How you experience life, and how successfully you navigate life, comes down to how you focus. One simple exercise can give you powers of awareness you never knew you had.
Why is it that two people can be stuck in the same traffic jam on their way to similar jobs, and one becomes stressed and angry, while the other uses the opportunity to listen to a podcast or talk to a loved one or mentally prepare for the day ahead?
How can two people eat the same slice of chocolate cake, and one thoroughly enjoys the experience while the other barely notices it passing his lips as he texts or talks or thinks about other things?
How can two people go to a party and speak to the same unsmiling individual with the soft sigh and sagging shoulders, and one notices the individual’s depressed state and reaches out in empathy, while the other misses it entirely and instead prattles on inappropriately about trivia?
Almost everything in our lives comes down to how we focus. Those who focus better – and are able to control how they focus and what they focus on – are at a distinct advantage. Whether it’s the ability to use time productively, not succumb to destructive emotions in the face of unanticipated events, pick up on social cues, or just enjoy a slice of chocolate cake, your ability to focus determines the quality of your experience – and often the level of your success.
Although a few chosen souls enter this world with an industrial grade level of focus, for most of us it’s an acquired skill. And that’s the good news. Even if you don’t focus well naturally, there are some simple ways to boost your concentration and become a focusing superstar without a lot of heavy lifting.
Meditation of course, practiced consistently over time, can profoundly boost your level of focus. But not everyone has the time or inclination to sit on a meditation cushion for 30 minutes, day in and day out. And although meditation can do wonders for your mental and even physical functioning, there are a host of practical mindfulness practices that will jumpstart your focusing abilities.
And the best part – they’re quick and easy. You can do them for just a few minutes when you get up in the morning, or while standing in the supermarket line, or while suffering through that interminable company meeting.
You will find many quick and easy focusing exercises throughout this blog. Here, I want to offer one of the easiest (and dare I say, fun) ones.
From Your Big Toe to Outer Space
You can jumpstart your focusing abilities simply by learning to expand and contract what you choose to contain within your awareness. When you direct your awareness to go small and then gradually go big, and then go small again, you quickly develop the ability to focus on whatever you want in the way you want.
For example, focus on just your big toe of your right foot. (You could go even smaller and focus on just your toenail.) Stay with just your big toe for a few seconds, focusing only on it. Then expand the scope of your focus to include all five toes. Then your whole foot. Then both feet. Expand to include your lower legs. Then upper legs. And on up through each area of the body, until you are focusing on your entire body.
Then also notice the area surrounding your body. Then expand the scope of your focus to include the room (or if outside, a reasonable amount of space around you). Continue to expand your focus to include your entire living area, then your neighborhood, your city, your region, your country, the earth, and on to outer space.
You’ve come a long way from just focusing on your toe. Now reverse, gradually backtracking through the steps, allowing the scope of your focus to become ever-smaller until you are again focusing on just your big toe.
The entire exercise need not take longer than 5 minutes, and can even be done in as little as a minute whenever you have a spare moment. If you practice it a few times a day, you’ll soon find that you have a dramatically heightened ability to focus on whatever you want to focus on and let go of those things in your awareness that are distracting you.
The big toe to outer space exercise is just one example of this focusing method. You can go small to big and back again in any number of ways. The process is more important than the specifics.
Another version I often use is to expand and contract using your senses. Start with feeling. Focus only on what you feel, which takes place within the space of your body. Notice internal sensations as well as your sense of touch where your body makes contact with your chair, the floor, your glasses or any other object.
Next, expand your focus to include your sense of smell, which may extend a few dozen feet in each direction. Then add your sense of hearing, which usually extends several hundred feet, and then your vision, which will take you even farther (particularly if you are outside). Then expand your focus with your imagination, envisioning what is beyond your sense of sight. Then reverse until you are back in your body, focusing only on your sense of touch.
Whatever you use to take your focus from small to big to small, by incorporating this practice into your daily routine, you can quickly and dramatically increase your overall awareness and your ability to focus as you wish.