Saturday, January 31, 2015

I Didn't Intend To Write This, Until I Did

Lately I have been toying with the idea that all behavior comes down to one of two things: intention or distraction. At any given moment, you are either pursuing a clear intention, or you are being distracted from doing so.

More than that, it has occurred to me that perhaps all of the things that I say have kept me from reaching my goals - fear of failure, fear of success, discouragement, confusion, ignorance - boil down to one thing: distraction. That anything that draws attention away from achieving an intention is just a form of distraction.

Even an intention serves as a distraction from other intentions; but at least pursuing any given intention strengthens the intentional muscles, so to speak. It's the periods of time without conscious intention that suck the power out of my life. So, lately, I have been monitoring myself, by simply asking myself occasionally, "What am I intending right now?"

It's a bracing question, and sometimes asking it helps me to shift gears - to re-focus on an intention.

That's what started me writing this piece - I caught myself being unintentional, and decided to give my attention to writing about intention. Which I've wanted to do for a while, anyway.

So here we are. This is what I am working/playing with:

  1. All behavior may be described as enacting an intention, or engaging in distraction from intention.
  2. By the very act of giving my attention to something, I either advance an intention, or I distract myself from intentions.
  3. I can choose at any moment how to direct my attention. 

That last proposition seems huge to me. The ability to choose what to give our attention to may be the greatest power we possess - and I think that for most of us, it is undervalued, overlooked, and underdeveloped (it may be severely curtailed or even shut down in people with malfunctioning brains).

Indeed, the ability to choose what to give our attention to may be described as the ability to distract ourselves from distractions, according to Columbia psychology professor Walter Mischel.

Mischel authored "the marshmallow test," an experiment in the 1960s and 70s (when he was at Stanford), in which young children could receive a marshmallow (or cookie) immediately or receive two by waiting 15 minutes. The self-control exhibited by the children who waited has been linked to them generally going on to live more successful lives.

In a New York Times piece about Mr. Mischel's work, Pamela Druckerman writes (italics mine):

Part of what adults need to learn about self-control is in those videos of 5-year-olds. The children who succeed turn their backs on the cookie, push it away, pretend it’s something nonedible like a piece of wood, or invent a song. Instead of staring down the cookie, they transform it into something with less of a throbbing pull on them.
Adults can use similar methods of distraction and distancing, he says. Don’t eye the basket of bread; just take it off the table. In moments of emotional distress, imagine that you’re viewing yourself from outside, or consider what someone else would do in your place. When a waiter offers chocolate mousse, imagine that a cockroach has just crawled across it.

That chunk of advice could be useful for almost anyone at some point - I'll tell you in my next post how a visualization changed my eating habits instantly years ago. For Christians, I think "Imagine that you're viewing yourself from outside" is downright Biblical.

Consider that in Ephesians, Paul goes to considerable length to establish that Christians are, as parts of Christ, seated at the right hand of God in the heavenly realms. Anyone who really believes that of him/herself is bound to view everything in this life as from the outside - at least occasionally, if not perpetually.

This is the literal meaning of "ecstasy" - mentally standing outside of oneself (it is not specifically an emotional state, although that has been attached to it). So I'll go ahead and say that having an ecstatic mind is part and parcel of being Christian, and that the most apparent benefit of said mind is self-control.*

In any case, many people, Christian or not, could benefit from Paul's instruction to exercise care in what we give our attention to:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

May more and more of your attention be given to conscious intentions.

*How would a group of people who believe this interact with each other?
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