On the Cultivation of Minds

A few weeks back, I encountered the following quote posted on Cal Newport’s Study Hacks blog on how to live a successful, meaningful and enjoyable life (http://calnewport.com/blog/):

Living the focused life is not about trying to feel happy all the time…rather, it’s about treating your mind as you would a private garden and being as careful as possible about what you introduce and allow to grow there.

The quote comes from a book called Rapt written by cancer survivor Winifred Gallagher. I haven’t read the book yet, but Mr. Newport summarizes it pithily as follows:

[Gallagher] realizes that this disease wants to claim her attention, and that this was no way to live what may be the last moments of her life. So she launches an experiment to reclaim her attention, relentlessly redirecting it towards the things that matter most: “big ones like family and friends, spiritual life and work, and smaller ones like movies, walks, and a 6:30 pm martini.”

These lines struck me ever since I read them although I haven’t had the chance to examine them more closely until now. Why they triggered a minor epiphany of sorts is the very idea that what counts in living a happy life (I assume happiness is Gallagher’s implicit objective regardless of what she actually says) is the “relentless redirection” of one’s attention to the things that make one happy.

Now, it seems trite and obvious when it’s put that way, but for myself personally, I always thought that a large degree of my happiness derived from the systematic elimination of the things that stood in the way of my being happy. In other words, I always thought that it paid, in the long run, to focus attention on my problems—provided that my objective was to address my problems and prevent them from happening ever again.

But over the last year, a greater degree of attentiveness has led to the realization that my problems never really go away. I tend to worry constantly about the same things, whether or not my circumstances merit the anxiety. And when I paid attention to the people around me, I also realized that they had their own pet worries too—things that bothered them simply because they were predisposed to worry about these particular things.

And this is exactly why Ms. Gallagher’s insight hits the nail on the head. A lot of times, no amount of attention paid to a problem is ever going to make it go away because a person just happens to be temperamentally inclined to worry about that particular thing. Some people worry constantly about their appearance, some people worry constantly about their health, and some people worry constantly about their money. (The yogic way of putting it is it’s all part of our individual samskara.) Hence, all the focus devoted to the issue not only represents wasted mental energy, but the diversion of energy that could have otherwise been channeled to more productively happy thoughts.

In other words, as Ms. Gallagher put it, the mind really ought to be treated like a garden. We can’t control the fact that there’ll always be weeds—we’ll always have thoughts that mire us in anger, anxiety, dismay or regret—but we do have a choice about whether to allow the weeds to proliferate or not.

In my case, as long as I’m clear that it’s not a real problem but something I just tend to worry excessively about, I’m going to firmly and relentlessly “redirect” my attention—and have a 6:30 pm martini instead.


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