The pointy end of attention

It’s not always obvious where our attention should go.

One winter, on retreat at the School of Philosophy (where I’m both a student and tutor), it was my job to turn large slabs of wood into firewood, but the slabs were closer in density to steel than any wood I’d ever encountered.

I had the right tools; a heavy mallet and a wood splitter, and was practising working with fine attention.

The mallet was striking the splitter dead centre on every swing, but I was making almost no headway and frustration was building.

Fortunately, someone turned up and asked me where I was directing my attention.

“Where the mallet meets the splitter” was my confident (and probably somewhat defensive) response.

“Try directing it where the splitter meets the wood” was the response. “That’s where the work gets done.”

Within 3 or 4 swings the slab was split open!

My effectiveness had increased tenfold without applying any more effort!

If your attention’s usually directed to the effort you’re making, it may be in the wrong place.

Try giving it to the point where you want the transformation to happen.

  • Don’t focus on your muscles when you have a stiff jar to open. Focus on the thread where the glass and lid meet.
  • Don’t focus on the words you could use when you want to influence someone. Focus on the emotional impact you want your words to create.
  • Don’t focus on your performance in the game. Focus on the movement of the ball and the other players and where it needs to be next.

You might still need to practise and prepare beforehand, but if your attention’s focused on your own performance you may be getting in the way.

Attend to the point where the real work gets done and notice how much more effective your efforts become.