The dangers of laser-like focus

Passion and focus are spoken about all the time. “You have to be passionate about what you’re doing, or it’s not right for you.” All the heroes of our time – mostly in tech – are known for their relentless focus on their passion. It probably culminates in the now near-mythological figure that is Steve Jobs.

the dangers of focus

I am highly distractible, but when it came to something I consider important – I’ve always been the kind of person who locks on – and that’s it. A certain degree of fanaticism was involved in many of the projects I pursued. When I was a medical student, the rest of the world didn’t exist outside of medicine. When I did HIIT, I really did it – stars in my eyes and all. Even this – I said I would blog every day.

In my experience, it’s a double edged sword. Focus is always avoiding the completeness of the present moment. We trade awareness for a hope of a better future. It’s still puzzling to me how one can be purely mindful and make plans, but our culture certainly tells us to make lots of them – and don’t forget the assorted to-do lists to go with it.

Even forgetting about mindfulness, focus is dangerous: focus on the wrong thing – and it’s a real problem. I’ve obsessed about the things that most girls obsess about: boys, weight, nice things. I am in my 20s, so it’s quite forgivable. Still, having the kind of personality that locks onto things, it’s tough to get out of a focus-rut once you are in it. It’s not OCD, but the word tormenting seems appropriate. My only medicine for this has been mindfulness – or a rude awakening from the real world. I much prefer the former.

For those of us who are super-focused, or those reading all of this advice to be laser-focused and wishing that they could be like that, remember that it comes at a price.

being really focused

It’s always good to look back on where you started

Western culture has a distinct focus on the future. We’re all about innovations and trends. It seems that the en vogue mood is to not really be too interested in history: too full of things like racism and other forms of inequality for us to warrant being proud of it. The present moment is always traded for a future option – hard work pays off they keep telling us.

There is a lot of advice out there to be grateful. It could be argued that it’s generally good advice. However, as with all positive thinking, a forced positive thought always backfires. Hence, you cannot be compulsive or forceful about it. A better way would be to ask ourselves the sort of questions that could make us feel grateful: what good things happened today? What way can I use my situation? What’s good about my situation?

the importance of being grateful

Even at that, I find the best way to feel grateful is by looking back where I started. I don’t mean compare bank balances and neighbourhoods. I mean think of everything I didn’t know back then that I know now. All the people I’ve met and the lessons I’ve learnt. I’m always surprised by what I find.

Imagining it is a poor substitute for actually going back. I am writing this as I am flying back from the city where I spent a lot of time when I was younger. Immersing myself in that atmosphere highlighted the differences between me then and me now. Meeting the people I used to spend time with was one of the most insight-generating things I’d ever done. At one point we were so similar, and now we’ve diverged into our parallel universes. It’s an experiment I highly recommend to anyone. It’s would be a banal statement to say that travel really does give perspective, adds variety and a better understanding of what things mean. I think travelling to places we know well but have left behind is of a certain irreplaceable benefit.

it's important to look back to where you started

When mindfulness seems impossible

Western culture is all about results. This mentality is evident virtually everywhere. We all prefer tasks that yield immediate tangible results. The prototypical somewhat narcissistic CEOs tend to be focused on results. We haven’t really moved since the time Ford made lapel pins with the number of the financial result they wanted to achieve – for everyone in the company. We’ve replaced them with motivational posters. During our formative years – in school, we are conditioned to look for results: high grades, won matches and debating trophies. The recent fitness cult is also driven by results. It is fascinating what people will do to get a six pack. While there was always the phenomenon of recounting your experience as a result, social media enhanced this conversion of experiences into results: taking a picture in a scenic place is different to just being there.

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Mindfulness goes against this obsession with results. It’s tempting to compare a tough mindfulness session with a tough day at the gym, but the analogy doesn’t really hold. There is no metric, no result, nothing tangible, strive towards or nothing to brag about in mindfulness. If you go running and it’s really tough, at the end you can say: I ran a 5K today. What if you just turned up and ran for 30 minutes? That a bit closer to mindfulness, but the fitness world wouldn’t approve. After all, you could have been slacking off for the 30 minutes. Why weren’t you tracking your speed? Why didn’t you measure the distance? Did you at least weigh yourself or measure your waist the next day? What gets measured gets managed, they say – and it’s true. Fascinatingly, there is no goal and no metric in mindfulness other than to actually turn up and do it. It’s binary.

So if the whole thing is making you feel like it’s impossible, just remember that it’s a yes or a no. Any kind of yes, even the most distracted meditation that feels like a Herculean effort, is a yes.

Some worry that if your practice feels really distracted, it doesn’t count. It does. However, there are ways to make it better. There are countless techniques, but this is the one I found works best: counting.

Counting involves focusing on a very transient moment in time: the moment when the in-breath becomes the out-breath and then the slightly longer moment: when the out-breath stops.

So it goes:

  • breath in
  • when your in-breath stops, count 1. You may not even have time to say 1. You can just see the number in your head.
  • breath out
  • when you breath out stops, count 2. There will probably be more time here

It may be tempting to pause after the in-breath. Some people do. For me, it seems that mindfulness is more natural when you are just observing your breath rather than changing it.

It’s not always true, but in case of meditation the maxim done is better than perfect certainly applies.

tips to make mindfulness easier

Why forcing positive thinking doesn’t work

The positive thinking crowd – who have flooded every corner of the internet, most of all social media, would have us believe that our minds instinctively drive us towards that which we focus on. Hence, it makes sense to focus on the good, according to them.

As a naturally skeptical-yet-optimistic person, I find myself repelled by the cult of positivity. Below, I explain the theory behind positive thinking and the reasons why it ultimately doesn’t work.

does positive thinking work

There is logic behind positivity. For example, attentional bias and its many cousins are our way of noticing the things we prefer to notice even more.

So if we try to notice good things, we are likely to notice a disproportionate amount of good things. It is assumed that by being surrounded by positivity, we will feed off this virtuous cycle and gather the strength to produce other good things. Another argument in defence of positive thinking is that our brains tend to follow certain patterns, habits of sorts. Feeling good more often leads to more feeling good. Another virtuous cycle.

Positive thinkers encourage setting and identifying with ambitious goals as a necessary part of all achievement in life. There are endless quotes from celebrity icons to support this. Many of those who have succeeded would say – I had a vision of x, y, z – and here I am now, I’ve achieved it.

We don’t hear the, undoubtedly, innumerable stories of those who go through the same “law of attraction” process – without ever arriving at their destination.

In addition, we’re quick to assume a causal relationship between the idiosyncrasies of the successful and their success. These are just two of many biases that are inherent in the positive thinking logic. So of what value is this obsession with studying the habits of the ultra-successful? As role models – fair enough. However,

the studies that support positive thinking are more often than not obviously in violation of basic parts of the scientific method.

But hey, it takes a while to prove anything, so we will bear with them for now.

By that same positive thinking logic, thinking about negative things will somehow lead to these bad things. Good point (we will agree with their assumptions for now). There is one problem with it though. Let me explain.

Forcing ourselves to focus on the good things creates a kind of dissonance. One part of our brains is saying: we should feel positive in all circumstances. Another part of our brain is pointing out all the things that we are used to feeling bad about.

Now, it is possible that the way we are interpreting the world is unhelpful, but this requires a lot of work to unmask and change. Therefore, until the hard work of rethinking our beliefs, for example, through the (much more) scientifically backed talk therapy is at least attempted, it is impossible to cure the feeling that something is off kilter in our heads as a consequence of positive thinking. It feels fraudulent and may even make the subject feel worse. Furthermore – and this is the interesting part – this sensation of something not being right will draw more attention to these negative thoughts we were told to run from.

The swollen positivity of Instagram’s motivational gurus doesn’t just urge us to be positive – it tells us that being negative is wrong.

“Rid your life of negative people”. “Purge negative words from your vocabulary”. “Avoid negative thoughts”. Forcing positivity accentuates negativity: whenever we feel down we will flag it as red, pumped by inspirational quotes. So positive thinking urges us to focus on the negative. Isn’t this negative focus going to lead to negative events – by their own logic? In addition,

the red-flagging of negative thoughts often results in further guilt and helplessness to go with our already negative feelings.

There is another problem with telling people not to think stuff. It was voiced by Fedor Dostoyevsky, a hero of mine since back in school when I managed to write an exam essay outlining the importance of the religion in Crime and Punishment that was corrected by a 70 year old Soviet-through-and-through teacher of literature – resulting in a stellar grade. Fedor gets the credit here. Anyway! He said that the things that we try to not think about are the very things we end up thinking about.

Could you do me a favour and not think of a blue scarf please?

Yeah, I know.

Furthermore, telling someone how they should feel is fertile ground for tyrannies of the shoulds – feeling low as a consequence of now complying with some preconceived rule, or should. More unintended negativity.

This emphasis on avoiding negativity draws us no less to negative events than the focus on positivity draws us to positive events

…I hypothesise. In addition, the dissonance and a new rule to follow about something only partially under our control in and of themselves feels rotten, i.e. more negative feelings.

does the law of attraction work

I think positive thinking is flawed: not because it has no basis, but because its basis has counterweights that accentuate the negative thoughts just as much – made worse by the uncomfortable dissonance it creates. It just makes us judge our thoughts more.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that allowing ourselves to ruminate on sad things we cannot change, having no faith in ourselves or any other unhelpful behaviour should be encouraged to spite the positive thinkers of the self-help industry. I just don’t believe positive thinking is going to solve the underlying conflicts. It is a good idea to see the best in people and things etc. It is a good idea to let our positivity strengthen. It just can’t be compulsive – or the positive effect is ruined as described above.

There’s no need to dwell on the negative beyond what is reasonable either. For example, raising awareness about suicide sometimes results in a higher incidence of it. Not dwelling on something can be achieved without running from it, however.

There is a nice point on the emotional “graph” – and I think we could reach it by being a bit more open-minded about the negative.

It makes sense to reflect on this through the most extreme negative thought – of death. Being comfortable with the thought of death seems preposterous to most people – unless they are a doctor or something like that. Even then – it’s not their own death they are thinking about. When I first heard of the annual Mexican festival in celebration of death, it seemed insane – blasphemous in a kind of secular way. My own mother, who unlike me did not grow up with Halloween, still feels there’s something not quite right about it. People in our culture seem to avoid thinking about death as if somehow thinking about it will bring it closer.

Where do positive thinkers stand on death? Is thinking of death banned as well? It would seem obvious that death is regarded as one of the worst possible outcomes in our culture. Well, ok, but it’s going to happen anyway. The theory underlying positive thinking would lead us to believe that thinking of death will somehow bring it closer. The thought of our own mortality cannot be easily tolerated. It has to go right now. We may touch wood or bless ourselves to undo the damage it already caused. Obviously, there are other explanations for this besides what we usually call positive thinking, but the mechanism is the same. We just don’t want to bring it upon ourselves.

So is it ok to talk about death yet? The Mexicans are a pretty happy people, or so they say in those country-by-country happiness studies. Death was a beloved subject of the medieval tradition – with their skulls on their tables in countless paintings to remind themselves of death.

There are many lessons to be derived from thinking of death.

The Stoics loved thinking of death – it’s their way to remind themselves that nothing is worse than death – and death isn’t that bad. It’s our beliefs about it that make it bad. Hence, there is no need to fear death. Since we don’t have to fear death – the worst outcome of all, surely, we don’t have to fear anything else. Buddhists would regard death as just another experience – neither good nor bad.

Maybe that’s it: it’s all about trying to avoid uncertainty “the thought of undiscovered country from whose bourne/ No traveller returns, puzzles the will”. Positive thinking seems to heal the pain of uncertainty.

It positively confuses our brains – that aren’t very good at distinguishing between fantasies and reality to begin with. One of the proposed benefits of positive thinking is that it gives us a sense of certainty. It is argued then that once we believe that something is indeed possible, we will find it easier to achieve it. That’s why it’s so popular: it eases the fear of uncertainty.

does positive thinking really work

Besides being told to think positively, could there be other reasons why we dislike thinking about death so much then – given that is, well, as good as certain? The facts may be the facts, but way we think about death is full of uncertainty. In the extreme, there is a part of each of us that isn’t quite certain that we will die: it will be an older me, a more prepared me, not me me. Maybe; but seeing as how at 27 I don’t feel radically different to how I felt when I was half that age, I imagine it will be me me. However, just like the minus infinity to 1989, the infinity that I will miss out on after I am gone is just a part of what we got into when we were born. We also have no idea what will happen when we die – if anything, adding to the dreaded uncertainty. As evidenced by the scanty insights brought up here though: there is much to learn by thinking of the seemingly negative.

It would be mean to get to this point and not offer some kind of alternative to the wretched positive thinking. My answer, as much as it is possible to answer, is giving up on the hatred of uncertainty. There will always be uncertainty. No amount of meaningful relationships or possessions will ever shield us from uncertainty. We probably should set goals, but not cling to them unaware of the changing world around us. We can try and tame uncertainty by working around it, by forming beliefs that aren’t sabotaged by uncertainty – but not by resisting it through compulsive meaningless positive thinking.

Do you have to learn about Buddhism to fully understand mindfulness?

The extent to which mindfulness and meditation are intertwined with Buddhism is disturbing for me. It’s not that already committed to another religion and feel defensive. I don’t hate or judge religion, or Buddhism especially, but I would rather not go there. When mindfulness teachers go on about Buddhism, how it is more of a philosophy, how it’s important in understanding mindfulness – I feel like a car salesman is selling me on a bunch off car accessories I determinedly do not need. Can I just get the car? Here, I just want the mindfulness, not the philosophical paraphernalia. Is it possible?

Yes. I went and studied what these people have to say. First of all, there are other religions that involve meditation, even Christian ones. The philosophies are completely different. This means that the philosophy is optional. Second, the ideas of Buddhism that are supposed to help you to understand mindfulness are echoed elsewhere, for example, in the writings of Stoic philosophers or more recently in the writings of Viktor Frankl. This means that the philosophy isn’t exclusive to Buddhism.

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I have stripped down the relevant beliefs here:

  • There’s nothing certain in life. Certainty is an illusion. We will never achieve certainty. The reason why most people want to be wealthy is because they feel they won’t have to worry about x, y, z. In truth, wealthy people indeed do not have to worry about x, y and z – they now worry about a, b and c. Furthermore, things are always changing.
  • Thoughts and emotions happen to us the same way as the weather. Thoughts and emotions are like noises, smells and sensations. The mind is, among other things, a sensory organ. It perceives thoughts and emotions – we don’t have control over them, but we can control what we do about them. We control the beliefs that we have – for sure. This will have an impact on thoughts and emotions, but indirectly and over time. You teach yourself not to cringe at the smell of vomit, and you can teach yourself not to cry at the end of a sad film. However, the thoughts and emotions still come in from the outside in. Any kind of thinking is thinking.
  • Feeling happy all the time isn’t the goal. You should just observe how you feel without judging it. It doesn’t mean you can’t act on what you’ve observed, but you certainly shouldn’t act before you’ve acknowledged everything that’s going on. Assuming that you can – and should – always feel happy causes a lot of the pain we feel.
  • Escaping how you are feeling is pointless. It will just take longer to get past the challenges associated with how you are feeling. This is where the way they deal with resistance comes in. You can act to change your reality – they don’t call that resistance. However, not understanding reality is resistance. Most violence and bad things come from this resistance.
  • Mindfulness isn’t there to make you a better person or make you happy. It’s just a way to understand what’s going on.
  • You don’t have to feel a certain way to act a certain way. Since thoughts and emotions aren’t always in your control, it doesn’t make sense to wait for your feelings to be right to act. For example, you can go to work without being motivated.

do-you-have-to-be-a-buddhist-to-understand-mindfulness

Knowing what to want

It’s always been difficult for me to choose what it was I wanted to “do with my life”. The main reason for this is that conventional low-risk options promoted to school students are all meh. It is hard to choose between broccoli and cabbage when you’re really after ice cream.

What is it to want something? In the XXI century pop culture sense, it is to be excited about something. Stoics talked a lot about wanting – as one of the most important things. They didn’t give much direction as to how to choose what you want. However, having a direction is life is key according to them. Buddhism seems to focus on the present and away for the need for certainty that is a prerequisite for goals.

It seems that the most successful people choose one thing that they won’t give up. Some call it passion, but it’s not really possible to actually be consistently passionate about something. For most people, it is a way of feeling special and having a sense of belonging – I am a painter. Rather than being something to work at, now it is a romanticised notion. Furthermore, a lot of people live in limbo of not having found their passion yet. This presupposes that it has been decided for you. Not feeling in control or having responsibility for your so called passion is a sure way to fail. Lastly, it’s a great excuse to never starting to do anything. If you commit to something, you can fail – people would rather not try and avoid the possibility of failure. What drives people to keep going is why they’re doing it. However, it’s not enough.

We want to do things we are good at. Small wins and a sensation of progress is what keeps us going. Hence, it makes sense to do things that we are good at. Of course, the more you do something, the better you get at it – but it always makes sense to play to your strengths.

Even if you are fantastic at something, however, it makes sense to make life easier for yourself by making yourself different. Getting to be the best in the world at one particular skill is awfully hard. The chances of success are very small. However, you can be in the top 1% in the world by working hard at it. Is this enough? It is – when you combine it with something else. It is much easier to be the best in the world in something super niche. You may not be the best physicist or the best economist, but you may be the best at applying the computational methods used in physics to economics models.

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knowing-what-your-life-is-about

The secret is that there is no secret

We already know everything we need to know. Yes, there is some useful knowledge out there. Knowing that cutting down on carbs will help us to get leaner is a little bit of revelation, but for most of, our grandmothers probably told us to eat more vegetables – all the way back before we knew what carbs were even.

If it had been down to information, anyone with a smartphone would have a six pack and cruise around on a yacht.

It all comes down to awareness. Awareness of what you’re doing at each given moment. The choices we make in real time are the closest thing to this coveted secret. Small things add up – the small decision we make consistently shape who we are. What we do on our lunch break matters. Do you read a book? Go to the gym? Check Facebook? Does it explain a lot about where you are now? If you’ve ever lived in a place with a harsh snowy winter and a roasting summer, you’ll know that the landscape goes from frosty white with metre deep snow to vibrant green in about six weeks. Small things add up.

For most of us, it means taking more responsibility. Letting go of our egos. Working harder – at the important things. Having discipline. Failing and bouncing back – time after time.

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