As human beings, we have a great capacity to be able to focus.
Think about being at a party with people talking all around. You are able to block out the noise and focus on the conversation you’re having with the person in front of you.
Or imagine a race car driver, moving at speeds in excess of 150 or 200 miles per hour. That driver has to stay focused, because an accident can happen in a heartbeat — and the driver can sustain that focus, on the road surface, other drivers, vehicle condition, throughout the entirety of the race.
The other day, I was driving to the store when I saw a man walking along with all of his attention focused on his phone. Whatever he was looking at, it was fascinating enough that he walked right into the street, and the only reason he didn’t get hit was that the car approaching him saw him in time and stopped. This man was so focused that I don’t even think he realized he nearly got into an accident!
Another example of extreme focus is a panic attack. This is a case of extreme anxiety in which all attention is focused on an area of concern so extreme that the sufferer believes death is imminent. This is an example of a dangerous level of attention — of focus gone wrong so that it does harm to the body.
But focus can also be healthy for the body. Imagine at a cancer treatment center there is someone who is going through a very challenging time with life-or-death health concerns, but then picture that person going for a walk on a beautiful path and focusing on nature, a smile in their heart.
We don’t always have total control over the situations we face in life, but we can control where we place our focus and our attention. I know that sometimes I wake up much earlier than I’d planned to. In these pre-dawn moments, I have a choice. On one hand, I could lie there and focus on how I’m not getting enough sleep and how terrible I’ll feel as a result. On the other hand, I could lie in the dark and focus on my breathing. I’ve been a regular meditator for decades, and I actually really enjoy watching my breath, so this is a much more pleasurable choice for me than worrying would be. Most of the time, I’ll fall right back asleep through this strategy, but even if I ended up lying there until it was time to wake, I would have a much happier experience than worry would have provided.
Where our happiness is concerned, the ability to focus on one thing instead of another is something that can be very helpful to us. As we go through our day, we have a choice of where we can place our attention. There are some thoughts that put happiness in our heart and others that make us feel nervous and worried, and there are still others that are neutral. Placing our attention on the higher vibration — the bright side — is much more conducive to a positive emotional state.
We can make the choice to focus on what we have and not on what we don’t have. It’s interesting to consider the average teenager. Most teens don’t have very much, and they depend on their parents or guardians to provide their room, board, and basic needs. If their parents were to stop supporting them, they would be homeless — and this, of course, is not uncommon. Many teens who are homeless have arrived at that condition because their parents found something about their behavior intolerable.
But most teenagers don’t worry about how their basic needs will be met. They are one step away from being homeless if their family doesn’t support them, but they tend to focus on their friends, their fun, their futures — never their health or stability. They focus on what’s in front of them and they tend to enjoy themselves as they do so. Even if they are not enjoying themselves, they are focusing on their relationship with their friends or how they are being treated or how they are moving forward in life, and what they focus on is what generates either their anxieties and fears or their happiness and contentment.
Over time, our focus changes. Even if we are very disciplined, we can’t always control what we pay attention to. We may be focusing on how we are feeling, what our money situation is, whether we are saving enough for retirement, or other concerns. Whatever we focus on, it’s not a case of being right or wrong. Focus is just something that we do. But if we understand focus, we can use it to our advantage, because then we can focus on what we have and not what we don’t have.
The word “focus” is really a metaphor. Focus is something our eyes do. They might zero in on what’s close, like words on a page, or they may shift to something far from us, like a movement outside the window. Our ability to shift our actual focus is important to our safety and wellbeing. Sometimes something captures our attention and changes our focus, and this may save us from harm. If a boulder breaks free from a cliff and starts rolling toward where you sit in your living room watching television, thank goodness for your ability to transfer your focus from a meaningless sit-com to a life-or-death emergency. A shift in focus means that you can flee a source of danger.
Whatever we focus on is going to affect how we’re doing, and this goes for everything, big or small. If we are having a bout of insomnia, as I mentioned previously, there is no reason to lie in misery and predict the horrible day that will result. We can instead see those unexpected walking hours as bonus time and use it for our benefit. We know from experience that we can use it as a negative.
Focus is a very powerful tool, because what we focus on matters. Our attention dictates our thoughts and shapes the outcomes of the things that happen in our lives — and our focus determines how we feel. Obviously, since we are meeting in this specific space, we want to feel happy, and our focus will have a lot to do with how successful we are in that pursuit.
In the world’s eyes, we can be doing very well. We can have a beautiful home, an impressive career, good friends — seemingly everything it takes to have a terrific life. But maybe the nice home we live in is empty due to divorce, and despite appearance, we feel very lonely and isolated. In a situation like this, we can focus on what we don’t have, and it will make us miserable. But the situation itself is neutral. We have the option of appreciating all of the things that others see as the good in our lives. We can use our focus for positive or negative outcomes.
So many times, people who seem from the outside to have it all experience terrible outcomes — they drink themselves into oblivion or commit suicide. Observers are left in disbelief — but they had so much! How was this possible? The answer has to do with their focus. There was something negative in the person’s life, and that’s where all of their energy went, and the result was a seemingly impossible level of unhappiness. That’s the power of focus.
The good news is that the opposite is also true. Things may not be going so well, but if we focus on what we have and we enjoy it, our lives can go pretty well — or even really well.
This statement is easy to prove. Find the people who don’t have the things that you want to have, and see if some of them are happy despite that lack. Or find others who have what you want or even more, and notice if in fact it makes no difference in some cases and they’re miserable. Such observation makes it plain as day: What we focus on matters. So why not focus on what we have and stop focusing on what we don’t have? That is the secret of making our lives go well.
Today is all we have. We should focus on this day and all of the good in it — all that we have and cherish. If we are able to develop this skill, we will always do well, regardless of conditions.
It’s all about acceptance. If we can stand back and recognize that we have done what we can to make our life better, we can resolve to make that be enough. We can say, “This is what I have. I’m going to make this work.”
People sometimes think that if things work out the way they want them to, then they’ll be happy. But the truth is that those people who focus on what they already have are happier.
Have you ever been stuck at an airport with a long flight delay? This can be very disconcerting, and it can be a situation that snowballs — you’ll miss your connecting flight, be late for an important event, have to make new arrangements, etc. But when I have unexpected time at an airport, I make the best of it. I get caught up on emails, or I go find a nice restaurant and have a nice meal. It would be easy to be distressed, but if we focus on what we have — in this case, unexpected free time with no one demanding our attention — then things can go well for us. There are always things that are going well, if we happen to take the initiative to notice them.
My father recently passed away. He made it to 84 years of age, but he had health problems and spent quite a bit of time in hospitals. He would have tubes coming out of him in so many places that it was almost ridiculous, but despite this, he would have a smile on his face as he flirted with nurses or enjoyed his conversations with doctors.
One thing that would bring him down is the presence of a television in the background that was tuned to a news channel. This would claim his attention, and the worry and anger it caused would bring him down to a much less joyful place. When I noticed this, I would have the TV turned down or put on a more uplifting and positive channel, and this would give him some much-needed emotional relief. Soon he would be back to his happy self.
Am I saying that you should never watch the news again? No, of course not. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t or don’t care about things in our lives and in the world. But we must ask ourselves, can we do anything about the situation right now? If we’re thinking about politics or warfare or similar situations, the answer is usually no. But we can take the positive step of focusing on what we have — our life, our family, our home. This can’t help but make us feel buoyed and cheered.
We’re here on Earth to do well, and happiness is our birthright. If we can begin to focus on what we have and catch ourselves when we are looking in another direction, we are going to do a whole lot better.
In conclusion, I offer this simple technique we can try when we feel that our focus is pointed in a direction that is not conducive to our happiness: Focus on beauty.
We must pay attention to what we’re focused on. If we notice we’re depressed or anxious, what are we focused on? There is always an answer, and if we’re feeling negative thoughts, our focus is on what we don’t have or on the chance of a negative outcome.
We must decide that we want to be happy in our heart and to focus on what we have. There is always something beautiful to focus on — always something going well, no matter what. There are so many things we can focus on — beautiful music, an uplifting story, nature. What we focus on matters, so when we notice that it’s not going well, we need to ask ourselves what we are focused on and change that narrative.
We can say, “I have this!” Or we can say, “Isn’t this wonderful?” This is the focus of people who do and live well.
We will find throughout our lives that there is always something good in our lives, and when we turn our attention to it, that will put a very beautiful smile in our hearts.
Adjusting your focus
If you’ve ever used a camera, you’ve found that you can take a picture of the flower on the tree in front of you, or you can instead look way off into the distance at a whole mountain that is in bloom.
In life, we can do this based on what brings us the most joy. Is it the close-up view of a loved one, or a beautiful piece of art, or a pet? Or is it the longer or broader view toward a valued community or a sustained period of professional or financial success?
In film, there is also a strategy called panning, where a camera moves to take in a broad area of space, usually before focusing in on a particular small area.
If you are struggling to find the focus that is most conducive to your happiness, try panning. Mentally scan through all parts of your life, taking in the big picture — but then find some specific, good thing to turn your attention to.
In any large landscape, you can usually find a blossom. In any broad swath of sky, you can usually find a bird. Find your own piece of beauty to focus on, and return to it whenever you need it. The beauty is always there.