One of the reasons Lao-Tzu was able to be so clear and powerful in his wisdom poetry was the clarity of his vision – his focus of attention. He looked at the natural world with a mind that was open and reasonably free of the typical ego-centric self-talk. That is what provides his words with their power. Even when they seem ambiguous and mysterious, there is an,”aha!” feeling deep inside when one reads them.
I had a Zen teacher who often said, “The focus of your attention determines the quality of your experience.” I recently had an experience of self-hate that brought this teaching home to me once again. While attempting to replace the lock on the sliding door of the cabin I lost an essential screw. No biggie, happens all the time, right? Go buy another one. But something toggled in my brain and, for ten minutes I was completely lost in a white-hot self-hating rant more powerful than anything I had experienced before.
“You stupid f—!” came out of my mouth, over and over with incredible intensity. “You g– d—- stupid f…!” For ten minutes this rant did not cease. No other awareness was present in my mind. When I finally came to myself, I was exhausted. It was so completely out of proportion that its origin was, of course, something much deeper than a lost screw. It emerged from decade upon decade of much more subtle self-talk focused on doubt and fear.
This locus of doubt and fear within my brain draws energy from the things I choose to think about, to put my attention upon. The genesis of such hateful energy lies with the seemingly ordinary worries, doubts, and subtle under-the-radar whisperings that continue to imply, “You don’t know what you’re doing. You’ll do it wrong. You’ll make a mistake. You are not really competent.”
This whispering feeds the process and gives it the energy it needs. Then, something will occur that cracks open a mental fissure and, like a subterranean lava flow finding an opening, the eruption blows fire and ash over everything in sight. I dissipated the fire and ash from this particular intense experience, but the corridors of lava continue to flow in my brain and will cease to draw energy from my life only when I cease fueling their fire. So, as this process becomes more visible I am able to take measures to heal.
Let’s mix another metaphor into the pot. This is a parasitic energy, feeding off my own life force. To get rid of a parasite, one removes the nutrient upon which it feeds. In this case the nutrients are the internal fears and doubts, along with the external forces feeding those fears and doubts. I have learned to withdraw much of my attention from the toxic media of my culture, but the internal patterns are decades old and it is them from which I need to now withdraw my attention. Just as I no longer use Facebook or other social media, I need to as firmly stop scrolling through the posts that my mind wants to feed me. My mind’s algorithm is as biased as Facebook’s, always skewing toward fear, desire, and any other attention-grabbing post.
Indeed, Facebook has ingeniously and skillfully adopted the algorithm of my conditioned mind and applied it in ways that are invasive, intrusive, and terribly damaging to lives and society. Facebook works almost seamlessly with my conditioned mind to form a system that bypasses my deeper Mind and keeps me continually locked into a cycle that perpetuates the dysfunction of both self and society. Both systems now work in a feedback loop in which both are constantly reinforced.
I have stopped use of Facebook completely but, as I said, the process is deep within me. Fear and desire are the twin engines of economy and culture, operating everywhere we turn. We will not heal ourselves by totally disconnecting. We can’t totally disconnect. Some of us find that social media plays a necessary part in our lives. What we must do is learn to navigate these dangerous waters with full attention and clarity.
Whether it is on Facebook or lost in the scrolling homepage of our minds, I recommend a few possible ways of caring for ourselves.
- Don’t click on anything unless there is a clear, rational, and helpful need to do so.
- Pretend your thoughts are being presented by an entity that does not have your interests at heart and stop cooperating with it.
- Don’t believe anything you think or read when you are in this millieu.
- Practice putting your attention somewhere other than the conditioned patterns. I.E. – don’t open Facebook. It will take a while to learn when you are in the Facebook of your conditioned mind and when you are in a deeper place, but it is worth the effort.
However complicated the processes, one essential element in a life of freedom, simplicity, and joy will be the ability to keep one’s attention on those expressions of Life that are helpful, good, and true. Look around, they’re everywhere. We just have been trained not to see them.