“The ultimate freedom that we have as human beings is the power to select what we will allow or require our minds to dwell on”—Dallas Willard
Trouble is, most of us live as virtual slaves to wherever our thoughts may ramble or wander rather than recognizing our efficacy in the very act of attention. I often do attention-training exercises with clients to instill this point. I ask them to listen as I recite a poem with their full attention; focusing on my voice, the words I say, the meaning of the poem, etc. Then I have them focus their attention on the traffic noise outside the office while I recite the same poem. Every time their attention wanders towards my voice, they are to pull their attention back to the traffic noise and allow my voice to be in the background. While focusing attention on the traffic noise is more difficult, it is doable for most clients and makes an important point. Even if thoughts, concerns, worries, self-criticisms, accusations are screaming in your head, you STILL have the ultimate freedom to focus your attention elsewhere. You may have to pull your attention away from particularly sticky thoughts over and over again, but your ultimate freedom still remains.
This ultimate freedom has changed my internal world in the past 5 years. I lived my life up to age 40 with an unconscious belief that I had some kind of mandate to follow whatever train of thought was pressing into my mind. This works fine when my thoughts are peaceful, reasonable, and helpful. The problem comes when the thoughts are anxious, ruminative, and unhelpful. For me, becoming a practitioner of a counseling philosophy that emphasizes tending to the process of our thoughts was paired with a difficult life situation that wrecked havoc on my internal world. I spent the better part of two years preoccupied with mood-altering troublesome thoughts. Had I known then what I know now about attention, the situation would have still been challenging, but I could have done an infinitely better job focusing my attention on my present life and the people and tasks right in front of me.
There was a part of me that thought I was honoring some intense and deep part of myself by being so caught up in my thought processes and feelings. My read on it now is that I was heaping additional suffering on myself for no redemptive purpose whatsoever. I could have sufficiently processed the content of that life situation in about 10% of the time I spent swept up in it. Willard’s “ultimate freedom” does require some training and internal discipline, but I have become convinced that the work is well worth the effort and leads to being more present and grounded.