfectionism, minimizing overthinking, finding the flow state regularly, and picking your top areas to focus on ahead of time will help significantly. 

But is there more?  Stay tuned…

Written by Mike Torres

October 9th, 2009 at 8:56 am

  • Ernie Wu

    Have you heard about Eric Nightingale’s broadcast of “The Strangest Secret?”

    Here’s an excerpt from an advertisement. Sounds very similar to Rapt’s premise.

    An excerpt from The Strangest Secret
    by Earl Nightingale
    George Bernard Shaw said, “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, they make them.”

    Well, it’s pretty apparent, isn’t it? And every person who discovered this believed (for a while) that he was the first one to work it out. We become what we think about.

    Conversely, the person who has no goal, who doesn’t know where he’s going, and whose thoughts must therefore be thoughts of confusion, anxiety and worry – his life becomes one of frustration, fear, anxiety and worry. And if he thinks about nothing… he becomes nothing.

    How does it work? Why do we become what we think about? Well, I’ll tell you how it works, as far as we know. To do this, I want to tell you about a situation that parallels the human mind.

    Suppose a farmer has some land, and it’s good, fertile land. The land gives the farmer a choice; he may plant in that land whatever he chooses. The land doesn’t care. It’s up to the farmer to make the decision.

    We’re comparing the human mind with the land because the mind, like the land, doesn’t care what you plant in it. It will return what you plant, but it doesn’t care what you plant.

    Now, let’s say that the farmer has two seeds in his hand- one is a seed of corn, the other is nightshade, a deadly poison. He digs two little holes in the earth and he plants both seeds-one corn, the other nightshade. He covers up the holes, waters and takes care of the land…and what will happen? Invariably, the land will return what was planted.

    As it’s written in the Bible, “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”

    Remember the land doesn’t care. It will return poison in just as wonderful abundance as it will corn. So up come the two plants – one corn, one poison.

    The human mind is far more fertile, far more incredible and mysterious than the land, but it works the same way. It doesn’t care what we plant…success…or failure. A concrete, worthwhile goal…or confusion, misunderstanding, fear, anxiety and so on. But what we plant must return to us.

    You see, the human mind is the last great unexplored continent on earth. It contains riches beyond our wildest dreams. It will return anything we want to plant.

  • Sounds cool – will learn more – thanks Ernie!

  • Alex Brice

    I gotta say man, I’m 15 and I just discovered this site after a fleeting thought to google the question “How to stop overthinking”. It lead me to read about your articles about flow state, time denial, and now this and I have to say this site just about saved my life. I’ve been going through a lot of issues in my head and I’m 15 so I recognize that life is supposed to be confusing but I’m going through a lot as of late (single mom, depression, dad had bipolar, drug abuse, getting kicked out of school due to not being able to wake up in the morning, getting fired from my job, loss of my close friends.. to name a few) but it got the gears turning in my head and it made me realize that alot of the things you address are my problem. That’s not to use it as an excuse but it helped me understand why my life has taken the turns that it has and the thought processes that led me to make poor decisions (I.E. overthinking). it opened my eyes and gave me reason to keep fighting.. I’ve been feeling pretty helpless and lost over the past week. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Please don’t stop doing what you’re doing on this site.