Why Your Attention Is Your Most Valuable Resource

“Punching In A Dream” by The Naked and the Famous is a staple on my running playlist. It’s especially perfect when you’re halfway through a hard hill, or in a particularly gloomy mood about, well, life (it happens). I’ve sung the line, “I don’t ever want to be here,” under my breath more than a few times (in various situations—not exclusive to running).

But the other day, I began to pay attention to a different lyric: “breathing life into my nightmare.” Or, in layman terms, giving life to something that isn’t good for you, a situation you don’t want.

In yoga, I’ve heard it said many different ways: the breath (or prana—life force) goes where the mind goes or energy flows where the attention goes. The asanas are meant to not only increase the health of the body, but help us focus our minds on the body so we can breathe life into it.

Another way to say this is “where the mind goes, man follows,” and it’s both true for macro and micro things in our lives. For example, if while you practice yoga you’re stewing about something that someone did earlier that day, you’re sending all your breath (your energy) to those negative thoughts. You’re not breathing light and life into the body, but rather anger and darkness. And if we choose to do this over and over again we end up a bundle of negativity energy with a life (macro) that doesn’t look or feel at all like the life we want.

“Energy flows where the attention goes” is also true off the mat. In high school, I was a part of an amazing group of six girls (now six amazing women who I still consider close friends) who called themselves (secretly) the Homie Homie Sisterhood. We carpooled to school together, took classes together, hung out at the beach and went surfing together, held each other’s hair back when we had too much to drink (it happens), and got each other through breakups (“He’s not good enough for you,” was a common theme, and it was true.). We invested a lot of time and energy into being friends.

For the last ten years or so though, I’ve focused my energy on my career, education, relationship with my now husband, who I met when I was just 21, and family. I have a lot to show for those efforts: A bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in journalism from one of the top journalism schools in the country. I’ve been married almost four years and my husband, Matt, is also my best friend. We have a very loved and happy (and mostly well behaved) one-and-a-half-year-old puppy. We make an effort to see our family members a few times a year, which require lots of little, sometimes longer trips. (Ask me about driving two days in winter conditions to spend three days in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and then driving two days home—do the math.) And I continue to grow and be challenged in my chosen professional field.

But, what I don’t have is a lot of friends, or even a small group of friends, here in Los Angeles. (I want to be clear: I do have many amazing friends who live in various parts of the U.S. If only I could lure them all to L.A….) And you know why? Because that’s not where I’ve put my attention, my energy. Remember, your life goes where your attention goes. I don’t need nor want a ton of friends. I find quality over quantity works best for me in this department. But I’m at a point in my life where a community is something that I find myself coming back to over and over again.

What would it be like to have a group of close friends, here where I live, to celebrate a birthday with, host a dinner party with, grab a glass of wine with after a long week, hang out at the beach with; talk about ideas, challenges, our dreams, and support each other as we go through this crazy, unpredictable life? I wonder.

So, “breathing life into my nightmare.” My present situation is hardly a nightmare; I will be the first to tell you that. But if I continue to put my attention on education, work, family relationships (romantic and not), and career, then those are the areas of my life that will continue to thrive. And that is fine if that is what I want, but we’ve just established that maybe it isn’t.

Enter the motivational seesaw (can you tell I have a therapist?): Is making a desired change in your life more or less painful than your current situation. For example, this is often explained in terms of trying to lose weight: Is dieting more or less painful than being overweight? Depending on what your answer is, you will be able to stick with your program or you won’t. If dieting is more painful than the inner tube around your waist, then you won’t stick with it. If the opposite is true that the inner tube is more painful than dieting and exercise – what you must do to lose weight – then you will succeed.

Another way to say this is: people make the things happen that are most important to them. If your husband says that he wants to be tidier, but he still leaves his stuff all around the house, well then, you have your answer.

Sitting here at my computer wishing I had a few more good friends close by won’t manifest anything. You can’t wish friends, you have to make them. Am I willing to take the steps to make said friends? Is putting myself out there, investing some of my time here versus doing something else (like curled up with a book or a house project—I’m a total nerd), and accepting the awkwardness of getting to know someone more or less painful that my present situation? That is only a question that I can answer.

So, my question for you: Are you putting your energy and attention (some or all) into the things in your life that are most important to you? Or are you focusing on all the wrong things and “breathing life into the nightmare”? Only we have the power to change that focus, that attention, and, therefore, our lives. Your focus, your attention, your energy—that is your life.

In an essay on Medium based on a recent commencement speech he gave, Matthew McConaughey shared 13 lessons that he’s found true in his life. In one, he lists what is important to him: fatherhood, being a good husband, health, career, friendships.

I try to measure these five each day, check in with them, see whether or not I’m in the debit or the credit section with each one. Am I in the red or in the black with each of them?

For instance, sometimes my career is rolling (in the black) but I see how my relationship with my wife could use a little more attention. I gotta pick up the slack on being a better husband, get that one out of the red.

You can’t give everything that is important to you all your attention at once—it’s impossible. But to live the life that you want to live you need to be honest with yourself and be willing to do things differently. You need to be willing to shift your attention, maybe not forever, but at least for a time. And again, that is something only you can do.

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