Throwing caution to the wind sounds great… unless you are a tightrope walker over the Grand Canyon. As with life in general, to enjoy the journey, you must balance spontaneity and pleasure with planning and caution. If you lean too far to either side, you will fall. And I see victims of this every day in my office – those recovering from marriages broken by their pursuit of immediate gratification, and those starving for an ounce of enjoyment or connection in their protected and disciplined lives.
To be truly content and happy, you must be able to focus in on, and manage, the many details of your daily life in the personal, relationship, and work arenas of your world. Meanwhile, you must also be able to maintain enough perspective to appreciate and even enjoy your experiences.
I was recently reminded of this on a trip to Cape May, New Jersey. I decided to go jogging one morning. Thinking that it would be nice to “take in” the area, I left my greatest distraction – my phone – in the hotel room. As I made my way down the walkway along the beach, I noticed many things. There was a couple on a bench eating pastries; a cute blond curly-haired girl in a stroller; and two well-built, shirtless guys jogging in front of me (I wondered if the one with a crew cut was in the military). I soon became aware that in cataloging all of these details, I wasn’t really experiencing Cape May. I might later be able to bring a picture of the place to mind, but I would not have a feel for it. So, I consciously let me gaze soften, looking ahead of me, but not at anything in particular. It was a bit like filming a panoramic video. When something caught my attention – like seeing a father and daughter jogging together, or noting how I was caught up in my rambling thoughts - I softened my gaze again and chose to bring my mind into a more open and receptive state. As I did this, I became aware of the rhythm of my steps. I “felt” the area’s movement, and its cadence. Rather than observing the activity around me, I became part of it. I felt more in tune with my surroundings, less alone, and more peaceful. I’d like to say that I sustained that experience for the length of my jog. But I didn’t. Instead, each time I became distracted or pulled in some specific direction, I had to repeatedly choose to return to it.
Training in mindfulness and meditation has taught me the value of softening my gaze and shifting my attention to a more receptive mode. These are skills that you can choose to use at any time. Much like any other skill, the more you practice, the better you become. A great time to practice softening your gaze and redirecting your attention is going for a walk, preferably in a relatively calm area. Go alone and without your phone. Look ahead, but don’t search out things to observe. Instead, allow the sights, sounds, and smells of the environment to flow into your senses. When you become distracted with your thoughts about what you are experiencing, or anything else, choose to return to a more receptive mode.
With practice, you will find that being open to absorbing the world around you – rather than actively searching and figuring it out – can awaken in you a sense of calm inner peace and connectedness with the world.
(You might find it interesting to learn that what I am suggesting about balancing detail orientation with broad awareness is supported by brain research. While the right hemisphere of the brain tends to help people focus broadly, the left hemisphere of the brain is more detail oriented, which helps with directed attention. To learn more about this from an interesting, densely packed, but animated video from RSA Animate (almost 12 minutes), click here.)
Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset in Somerville, NJ. She is also a regular contributor for the WebMD blog Relationships and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships message board.
Dr. Becker-Phelps is also the author of Insecure in Love.
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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.
Personal change through compassionate self-awareness