Photos by Dave Mochel
Look around you. Everything you can see, hear, touch, smell, or taste is a product of activity in your brain. Every sensation, thought, and feeling you experience is generated by your nervous system. The processing needed to create your experience of reality is intense. In every moment, your nervous system provides you with a uniquely filtered, digested, edited, synthesized, and fabricated version of the world.
So what does this have to do with your life? Isn't this just an interesting philosophical notion? Actually, this understanding has a profound impact on how you live your life. For example, if you believe that you see the world the way it actually is, then there is only one explanation for people who see it differently. And if you see that your nervous system creates your experience, you can stop blaming people and situations for what you think and feel. While you cannot necessarily choose which sensations, thoughts, and feelings your nervous system produces, you do have choices that make a huge difference in your level of happiness, health, and performance.
You can choose what you practice
Your brain is designed to get better at what you do repeatedly. Your brain does not make a distinction between what you want to get better at and what you don't. So, if you practice responding to the world with resistance, resentment, and avoidance, you are going to become more skilled at that. You can wire your brain for optimal wellbeing, peak performance, and healthy relationships by consciously choosing how you relate to and work with your thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
You can choose to be aware
Attention is a tool and the use of it is a skill. By practicing mindfulness, you can strengthen your ability to aim, sustain, and return your attention when it wanders. You can practice mindfulness by setting a timer for two to 20 minutes, sitting quietly, and bringing your attention to the sensations of your breathing. Each time you notice that your attention has wandered to a thought or another sensation (if you are human, then your attention will wander!), you just smile and bring it back to your breath. You can also choose to do this throughout your day for two to five breaths at a time.
You can choose to accept discomfort
Your nervous system produces discomfort. Resisting or avoiding discomfort does not make it go away forever - discomfort is just part of life. When you accept that discomfort is a natural part of being human, then you no longer have to blame anyone for what you are feeling. The time and energy that normally goes into avoiding, blaming, and complaining can go into more things that really matter to you. Your relationship with discomfort may be the most important relationship in your life.
You can choose to focus on what matters
The survival function of your brain will consistently direct your attention toward what feels urgent. However, unless you are on fire or bleeding from an artery, you have time to take a breath and ask yourself what is most important. Starting and finishing your day by connecting to a larger sense of purpose is a powerful practice. Aligning your action with what matters most to you has a profound impact on happiness and overall wellbeing. Strengthening your awareness allows you to notice when you are focused on what is urgent and to move your attention to what is important.
You can choose to be authentic
The need to be right can create stress and damage relationships. When you accept that everyone sees the world differently, then you can let go of being right, and you can express what you are thinking and feeling without blame. You can also ask for what you need or want knowing that others are free to respond as they choose. Often being authentic comes with the discomfort of being vulnerable (see above for accepting discomfort) - the willingness to be vulnerable is the basis of courage.
You can choose to be grateful
If you look for reasons to be resentful and dissatisfied, you will find them. If you look for small blessings and opportunities to be thankful, you will find them. Gratitude makes an enormous positive difference in your relationships, your physical health, and your psychological wellbeing. The most powerful impact comes from cultivating the feelings of gratitude or expressing sincere gratitude to others rather than just making a list. Taking time to feel grateful for the fact of your existence is also a powerful practice.
You can choose to be kind
Kindness is one of the most powerful choices you can make. When things do not go as you hoped, you still have the choice of treating yourself and others kindly. You can choose to help and support others without trying to get anything in return. Kindness does not require that you have a pre-existing relationship or that you agree with the other person. You can also practice self-acceptance and self-compassion. You do not have to blame yourself for uncomfortable thoughts and sensations produced by your nervous system - they exist simply because you are human.
You can choose to grow
The desire to be seen as talented or right is driven by a physical survival instinct applied to a nonphysical identity. This self-preservation strategy, which often includes the fear of failure or rejection, stands directly in the way of growth. You can prioritize gaining skill over being seen as good or playing it safe. Rather than avoiding discomfort, you can bring your awareness and acceptance to sensations and thoughts, you can identify what is most important, and you can take authentic action motivated by gratitude and kindness.
Dave Mochel, CEO of Applied Attention teaches individuals, teams, and organizations how to optimize the human brain for performance and well-being. The research-supported practices he teaches lead to personal fulfillment and health, strength of personal relationships and organizational cultures, overall productivity, and effectiveness in leadership. Dave teaches one on one, on site, remotely, and in retreats and seminars. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org