Voting With Our Attention

On a recent road trip, Vince and I pulled up alongside several handwritten signs staked near intersection. As the passenger, I leaned toward the window and could easily make out the messages. They all boiled down to :

Trump is an idiot 

Trump is crazy 

Don’t trust Trump 

And about 12 others.

“What do they say?” Vince asked, his eyes focused on the road.

“A bunch of anti-Trump stuff.” I said.

“Oh. That’s funny,” he said, “All I could see was “Trump…Trump…Trump…” 

Biden Harris campaign sign.

This story came back to me as I walked through a Boulder neighborhood and saw a sign for “Biden / Harris.” Suddenly I realized that for all the time I spend around liberal-identified people, I don’t know what people I know specifically like about Biden/Harris.  Instead, what I mostly hear about is what people don’t like about Trump. 

I will come back to the election in a moment, but first let’s take a sharp detour into brain anatomy.

At the base of the brainstem there is a bundle of neurons called the Reticular Activating System (RAS). The RAS acts as a kind of bouncer for the brain. Our senses take in waaaaay too information for our conscious mind to ever process, so we need to screen out data that is not relevant to us and allow through that which matters. The RAS does the filtering.

How does the RAS know what to let through?  By focusing on something, we are telling the RAS “This is important to me.” So of all the myriad data our senses encounter, the RAS allows our conscious mind to process mostly that which we have declared important by what we give our attention.

Some examples:

Why do we respond to our own names when called in a crowded room? Because the RAS has determined that jumble of sounds is more important than other sound jumbles.   

Recently Vince and I were considering buying a Jeep, and now I seem to notice every Jeep on the road.  We actually decided against the Jeep, but after six months of car-shopping, my RAS doesn’t yet have the message “No more Jeep.”

This leads us to a very important point. The RAS, and perhaps the rest of our brain, doesn’t really understand “No” or “Not.”  As I’ve learned it, the brain communicates to itself images, impressions, and feelings. For example, if I tell you right now:

“Do NOT picture a pink heart.  Don’t do it! Don’t think of a pink heart!”

What happened? And the more I say it, aren’t you more and more likely to picture a pink heart? If I say this to you every day you might start noticing pink hearts everywhere. Without that daily instruction your brain might have mostly filtered out pink hearts.

Now let’s take a more practical example. Let’s say you are someone who is, to your mind, financially strapped, or overweight, or overworked, or lonely, or in physical pain, or, or, or…. pick your poison.

If you tell your brain (by thinking) “I don’t want to work so hard” or “I hate being lonely”  or “I’m gonna be broke” Then the RAS learns that “WORK SO HARD” or “LONELY” or “BROKE” are important to you. So it lets through all the evidence you associate with these things, at the exclusion of other data.

If overworked is your thing, maybe you keep noticing yourself at your computer till 10pm or your flooded inbox, but you don’t really notice the pleasant lunch break you had with your kids.

If lonely is your thing, maybe you focus on yourself eating dinner alone, but you filter out the fact that you spent eight hours on zoom calls connecting with people.

If financial scarcity is your thing, maybe you notice every time there is a withdrawal to your bank account and ignore the  generous dinner your friend just made for you.

Thanks to the RAS our brains allow through all the sense data related to what we’re focused on: Overworking, pain, loneliness, stress, scarcity, extra weight, etc., and may be screening out data related to relaxation, health, wealth, connection, and peace.

This means that the more we focus on what we DON’T want, the more we see evidence of those very things in our lives, and the less we notice evidence or opportunities of what we DO want.

All this lopsided evidence reinforces our beliefs in our problems, causing us to focus more on what we don’t want, and the cycle continues.

Back to the election. What do you think might happen, if the whole country is focusing on either “Trump” or “Not Trump?”  It does necessarily mean he will win, but focusing on him with this much collective intensity is the surest way to keep him and/or that which we believe he represents in the world we see.

To take it one step further, if you are a person who thinks Trump = cruel, stupid, divisive, then the more you think “Not Trump” you’re also thinking “Not cruel, not stupid, not divisive.”  This means you are telling your brain that cruel, stupid and divisive are important to you. Your RAS, trying to be helpful, will pass on to you more and more evidence of those things while filtering out other facets of reality.

Similarly, if you are a person who thinks liberals = arrogant, lazy, unpatriotic, then you are training your brain to see more arrogance, laziness, and disloyalty.

So what do we do??

We focus our attention on what we like and want to see increase.

To put it simply: If you want to see more purple, then look at purple things, think about purple, talk about purple, make purple things, celebrate purple! If instead, you put all your energy on getting rid of green hoping that will leave behind more purple, your life will be defined by green instead of purple.

If you want Biden/Harris to win, then increase the time you spend thinking or talking about what you like about them.

If you appreciate what Trump stands for, then increase the time you spend thinking about and educating others about those values. 

And if you are disgruntled about the whole elephant and pony show, then start focusing on how you’d like government to look, feel, and be different. Start looking for small signs of healthy governance in the world around you.

A caveat: It is important to acknowledge and investigate what we don’t want as long as it takes to clarify what we do want. But then the real work of shifting our attention begins.

It’s is my guess that most of us want to see more kindness, awareness, understanding, unity, justice, hard work, open-mindedness, and love of the place we live.

Focusing on those things is one way we can come back together and actually experience changes in the direction we say we want. If we all start paying attention to all the places those things alreadyexists, including among the people who might vote differently than us, we are already voting with our attention. We don’t need to wait for elections. With our attention, we can vote every day or minute of our lives.

Illustration of a huge crowd holding peace flags and heart flags.

If we want to see a healthier world, then we literally have to train our brains to be able to see it. We do that by retraining our RAS to focus on what we like and want more of. The more we do that, the more we will see evidence of positivity. The more positivity we see, the more hope we will have. The more hope we have, the more energized and motivated we will be to keep creating a more beautiful world.  

A final word: This is simple, but not easy. When we decide to change our brains, it’s no different than changing any other part of our anatomy or longstanding habit. It takes time, effort, will.

My partner Vince says he spent two-to-there years refocusing on financial abundance (rather than scarcity) before his bank account reflected evidence of his dedication.  At another point in his life he continually refocused his attention on peace and peaceful things, rather than drama. It took over a year for his life to feel genuinely peaceful and his attention to become more automatic.

Candidly, this is still very much a work in progress for me, which is why I offer Vince’s examples rather than my own. But if topics of divisiveness or fear come up around me, and you hear me change the subject or shift the focus, what I’m really saying is “I am putting my attention on what I want to see grow.”

I am voting with my attention.

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