Quick summary: you have quite a large degree of control over where you keep your attention but often there is an exceedingly appealing reward for keeping our attention on the thoughts and imaginary scenarios, which are the source of our dis-ease and stress.
The other day in Colorado I had three hours to myself to go on a wonderful 7 mile run through an epically beautiful open field. It was over 60 degrees in late November and the field was glowing against a soft radiating blue sky… the dark green of the sparse juniper trees created a magical contrast against the yellow wind dancing grass.
My mind kept on going back to one of three different stressful work situations (in addition to being a therapist I am also an executive director of a non-profit = the stress was not client related): one involved an “unethical liar”, one involved “a selfish oblivious person”, and one involved “inadequacy and hypocrisy.”
Thoughts that tend to have the power to ruminate in your mind commonly have a consistent theme… they involve a moral judgment about the external word.
We use our moral judgments to create a consistent sense of self (the person who we tell ourselves that we are). So on my run my mind was attending to those unpleasant thoughts as a means of validating and defending that that those people are _______________ and, given my unaccepting moral judgment of those people, I am an ethical, selfless, adequate and consistent person.
This fallacious conclusion strokes my ego which reinforces the urge to ruminate on the negative thoughts.
The Problem is that our emotional disposition is directly related to our thoughts. If my attention is on an imaginary scenario at work then I am no longer really in a beautiful field with perfect weather and no problems. I essentially create a stressful reality and choose to live in it by allowing my attention to stay in the fictitious space as opposed to in the reality of the present moment.
Let me offer another example: let’s say you are driving down the road to a very important event such as a football game and there is an excessive amount of traffic to get to the parking lot. There is a man in a nice sports car who decides to cut around the traffic by speeding forward in the breakdown lane. The entire football game (or ballet or movie – whatever event you enjoy) you find yourself ruminating about the incident with thoughts such as, “that guy is entitled, that man doesn’t have any care for others, that guy is cheating our social rules, that guy is a pompous narcissist etc.”
Why would one choose to place their attention on this stranger as opposed to on the enjoyable event? It would stand to reason that you would get more enjoyment if you could keep your attention on the event (the present).
The answer is the ego (sense of permanent identity… the ego is all the answers to the “I am ________” statement). By ruminating on that man you are giving your ego the opportunity to validate its characteristics – you are giving yourself the opportunity to define who you are.
So this is one reason why we would do this, but can we do anything about it?
Can we control where we place our attention?
I have many posts concerning mindfulness that would be relevant here as mindfulness practice is essentially a means of training your ability to direct your attention. Just like exercise, you can increase your ability with regular practice.
That being said, I happened to be relatively out of practice and therefor I was not in a mental space which allowed my attention to stay present without rather significant willpower.
Instead I had to Label and externalize the unwanted thoughts … validate my strong desire to attend to those thoughts… and gently give myself the assignment of focusing intently on one of my senses.
This is how the process looks inside my head:
1.) “That is a work related thought and I notice that my chest tightens to this subject.”
2.)”I really want to keep my attention on this work thought as there is a pleasant feeling which comes from labeling moral deficiency while problem solving… and… I have agreed to keep my attention in the present.”
3.) let me look at the scenery in front of me so intently that I would be able to write a poem that could paint a vivid picture of what I see to a person with their eyes closed (or “let me attend to my sense of smell until even the dull scent of the ground in available” or “let me find the rhythm of my heart beat without touching an artery”)
Note: it is best to tell yourself what to attend to as opposed to telling yourself what NOT to attend to = If I say “don’t think of a penguin” your mind will picture a penguin. What is worse is that a feedback loop is then created as your mind will then continually check in on your assigned task. Your mind will ask itself “am I not thinking about a penguin”? And when it repeats “penguin” your mind will again picture a penguin.
If instead I tell my mind “attend to the contrast of that tree and the grass,” I can avoid creating both issues.
To my surprise this actually ended up working after about twenty five minutes of using this intervention 25 times on myself.
I then did enter into the bliss of the present moments and enjoyed two 15 minute periods of sitting mindfully, and another 30 minutes of running, with my attention in the present. The Present was a 60 degree day with a subtle breeze and a delicate cumulus scattered sky holding the light of a warmly glowing sun… yes, I was very happy to find my attention in that space.