The Challenge to Focus

This image from the Utah desert nearly perfectly captures the struggle of holding a vision and maintaining focus through a racing mind. Authentic Way Coaching for the Gifted and Creative has a blog with all sorts of tips and tricks for managing the very big and complex personality that is ours.

For years, I was an utter slave to mind chatter.  It has, quite honestly, ruled my life.  Once I identified it, I became even more frustrated by the amount of energy I had given up to this nagging and gnawing that always seemed to show up right when things were getting good.

Untitled Image from the Utah Desert, ©2012, Lauren Berley Studio

Buddhists call it the “monkey mind,” and, my guess is, you know it well. No matter how many times you sit down to focus on something, it tugs at you like a nagging child at your pant leg. Persistent and incessant, the mind operates as its own organism with individual needs, separate from the brain you thought you were using to focus, and it won’t stop until we are exasperated and look it dead in the eye, with a big “Yes, Dear!”

Yoga and meditation are ages-old methods for calming the monkey mind, practices that guide the practitioner toward a peaceful, blissful, and more reasonable state from which creativity can flow freely. But let’s face it: You’re trying to work, and in this moment, that’s what you’d like to be doing. Not yoga. Not meditation.  
For years I was an utter slave to mind chatter.  It has, quite honestly, ruled my life.  Once I identified it, I became even more frustrated by the amount of energy I had given up to this nagging and gnawing that always seemed to show up right when things were getting good.
Numerous trials and failures at taming the wild monkey have shown me that it will stop resisting when being satisfied, and calmed by acknowledgement, rather than than being lassoed, wrestled, or tamed.  Instead of resisting or ignoring the noise, I address it directly, briefly, and let the monkey feel heard.  When I stand witness to the monkey, and ask to listen to its tugging chatter, I hear a whole bunch of meaningless malarkey and take note of how much weight said malarkey has been bearing on my mind.

Satisfying the monkey is exactly the same as letting a pant-leg-tugging child be heard.  It creates silence. It sends the message that all needs are being met, that not one ball will be dropped.  It creates inner trust.

There are are some rudimentary-yet-powerful practices I have adopted for satisfying my mind chatter and shifting into my focus.  I take these very basic actions to redirect the monkey into a satisfied and “napping” state, and I can get on with my life, my focus, and eventually, gratification.

Personal issues mind chatter.  

I buy spiral notebooks in bulk, and actively designate them for journaling or making lists surrounding the various facets of my life.  With a label maker I make my designation clearly on the cover of each one, creating a personal mind chatter filing system.  Over time, as issues come up and fill my mind with concern, fear, distraction, or any other emotion blocking my clarity, I jot them down in the notebook especially created for that issue.  Some of my notebook titles are: Personal Workspace, My Relationship, Fear and Panic Resolution, Gratitude, and Creative Workspace.  On the pages of each one, I jot down what the mind chatter feeds me and dump it into its file.  Later I may choose to look more closely at the issue and use the notebook to journal or make a plan around it, but in the meantime, the child has been heard, pacified, or tossed a banana.

Goals and To-Do Lists.  

These are not the same.  In fact, goals is a generalized term for a much broader range of mind-chatter-breeding confusion.  These must be sorted for me to feel centered.    I’ve found that the best way for me to get a handle on all the existing “should”s and make room for the new ones is to address them and separate them in clusters of time.  My method is a chalkboard or dry-erase, separated into three columns: “To-do,” “Action Goals,” and “Percolating.”  Of course, the Percolating column is the most fun, because it is where I jot down ideas that float in, bigger ones to develop in the future.  They tend to be larger concepts that will eventually be broken down into Action Goals and then smaller items on the To-Do column.  My lists contain a combination of personal, creative, and professional items, since they are often the same, or at least bear the same weight in my head space.  But once they are sorted in columns and crystallized in writing, they are dumped from my head and the monkey is at bay for a while.  I can actually get to work or play without the monkey juggling around in my head, each thought poking forward so I won’t forget.  Once it’s on the board, it’s cleared space up there.

Generalized chatter.  

Perhaps the most hyperactive monkey of all is the directionless, solution-blocking nonsense about nothing.  When I stop and have a listen to the 1000-odd thoughts and string them together, they mean absolutely nothing of import.  Meaningless, yet persistent.  These are the thoughts about things that have no meaning to me, empty thoughts that require no action whatsoever.  But sometimes they come in and hijack my focus, taking me off on a thought trajectory to nowhere.  For this I keep a piece of paper handy, and jot down any of them worth revisiting.  As they come up to distract me, I quickly jot them down so they are out, and I can go back to where I was before the rude interruption.  The idea here is to catch the thought and note it (trick the monkey into thinking you care about any of this enough to put it on paper for later) before the thought trajectory to nowhere can lure me like a snake charmer.

Visual chatter.  

Simple.  When I know I need to focus on something, I designate the space and time to it formally.  I finish or set aside all other tasks and remove their tools and debris from my work space and sight line.  I do all dishes and make the bed.  This is clearing and resetting.  This is actively setting intention for the next block of time.  If mind chatter keeps telling me I have to call someone, I do it now while I am drying dishes, or add it to my To-Do on the dry-erase, so that once I sit in my chair, I am clear and completely available. I enter the next period of time focused on what it’s being held for, in a place that allows for the flow to come through, clutter-free.
Perhaps all this sounds like I’m living in a Thought Police state, but I assure you,  it’s quite the opposite.  This state is a Paradise I could never have known, in contrast to the sheer desperation that led me to address clearing my mental pathway.  Quite simply, the monkey just needs to be reeled in and retrained.  It is a practice like any other that becomes second nature.  This discipline has created a framework for my ability to compartmentalize and focus, and has eradicated the question: “Do I have A.D.D.?”  Now with my systems in place, the benefits are cumulative, and the practice is effortless.  
Over time I have noticed the chatter reducing to nearly nothing for longer and longer stretches.  I have a sense that fewer and fewer distracting thoughts are coming up, since so many of them had been repetitions of the same, and have landed on pads and boards outside my head.  What’s left in the absence of thought/mind chatter?  Infinite possibility.

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