What's in Focus?

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June 2012

This month I have three photos for you.

When you look at the first photograph, what immediately draws your attention - the pig or the elephant?

Now look at the second photo… What is your attention drawn to first?

Finally what about this third version?

What does your attention come to rest on now? Is it maybe the pig or the elephant? Neither is obvious so you will probably focus your attention on whichever has most meaning for you personally?

The technique used in these photos is one with which photographers in particular are familiar. In order to draw the viewer's attention to what is supposed to be the main subject of an image, the photographer will deliberately throw the rest out of focus. The bits which then appear blurry become less meaningful to the viewer so their attention is drawn to the part which is clear because that makes most sense to their brain.

The third version is more of a challenge. Unlike the first two examples in which you most probably found yourself looking specifically at the pig or the elephant, this third image offers no such easy answer. Both animals are clear so the brain will not choose to focus on something which is in focus as opposed to what isn't. In this example the viewer is most likely to be drawn to whatever aspect of the image is most meaningful to them personally. For instance, you may collect ceramic pigs so your gaze rests on the pig. You may love the colour pink so you are drawn to the elephant. Or you may have no particular reason to be drawn to either so will just look away at something more interesting quite quickly.

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate the fact that what our minds draw our attention to is usually either the part which is most easily recognisable or that to which we have some personal reason for paying attention. 

On the other hand, let's pretend you were invited to the wedding of a friend from your schooldays whom you haven't seen for many years. You were unable to go to the wedding but you know that an ex of yours was there and you are curious as to what they look like now, have the years been kind to them?  In looking at the wedding photographs, which have now been put online by the photographer, in which the bride and groom are clearly in focus, you find yourself largely disregarding them. Instead you are scanning the hazy figures in the backgrounds for a glimpse of what you are really interested in.  

So what conclusions can we draw from this exercise?

  • 1. When not directed by us, our brain will pay attention to what it is most familiar with or that which is most obvious, what is most clearly in focus.
  • 2. We can over-ride this mental auto-focus if we choose to at any time, but we have to make that choice, it won't happen spontaneously.
  • 3. Whatever our minds are permitted to pay attention to, is what they become most familiar with and so tend to pay increasing amounts of attention to it. 


if we have been in the habit of entertaining negative thoughts, unwanted emotions, or of looking on the dark side of issues, these aspects will be found most readily by our minds and so will be brought into focus more often. Our minds will take us to the places (thoughts) we usually go to. If we habitually go to negative places we only have ourselves to blame if we constantly feel down or negative almost automatically. 

What can be done about this?

Each of us has the power to change ourselves if we choose to use it.

Take it step by step. Start to train your brain to focus positively from today. Start to notice when you are taking a negative view of something and deliberately refocus. Direct your mind towards the positive aspects of anything. Sometimes it may be hard to find a positive side to something. In that case just move your focus away from it completely onto something else that does have one. 

souvenir shop at night with saying,

We are constantly bombarded with negative views of everything by the media - in newspapers, on TV - in a way that tends to make us think that we should worry or be concerned about these issues. But we don't have to read those items or watch them. Open the lens of your mind to the bits of your world that bring you a positive vibe and leave the rest a blurred background. 

If you were a guest at a huge, elaborate banquet at which the table was spread with all manner of foods you wouldn't necessarily expect to eat some of everything there. You would pick and choose. You would eat the things you knew you liked, you might try a few new things which looked tempting, and you would avoid foods you knew you disliked or which made you ill. Even those foods which you refuse will get eaten by someone else because we don't all have the same tastes.

Approach life as you would a banquet… There's choice, abundance and variety for all… Nothing is compulsory, we impose it on ourselves!

A Zen teacher used to invite some of his students to meditate at his house if they had nowhere suitable of their own. Now the Zen master had a cat which used to disturb the students during their meditations so the master began tying the cat to the bedpost whilst they were meditating.

One of the students had to travel far away for several years. Whilst he was away the master died but the students continued their practice of meditating at his house and of tying the cat to the bedpost. 

When the travelling student returned after many years he was happy to observe that the students, along with many others, still visited their former master's home so he too went along to meditate there as he had done previously years earlier. When he arrived, however, he discovered that although many people now came to the house, they came and just tied up the cat but they no longer meditated.

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