What We Focus On, Expands…

<Sept. 2006>

I’ve had an “Aha!” moment this morning, and I want to pass it on, because I think it’s potentially pretty useful.

In a workshop I attended a couple of years ago, the powerhouse of a woman who was leading it said casually, “What we focus on, expands.”

I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ve written about it elsewhere, but somehow, this morning, I feel as though I REALLY got it…finally…right in my guts. We can grasp things in an intellectual sort of way, but until they grab us by the entrails, as it were, we don’t really “get” them, do we?

It’s largely a timing issue, no doubt. It’s clicking for me in a big way right now because of the books I’ve been reading (The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving Kindness, by Pema Chödrön; Loving What Is, by Byron Katie and If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland) and because of a little (or, perhaps, not-so-little) tailspin my boyfriend and I are caught up in right now. Also, because of something my daughter and I talked about yesterday, and a letter I wrote to someone else recently.

Generally – about 99% of the time – I am probably the happiest person you’re liable to meet. I’m able to take joy from small things other people don’t even seem to notice (the sky, the clouds, the birds, squirrels and chipmunks, the rocks, the trees, the river…). I worry some, but my mind does not default to worry and stress and fuss, the way it seems to for so many people. Of course, there is my daily (almost daily) active practice of gratitude that pretty much turned my head (and life) around when I decided to stop focusing on what I did not have in my life (what I had lost) and worked at regularly enumerating the many things I do have and need to be thankful for (this was truly life-changing – transformative – for me!).

What I discovered when I began to do this was that, slowly but surely, my attitude began to shift away from, “Oh, poor me” to “Oh my goodness – what an incredibly fortunate woman I am!”

The way I now conceive of it is that, if I choose to fill my head with positive thoughts, the negative ones get squeezed out due to a simple insufficiency of space.

So, 99% of the time, I am happy – energetic – joyful – content – cheerful. People seem to enjoy being around me, and this delights me to no end. I think it’s because I have a (mostly) positive and cheerful attitude. It must also be mentioned that I’m an Aries person. We are said to be “the infants of the zodiac.” Some of my naiveté and cheerfulness and friendliness and energy and ability to “live in the moment” are 100% natural to me – just plain inborn. Grace. Lucky me!!

Back to what we focus on…

I can look back in my life now, and see times when I was clearly focusing quite a good deal on negative thoughts. During my days in the correctional business, for example, cynicism and suspicion were, perhaps not too surprisingly, pretty big players. During the first few years of learning about the depth of the environmental crisis, anger became paramount. Of course, emotions are complicated critters; sometimes we start with one and before you can say “Jack Robinson,” it has quickly morphed into another. Pain or disappointment or worry or hurt or resentment can turn very quickly into anger, for example. Say your child or spouse is really late getting home, and you’re worried sick. S/he arrives, and you explode in anger. Worry transformed into anger, lickety-split!

After a marriage goes belly-up on us, especially when one is the “dumpee,” we can certainly almost lose ourselves and drown in these negative emotions and thoughts. We can be sucked into a spiral of pain and sadness and despair and self-recrimination, and wind up feeling (and acting) as though our self-esteem were in the toilet. Been there!

What we focus on, expands.

I’ve also grasped recently that anger has a tendency to recycle itself. When I keep anger and resentments bottled up inside me, they keep on expanding and growing and fuelling themselves (and me) in a surprisingly persistent fashion. I once saw at fairly close range how truly deadly repressed rage can be; had an extreme case of witnessing how literally murderous it can be. Not a pretty story, that one…

But here is what my “Aha!” moment was about this morning. The boyfriend and I have this tempest in a teapot going. I feel as though he has mistreated me. No doubt he believes I have mistreated him. Familiar scenario, anyone??

So I wallow in my own feelings of resentment. Pretty soon, I’ve dredged up other, older past hurts, and my current case of resentment gradually expands. Instead of this being a relatively minor incident, it grows and grows and has pretty soon ballooned to ridiculous proportions. Now I’ve become absurd…even to myself!

Here is another neat insight (I think). When I was in Malaysia a few years ago, I stayed in a luxury hotel with a huge, impressive lobby large enough to park a couple of Mack trucks in. There was a front entrance – but no door. The place was wide open, 24/7. There was no back door, either. I was told this was because the building could better weather severe storms that way. The pressure wouldn’t build up inside and cause an imbalance that would lead to an explosion (or implosion).

I suspect we human beings are constructed in much the same way. If we keep ourselves opened up, the storms can blow right through us and be gone. Dissipated. Vamooshed.

If, on the other hand, we hunker ourselves down and don’t let things pass through us and be gone; if we hold tight and solid and firm and very determined to hang onto our hurts and pain and losses and resentments, the storms rage on inside us. On and on and on, like pus from a wound that needs to be lanced. We poison ourselves from the in-side out.


We human beings are certainly complicated critters! We all of us have childhood baggage we seem to hold onto for dear life. We guard it jealously (though perhaps mostly unconsciously). Not-nice things we experienced as children that caused us to adopt an “Oops – time to hunker down!” stance.

It served us well as children. It got us through!

But it doesn’t really serve us so very well now, does it?

I do believe hormonal activity plays a significant role in our lives as well. PMS, perimenopause and menopause throw real curves at us. I’m convinced that fluctuating levels of hormones inside us contribute to women’s (sometimes disturbing) internal mood swings (and thus, of course, the Pill can really play havoc with our emotional thermostats, since it’s all about manipulating our body’s hormones).

It’s a complicated life, hmmm?

I think there’s a need for each one of us to “connect the dots.” Our own personal dots. When we learn to understand our own internal workings a bit better, the world outside us simultaneously becomes easier to fathom as well.

As Gloria Steinem and the 1970’s-era feminists famously used to say, “The personal is political.”

It is not an accident, not a coincidence, that at this time when the outer world is a mess and pretty much falling apart around our ears, our families and marriages and relationships are doing the same. Not a coincidence that rates of depression and alcoholism are skyrocketing at this time.

What we focus on, expands.

If we want to transform the world (surely all of us do?), we have to start by transforming ourselves. We need to learn to tone down the inner workings of that ridiculous “drunken money” inside our heads (meditation helps a lot with that, so I’m told).

Because if we focus on negativity, judgment (of ourselves and others), resentment, pain, anger, loneliness, despair, and rage – well, they will surely expand to fill us right up!

If we turn our gaze instead in a positive direction – toward gratitude and appreciation of what a beautiful Earth/world we live in, and the amazing qualities of the human spirit (resourcefulness, indomitability, strength, resilience, courage, creativity, love, energy, generosity) – we transform both ourselves and the world around us.

It’s our choice! Focus on negativity, nurse resentments and grudges, judge everyone around us (including ourselves) harshly and continuously, immerse ourselves in daily doses of all the world’s “bad” news, or…

Begin focusing on gratitude and beauty and joy and what we amazing human beings are capable of when we set our hearts, minds and spirits to it…

You don’t have to take my word on this, of course, but you might want to give it at least a moment’s thought. I am one of the happiest people I know, and although I earn less money than almost anyone among my rather wide acquaintance, I often think to myself that I am the wealthiest woman in the world.

Not such a bad way to go through the days and weeks, hmmm?


P.S. There are some practices, habits and books that have really helped me a lot. I recommend all of them.

# 1. Frequent, preferably daily, walks. Frequent attendance at beautiful places such as, in my case, the Ottawa River (but the Earth is beautiful quite abundantly. Wherever you live is no doubt beautiful in its own unique way).

# 2. Attendance at a Landmark Forum. I found the one I went to a year ago very worthwhile. It was somewhat expensive ($500 for the weekend; three full, exhausting, inspiring and worthwhile days of learning and personal insights), but I figure I’m worth it. So are you! (see recent posting on this topic.)

# 3. Books. Books, books, books, books, books. I am a serious readaholic…

* anything by Pema Chödrön

* Loving What Is – Four questions that can change your life, by Byron Katie

* The Hidden Messages in Water, by Dr. Masaru Emoto

* If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland (especially if you want to write, but even if you don’t!)

# 4. I don’t watch TV or read newspapers. I catch all the necessary bad news I really absolutely require from occasional Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio listening (the CBC, btw, is one of Canada’s really grand treasures).

# 5. I find Buddhist thought very, very interesting, challenging and useful.

# 6. I’ve been learning – partly as a result of the aforementioned Landmark Forum, and partly due to my exposure to Buddhist thought – to remind myself often: “It is what it is.” This phrase is a remarkably sanity-inducing one, and I use it often. When there are stubborn circumstances that frustrate, annoy or infuriate us, and if we cannot change them, let us just sigh, perhaps, and say, “It is what it is,” and then get on about our business. Not much point in letting everything drive us crazy, is there?

# 7. I often belt out songs while working in the kitchen. Pretty tough to remain unhappy for very long, while singing, hmm?