“Pay attention to what has your attention.” David Allen
When I was growing up, there was a familiar, and honestly kind of annoying, phrase that we used: “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I, being the smart-alec that I was, liked to reply, “Words can hurt you if I whack you with a big dictionary!” Of course, technically speaking, it wasn’t the words that would hurt, it was the weight of the stack of printed and bound paper slamming into the person’s body that did the damage.
The power of words is much like that. It’s not the actual words that have power. They are just the triggers that launch the concepts, ideas and emotions that have the true impact. This is a fun experiment to play with. Years ago, when I was struggling to claw my way back up out of a dark emotional hole that I had dug myself into, I ran across a book that had a simple, yet very powerful suggestion in it. The author asked that you read a list of words and notice the emotional impact. I was skeptical, but being desperate for relief, I played around with it. I was shocked at the shift this particular list of words had upon my emotions.
Before turning my attention to the list of words, I was feeling depressed and disempowered, lethargic and melancholy. On the emotional scale, I was hovering around two on a scale of one to ten, with one being utterly miserable and ten being on top of the world. I swear, just by reading the list of words, I moved up at least two or three points on that scale. It wasn’t just seeing black marks on white paper that did it. It was that the black marks on white paper represented letters that formed words that conjured concepts that now had my attention. The words in the list were powerful and uplifting. Although I didn’t experiment with a list of negative words, I assume it would work the same way, knocking me down a notch or two on the same scale. I just really didn’t need that kind of movement.
The attention factor is very critical. The concepts represented in that list were not new to me: they were in my mental file cabinet all along. The difference is that I had tossed them aside to the dusty corners of my brain, most definitely outside my zone of awareness. I simply was not in the habit of focusing my attention on empowering thoughts – quite the opposite. No surprise I was in that dark, suffocating emotional place. However, when I turned my attention to the concepts triggered by the list of positive words, I began to experience the essence of them. They triggered related thoughts and ideas that then resulted in corresponding emotions.
It is interesting to note also that thoughts are not loners. They do not like to travel alone. They’re pack animals, and move in herds. Or trains. One thought triggers a similar thought, which triggers another similar thought, and all of this triggering forms trains of thought which gain in momentum and clarity and specificity. For example, someone says “dog”. That reminds me of my dog Kona, who is very specifically a chocolate lab. Who is getting old. Which reminds me that she won’t live forever. That reminds me of another dog of mine, Callie, who didn’t live forever. It was incredibly difficult for me to watch her decline with age and then die, and that reminds me of the specific day she died and how I felt when she breathed her last breath. That, of course, reminds me of all the other dogs I have loved dearly and lost and I have now heaped every pain-related dog memory in a huge pile like I’m building the mother of all bonfires. If I don’t find something to derail the momentum (and darn quickly), a can of gasoline and a huge box of matches is on the way. The next thing you know, the neutral concept of “dog” has me in a heap on the floor in a pile of used Kleenex, makeup running everywhere in a most unflattering way.
Now, most everyone knows this, or if challenged they could figure it out, but for some crazy reason it is frequently not consciously put to use in the average schmoe’s everyday life. Even though it is a really, really good idea to purposely make use of this information. If you’re aware of the mechanism, you can stop the train before it flattens you on the track. You can stop the momentum before it gets so darn hard to manage. You get to decide to stop digging before you find yourself at the bottom of that deep, dark, emotional hole. It saves all that pesky clawing to get back out.
In fact, you get to decide any ole time you want, to create an upward spiral using the same dynamic as the downward spiral. You can point it in the direction you want to go, then knock yourself out shoveling heaps of coal in the engine of the train (of thought) and experience glorious upward momentum. Go ahead, purposely focus your attention on those thoughts that have an upward pull on your emotions. Instead of thinking “dog” and ruminating on the negative memories, I can purposely place my attention on all the happy memories associated with “dog” – and there are plenty of them to choose from.
This world is a place of extreme abundance. There is a boundless abundance of what is wanted, and there is an equally boundless abundance of what is unwanted. Your experience of life is a direct result of which flavor, wanted or unwanted, you most often turn your attention to.
It’s a real no-brainer choice, but it’s not always so easy to do. It takes intention, attention and a quality decision. It is harder at first to change the momentum, but it gets easier and easier as you notice your thoughts, notice the emotional result, and deliberately choose your train’s direction. Good to know – and remember – and apply.