Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Focus Word

Every now and then a word pops into my life that represents a virtue that I truly respect in others and try to model in myself.  It becomes the highest virtue that I acknowledge, the greatest compliment that I can give at that time.

I steep this word within me: as it rests in my vessel, it permeates who I am with its flavor. 

I swaddle myself in this word: it rests between me and the world; all of the world's forces come to me through it and it warms me from the cold. 

I wear this word as an outfit: at first it may seem rakish and uncomfortable, not fitting, it's not yet tailored to who I am, but eventually it takes on my form and appears less of a costume and more as a fitting strength--how I wear it is changing, I become comfortable with it.  This takes time.

Of course, it is not really the word that I choose, but the virtue that it represents.  Still, words do have power (discussion on this coming soon), and focusing on a word like a mantra brings that virtue to you.  Maybe it is because it focuses the mind, maybe it puts the thoughts magically out into the universe, maybe it just makes you aware of opportunity; whatever the mechanism, it is a useful tool.

Power of a focus
“Always remember, your focus determines your reality.” - Qui-Gon to Anakin, Star Wars Episode I (I lifted this quote from the Zen Habits blog post on "The Magical Power of Focus ".)

Having a focus has been shown time and time again to make it easier to hit goals and make life more enjoyable and meaningful.  Better results just seem to show up.  Having a focus is a benefit in all areas of life, whether this is in business, in sports/fitness, or in another field.

Having a solitary focus is relatively new for me; it began as professional guidance a few years ago.
  For much of my life, I would tend to focus on three things at a time, thinking that I had sufficiently narrowed it down to the magic number 3.  Then along came a manager at work.  In my performance reviews, he did a magical thing.  He gave me one word (just 1!) to focus on at each review, to work on for the next half year.  Sometimes his word was one of the three things that I had written on my review.  Sometimes it was a blind spot that I didn't know about.  Even if I never learned anything else from that boss, the lesson of a solitary focus was a very potent gift from him, for which I will be forever grateful.  And each six months, I picked up a new virtue through focus on it.  If I were to try to focus on three things, it would likely take me two years to really nail them all, that is if I did manage to make progress - instead I could pick up three things in a year and a half.  This was definitely more efficient over the long run.  The words that he gave me to work on in turn were "consistency", "efficiency", and "predictability". 

Since then, I've naturally adopted a similar practice for myself.  I focus on a single word at a time; however, my process is a lot less deliberate (more on that below).  My most recent three foci are "earnest" (any part of speech will do, not merely nouns), then "compassion", and now "authenticity".

Of course, picking a fitting focus can be a challenge.  It is quite possible to accidentally pick a goal that is short-sighted or not the intended aim.  Marshall Goldsmith talks about this danger in his post Mission or Goal (also from his book What Got You Here Won't Get You There):

In the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, the main character, Colonel Nicholson, is a prisoner of war in Burma who leads his men to build a bridge for his Japanese captors. Nicholson is an officer of high integrity, dedicated to excellence, a great leader of people - and thus well trained to complete any mission that he is given. / So he skillfully inspires his men to build a near-perfect bridge. By the film’s end, he finds himself in the painful position of defending the bridge from attack by fellow British officers who want to destroy it - to prevent Japanese trains from using it. / There’s a chilling moment of realization, right before the bridge is detonated, when Nicholson (played by Alec Guinness) utters the famous line, “What have I done?” He was so focused on his goal - building the bridge - that he forgot his larger mission - winning the war!

Perhaps going to war was not even the best way to meet that higher purpose.  It really requires a lot of insight and introspection to set the right goals.

How I choose a focus word

I'm not really sure where these words come from, or why they rise out of all of the possible choices of virtues in which to focus, but they do and I go with that.  It is not a deliberate process where I sit down with a dictionary, talk with a guru, or pull out some revered text.  My current word is authentic (possibly the subject of a future post), which I find fitting.  When the word rises out of my unbidden--at least as far as I know--it feels authentic to give that word a proper place of respect and focus.  There's no real set amount of time that a new word takes over in my life, but they seem to fit for 6 months of so.  It's clearly not set by an arbitrary calendar.  There's a flip side to this, since I don't really know where the word comes from in me or why it takes on such shape, it is quite possible that I have been primed deeply by society or inauthentic forces.  My approach to this is to acknowledge that it may be the case and allow for exploration of this if it arises, without over-thinking it.  How do I recognize it?  I don't know.  I'm sure that there are some false positives that I later realize are not the true focuses, that I'm really still on the previous word.

Actually, this happened to me a bit during the last word compassion.  I kept thinking that I was adopting other words like love, loving-kindness, and empathy only to realize later that these were facets of compassion and helping me explore this gem from all sides, rather than taking the prize position.

This time around, the word had heralds.  Lately I have been bandying about the terms "sincerity", "genuine", "true", "real" and other similar terms.  "Authenticity" came up in my first discussion with a new mentor.  The word authenticity is really the one that I was being prepared for.  Authenticity came to devour my world.

There's something to be said about being deliberate in the choice, too.  There are likely some great techniques for picking out a focus, maybe I'll explore this at some time in the future. For now, I'll leave a link to the The Magical Power of Focus on the Zen Habits blog, which covers the topic some.

Make it stick
My friend's mother had an annual tradition of bringing a word in and kicking a word out.  She'd pick something to leave behind in the past year, then she'd put the written word on a little boat that she'd launch ablaze on the water.  She'd watch it be consumed in fire, then sputter, fizzle, and die as it was snuffed out of her life.  She would also pick a new word to bring into her life for the new year.  It is very effective to replace the old with a new, as supported empirically in psychological studies.  The best known way to rid oneself of an old habit is to replace it with a new one, as Azrin and Nunn demonstrated in Habit Control in a Day--"It is a clinically tested method for stopping ... nervous habits. They obtained 90% reduction in the habit the first day and 95% reduction within the first week and 99% within a month." (Dr. Clay Tucker-Ladd's Psychological Self-Help, Chapter 4)

Going through a ritual such as burning the effigized out-word may not be to your style, though there's a lot of significance to ritual.  Gaelen Billingsley writes: "Ritual speaks to older and deeper parts of the brain, feeding the unconscious the food of mystery, and authentic human connection. Ritual also helps us communicate with the more creative, less verbal, right hemisphere of the brain, accessing vital creative energy, ideas and power to manifest the lives we want." 

Another great technique for making it stick is to enlist allies.  I tell my friends, colleagues, mentors, mentees, and partners about what I'm working on, and they often offer books, advice, suggestions, and reminders that help me stick it out.  Further, the broader I spread the thoughts and share the ideas, and the more they're out in the universe, forces just seem to conspire to help me work on the focus.

So give it a shot, remove something from your life and add something new, and do it through ritual to commit it energetically throughout your brain, let the universe and maybe loved ones be witness to it. 


Request for comments: (from now on, I'm going to have specific requests for comments on my posts.  I love comments and respond to each of them.)

Do you have any rituals that help you cement a focus?

What specific words of focus do you choose?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Mind as a Committee

In the '90s, I used to watch the sitcom Herman's Head, which had a pretty neat premise: while Herman was going about his day, there would be flashes to a set representing the inside of his head, where 4 distinct personalities argued out the decisions that he would make. The characters in Herman's Head as defined in Wikipedia (link) are:
  • Angel represented his sensitivity. As the only female character in his brain, Angel also represented his feminine side, or in Jungian terms the anima, and sometimes used this fact to manipulate the male characters.

  • Animal represented his lust or hunger. He was an archetypal fratboy, and possibly derives his name from Animal House. He usually bullies Wimp. In one episode where Herman's personalities are assessing a sleazy man (Ken Hudson Campbell in a dual role) dating Louise , Animal sticks up for him (probably because this man looks exactly like him and shares his traits).

  • Wimp represented his anxiety. He was a paranoid hypochondriac. But since he always expected the worst, he was often the best prepared to handle crises when the others could not decide.

  • Genius represented his intellect and logic and because of this he clashes with the naive nature of Angel and stupidity of Animal. At times he could get overworked, as in one episode where his face is blackened by soot and he exclaims "I think I blew a fuse!", after Herman makes a ridiculous decision.
The representation of Herman's head is a metaphor for the internal deliberating aspects of the mind that we almost all experience. We're torn between different decisions and for different reasons. Should I patiently wait for things to fall into place? ...be comfortable with what comes my way, whatever it is? ...seize opportunities? ...skip this whole thing and try something else? It often feels like there are many different aspects to us trying to hammer this all out.

I have a friend who uses a committee metaphor (and she grew up without a TV, so she doesn't even know about Herman's Head). When she is deliberating something and wants me to understand, she might say something like this: "I want to and I don't. There are some committee members who really want to, one who is worried about the timing, one who is afraid of trying something new, two who think I will miss an opportunity, and another who just thinks this is silly and that I will have fun doing whatever, so I might as well do this." I have always felt this way. Sometimes I respond: "I want to, but I also don't want to, and the part of me that doesn't want to is winning." This often lead to a trap that makes it difficult to commit to something.

Jon Haidt refers to the concept of mind as a committee as one of the great ideas, because it has come up many times in people's minds, across culture and history. For example, it shows up in Freud's idea of the id, the ego, and the superego. Also, Platos' chariot allegory from Phaedrus:
Of the nature of the soul, though her true form be ever a theme of large and more than mortal discourse, let me speak briefly, and in a figure. And let the figure be composite -- a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now ... the human charioteer drives his in a pair; and one of them is noble and of noble breed, and the other is ignoble and of ignoble breed; and the driving of them of necessity gives a great deal of trouble to him.
In his essay The Plato Chariot Analogy, psychologist and statistician John S. Uebersax, PhD. describes the allegory and talks about how the concept originated even before Plato:

The soul is portrayed as a charioteer (Reason), and two winged steeds: one white ('spiritnedness', the irascible, boldness;) and one black (concupiscence, the appetitive, desire). The goal is to ascend to divine heights -- but the black horse poses problems. The chariot figure itself is just the beginning, however; it leads to a revealing portrayal of the 'ups and downs' of the spiritual or philosophical life.

The myth itself is not Plato's--it was ancient even for him, perhaps coming from Egypt or Mesopotamia--but he adapted and reworked it. It greatly surpasses Freud's mechanistic ego/id/superego model, to the same degree that art and science conjoined exceed science alone.

There's even physiological backing for for the mind as a committee metaphor, as Haidt points out in The Happiness Hypothesis (I keep coming back to this 1 2). The different parts of the brain that serve different functions may account for the differing and often opposing aspects of the personality. The reptilian portion of the brain controls the fight or flight response, the mammalian portion of the brain controls the desire for status seeking, and the neocortex contains higher-level reasoning. These layers already show how there can be differing aspects of the brain, each with its own set of priorities. This 3 layer approach is a great simplification of the truly interconnected brains that we do have. There are multiple different regions of functionality in each layer and many interconnections between each part and across layers. It is no wonder that our brains often feel tugged in different directions with conflicting internal messages and priorities. It is wired that way.

The committee metaphor, in any of it's incarnations, has a lot of support, and can be very useful. I've adopted this metaphor and find that it really works for me, providing several benefits:

First, it makes it easier to see and understand things for myself and likewise it creates a good way to explain indecision to others. I find it effective for emotionally loaded conflicts around decisions. It is a simple way to explain the process in my head and my heart. It let's others know how I'm making my decisions--I'm torn, not making a straightforward choice.

Second, it allows me to Declare Peace on Myself. The thing to remember, I am not any single piece; I am all of the pieces. I am the whole committee. I am the charioteer and the two horses (not just the charioteer). I am Angel, Animal, Wimp, and Genius. To paraphrase Pema Chodron in Comfortable with Uncertainty, chapter 6: any striving to improve, as if by fighting any side of our personality, is "a subtle aggression against who we really are." I see that there is no benefit in fighting any of these parts; that would be fighting myself. It is futile and likely to only make that part stronger. Rather, I can accept it, love it, and possibly train it. All of these acts I can achieve through meditation.

Third, another huge advantage to having a clearer picture of how I operate internally is helps overcome indecision. Some understanding of how my mind works under the face makes it easier for me to grease and tighten the cogs. It also helps me to decipher the deliberation process and avoid the stress of indecision.

I encourage you to explore this metaphor and see if it can also provide these benefits to you. Every time that you have a tough decision to make can now be an excellent opportunity to explore this metaphor and get to know yourself further. Whenever I can be mindful enough to do so, that's what I try to do.