Friday, August 13, 2010
The Power of Perspective
About 10 years ago, I read Voltaire’s Candide for the first time. I distinctly remember disliking the end of the story because of what the protagonist, Candide, says. He tells his trusted friend and advisor, Pangloss, that “we must cultivate our garden.” I thought this ending made no sense, and I questioned my professor on it. Our discussion was lively and energetic, and neither of us was willing to back down from our respective interpretations of this line. For my professor, he claimed that Candide was making the best out of a bad situation, whereas I thought that it was an admission of defeat. What I realize now, however, is that our difference of opinion was really based on our individual perspectives. My professor viewed the world—and by extension, Candide’s statement--in a way that I couldn’t understand a decade ago, but I do now. And it all comes down to perspective…
The power of perspective cannot be understated. Through our choices we have the ability to mold our perspective over time, whether positive or negative. During my more cynical days, I focused so much on the negative aspects of life that I became blinded by them. I was so concentrated on the negative, in fact, that I often couldn’t (or wouldn’t, in reality) allow myself to think otherwise. I was literally trapped within my paradigm, which is why I consider myself so fortunate to have turned my life around. Ultimately, with patience, persistence, and devoting strict attention to the choices you make, it is more than possible to conscientiously cultivate your personal perspective and become that better person you have always wanted to be.
I read a really great book lately that explicates this very topic. It is called Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life by Winifred Gallagher. Essentially, her argument is similar to mine (namely that we can create the lives we want to lead) but revolves less around the importance of choice and more on the aspect of attention. For Gallagher, what we consistently pay attention to dictates who we become as persons. Unfortunately for many of us—myself included until about 2 years ago—we don’t pay attention to our own focus and simply accept our lot in life as “matter of fact.” The biggest hurdle to overcoming this, according to Gallagher, is learning how to focus. Now, I know that last statement may sound trite, but in reality the overwhelming majority of human beings have lost this critical ability—especially in our technocratic, consumption-based society. According to Gallagher’s research (she has backgrounds in behaviorist psychology and sociology), she posits that the overwhelming amount of mental stimuli that are constantly begging for our attention erodes our ability to focus. While many big pharma companies see this as yet another opportunity to market a new pill for ADD/ADHD/anti-anxiety medication or whatever, Gallagher’s book illustrates how we can overcome this challenge by simply exercising our minds.
I won’t go into too much detail about her argument or the book, but I do want to mention a few points that I thought were incredible. The first is that the brain actually has two “selves.” We have an “experiencing self,” which is the mind that literally experiences the world; usually this comes in the form of sensory stimulation, whether it be seen, tasted, touched, etc. The other one is called the “reflecting self,” which is what we would often perceive as the “thinking” part of our brain. That little internal voice that we all have. Where many people get into trouble and start to “lose focus,” though, is by paying attention too much to the “reflecting self.” This is the part of the mind that is often untamed, wild, and willing to drag your thoughts wherever it wants to. This is the “self” that must be controlled.
Another detail that I thought was fascinating was the “top-down” attention/focus we use selectively, versus the “bottom-up” attention that is almost always being used. The difference between the two is simple: the “top-down” approach is used by the reflective self and engages a specific mental task; the “bottom-up” attention is part of our evolutionary make-up and is what engages the experiencing self. Simple bottom up attention cues would be automatic in nature. If a bear is running full speed at you and is anticipating lunch, you’d run. You wouldn’t think about it, just run. These types of interactions are processed among neural networks so quickly that your reflecting self often doesn’t get the message until later. Only then does the reflecting self go to work and qualify the experience. Gallagher goes on to illustrate how many of the worries, fears, and anxieties that we feel are “bottom up” attention signals that have piled up for so long that they become engrained in the reflecting self; so much so that by paying attention to these negative emotions creates the negative focus/perspective. For instance, Gallagher uses a common example: being overweight. A subconscious message by our experiencing self would send a bottom up signal to the reflecting self telling it, “hey, there’s some extra weight here.” In the prehistoric period of humanity, this signal would have then been processed by the reflecting self as a cue to do something about it, much like the flight from the bear. But in our contemporary society—one that prescribes silly cultural norms like “the-ideal-human-body-should-look-like-this” on billboards, magazine ads, television commercials, and internet sites—the reflecting self gets not only mixed messages, but a deluge of them. Eventually the mind is swept up in the torrent and no longer knows what or how to think, instead producing a streamlined negative perspective on the world.
The final notion that I wanted to mention was how she suggests we exercise and strengthen our focus—meditation. As I mentioned in my second letter, I’ve been meditating daily now for nearly a year. I cannot even begin to explain the kind of impact that it has had. What I particularly liked about Gallagher’s book is her basic explanation of meditation and its benefits. I think most people hear the word meditation and associate it with religious belief. While its roots are undeniably spiritual in origin, meditation can also have a distinctly secular dimension. My daily meditation is simple in that I spend most of my time focusing on my breath. It may sound simple, but the simultaneous goal is to not get distracted by anything else. Not by sounds, not by smells, not by sensations, and most of all, not by thoughts. The only thing that matters is the breath. Gallagher notes that while meditation is the most effective way to sharpen your mental muscle, it’s not the only way. As long as it’s an activity that demands your complete focus for an extended period of time, it’s productive.
The benefits of increasing my ability to focus in my life have been self-evident. I feel more open and alive right now than I ever have before. I have moments of what Gallagher calls “rapt attention,” and subsequently have found a lot more joy in the present moment. Gallagher speaks of focus; I often refer to choice. We may use different words, but we’re speaking the same language. I think we’d concur on this point: if you align your efforts with your ideals, your life will blossom. Choice and Focus are in somewhat symbiotic in that what you choose to pay attention to becomes your focus. Over time as you continue to make good choices, your focus sharpens, and your perspective becomes more positive. And according to the research, you’ll be more productive too. If you get a chance, you should read Rapt. While much of what I read I found myself nodding to because I had already discovered it over the past couple of years, it was still worth reading. Plus, the validation that I’m not crazy was nice too.
Like many 18th and 19th century pieces of literature, Candide has a subtitle, Optimism. Considering that it’s a biting satire—and my own cynical perspective at the time—I never saw how “we must cultivate our garden” could be uttered with anything but defeat. At that point, just about every imaginable suffering had been inflicted upon Candide, and now he was to end his days on a small farm performing what appears to be menial labor. What I couldn’t appreciate back then was what Voltaire was saying. Candide travels all over the world searching for something he could never find externally, facing hardship and pain with every step. At the end of the novella, however, he rejects Pangloss’ famous aphorism for “we must cultivate our garden” because—as my professor claimed back then—he’s wiser now. He’s learned that life is what you make it. He knows that if he focuses on the small gifts and daily blessings rather than the trivialities human beings turn into travesties, life can be really, really good. He knows that by cultivating his garden—both (metaphorically) mentally and (literally) physically—he’ll grow as a person.
I’m glad I finally learned these things too…
Keep cultivating, people!