By: Eitan Zerykier
If the human mind is truly an unstoppable thought-machine, what good is it anyway?
Have you ever watched a show or movie and without noticing, suddenly felt excited or found yourself crying? Or after it ended, you realized how engrossed you were and suddenly snapped back to reality? After watching a comedy, you may feel happier and lighter than before it began. Many have said that after their first time watching The Matrix, they truly believed that if they only had a pair of dark shades and a very large flip phone, they could take on a cadre of Hell’s Angels using only their bare feet and gravity.
In these situations, your spotlight was shining on one area of your stage while the lights dimmed over everything else. Your deadlines, relationships, finances, and family did not disappear or change. Rather, the emotions which jumped onstage from seeing strength, sadness, or sorrow were able to distract you from paying attention to anything else which was on the stage at the same time. Why can’t listening to your coworker or waiting on line at Starbucks be as engrossing?
The confounding thing is that our spotlight seemingly operates entirely of its own volition. It seems to shine, dim, flash, or pan totally at random. Do you notice that on certain days you can easily focus on work, listen to the important people in your life, and get stuff done smoothly, while on other days, your mind feels like a baby monkey that’s hopped up on caffeine and let loose in a china shop?
If we want to truly connect with our experiences to the exclusion of everything else going on in our lives, we need to focus our spotlight on what is important to us.
Fortunately, you can learn to control the spotlight whenever you want—or at least begin to try. Eventually, you will feel more present, relaxed, and involved during work, play, or any other experience that you would like to experience to the fullest.
Here are three ways to begin:
The gym where you can exercise controlling the spotlight can be found anywhere. Let’s start now.
Pick any item in your surroundings and look at it. Do not just glance at it and quickly acknowledge what it is; take a minute to look at it and fully see it. To paraphrase from The Orchid Thief: give yourself a break from everything else on your mind, and whittle the world down to this one solitary item.
Right now, take one whole minute to notice the aspects of the item you chose. Notice its texture. Appreciate the way the light bounces off it. See the brilliance or dullness of its colors. If you can hold it, turn it over in your hand and feel it slowly, as best as you can: see it from every angle. If you cannot hold it, try to imagine how heavy it might be and how it would feel to hold it. Take notice of any unique characteristics of the item. Check if it has a smell.
So how did you do? How many times did you think about other areas of your life during this exercise? Was it hard to focus on just one thing? Did your mind wander? If so, did you catch your mind wandering and were you then able to redirect your focus back to the object?
If any of these are true, you may have concluded that either this was a bogus time-waster, or you did not focus “well enough.” In truth, being distracted and starting over again is exactly what the mind considers the strongest form of exercise. Each time you notice a sense of distraction and then purposefully choose to refocus your mind, it counts as one rep. Congrats on that ridiculously rigorous set of mental chin-ups you just completed!
Just as weight lifting in the gym will help you easily pop that jar of pickles before dinner, choosing a singular focus for your spotlight and intentionally returning to it for a few moments a day will increase your ability to be present for the parts of life that matter to you. This could include work, time spent with another person, or your golf swing.
This spotlight-shining practice can be done anywhere and at any time with anything of your choice. The exercise can also be done with physical sensations. If you are waiting on line, try to feel your feet on the ground or the feel of the item in your hand. Skip the every-15-seconds-email-check and go for a workout instead. Mental exercise can be quite a vacation from all the other things bouncing around in our minds.
The next time you eat or drink, try doing it in real time.
Eat and notice that you are eating. Savor the various flavors and textures. Chew and know that you are chewing. Feel the various sensations and levels of pressure on your teeth, jaw, tongue, and lips. Try to inhale through your nose as you eat in order to trigger as many olfactory and taste sensors as possible. Feel the experience as fully as you can. There is so much going on, your spotlight can shine bright and broadly on this moment. By doing so, your mind will be fully focused on the meal you are eating rather than fixated on how many likes you are getting for the picture of your food that you just posted.
Paying attention to your food as you eat it will cause you to eat at a slower pace which, in turn, will help you to eat less yet feel full faster. Additionally, you will enjoy the experience much more than when eating quickly with little to no regard for what you’re eating (Kristeller and Wolever). A cup of something hot is often much more relaxing than the canned and cold kind, if not only because it forces one to slow down and think about what they are consuming.
There is an opportunity for rich interplay whenever two people sit across from each other, if only they would truly observe one another.
In the mid 1980’s, a scientist named Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team were monitoring a monkey’s brain in his lab. Until this point in time, science believed that when a living body moved, the area of the brain responsible for the movement would reflect stimulation. One day, Rizzolatti was relaxing and enjoying an ice cream cone across the lab from the monkey. Unexpectedly, although the monkey did not move, the team noticed that the area in its brain responsible for arm-lifting was stimulated and lit up on the monitors. Rizolatti and his team had inadvertently discovered that a sentient being connects with and even mentally experiences some of what it observes just using its eyes. It turns out that when we observe each other, we connect with each other. The cells they found in the front of the brain were therefore named “mirror neurons.”
When someone is speaking to you, what are you usually doing? Do you try and guess what they are going to say next, or do you set up your next response? Do you judge their motivations and try to assume their angle, or do you end up scrolling on your phone less than two minutes in?
When a baby looks into its parents’ eyes, or when two lovers gaze at one another, there is a cycle of positive endorphins firing as they hold their position and interact, even without words. When was the last time you had anything which even resembled that feeling?
Do you often break eye contact with a person you are supposed to be listening to? Do you do it more with certain people than others?
Instead, try giving your undivided attention to someone important to you. Shine your spotlight on them and get those mirror neurons firing. Look at their eyes and the way they move and look back at you. Listen to their voice and notice changes in intonation. If you are making eye contact with them, it is more likely that they will be listening, paying attention, and looking back at you. Perhaps most of all, before preparing to respond, check in and ask whether you understood their message. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Extra tip: You can do all three of these at once. At your next meal with another person, really look and study the intricacies of your food before you eat it. Then eat it with all your sensations. You can even share this idea and experience with the other person. Then listen intently. Your entire meal can become one of presence and purpose. The dinner table may never be the same, and dare I say it could make your next first date into the first of many. In fact, it may actually help you live longer (Fowler and Christaskis).
Kristeller, Jean L, and Wolever, Ruth Q. “Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training for Treating Binge Eating Disorder: the Conceptual Foundation.” Eating Disorders, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21181579.
Fowler, James H, and Christakis, Nicholas A. “Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network: Longitudinal Analysis over 20 Years in the Framingham Heart Study.” The BMJ, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, 5 Dec. 2008, www.bmj.com/content/337/bmj.a2338.
Eitan Zerykier is a psychotherapist with the Five Towns Wellness Center in Cedarhurst, NY. Zerykier uses an evidence-based and humanistic approach in treating anxiety, depression, trauma, and behavioral disorders in clients of all ages.