Shape Shifting

“My experience is what I agree to attend to.  Only those items I notice shape my mind.”

Pioneering psychologist William James

I am struck by his focus on MY and ­I. Not ‘they’ or ‘it’ or ‘them’.  My experience of good or bad, happy or sad is dictated by what I attend to.  What I give power to.  What I focus on.

Most vibrant recent personal experience of this?  On my family vacation to Hawaii I would tell you that I had a good time.  That it was the best family vacation to date.

When I was telling a girlfriend about this over coffee I told her it was the best vacation because the kids didn’t bicker.

“They got along really all the time and it made the holiday great. “ I said.

She laughed and said, “Wow, a great holiday where no one gets sick and everyone is happy”.

“Well” I said “actually, Fletcher was sick for about half of it.  I thought it was sunstroke but by day three I had to give in to confessing it was the flu and he was vomiting” She laughed even harder, saying “and that was the best vacation to date?”

Well, when you put it that way-no.

But, it was.  It was the best to date because of where I put my attention.  I put my attention on how unsettled it makes me that my kids often fight.  Since that didn’t happen as much (admittedly because one was sick for half of the time and didn’t have the energy probably to fight with his sister) I perceived the vacation as a success.  If I put my attention on the three days of mixed vomiting and sleeping my sick son did, I might have described my vacation differently.

As William James said “ Only those items I notice shape my mind”.

What I was noticing shaped my mind to see a happy and successful vacation.  But what if what I’m noticing isn’t making me happy?  How do I notice something else so I can change my experience?

If you think you are stuck in an experience in life and not enjoying it, here is a handy tool to at open up the door making that change.  These four steps will guide you in noticing something else so you can do what William James’ suggested- shape your mind instead of your mind shaping you.


First:  Write down the experience you are having that you want to change

Second:   Write down the shape your mind is giving you for this. (This will be a feeling state-sad, angry, frustrated, satisfied, elated etc)

Third:  Shape your mind instead by noticing other ways you could feel and why.  Write down:

– One thing to be grateful for in this experience.

-One thing to be annoyed about

-One thing your grandma would say about this

-One thing a five year old would comment on

Fourth:   Congratulate yourself for creating a list of options of what you could attend to that would change the way you are currently shaping your experience.

Fifth:  For five minutes, attend to one of these new viewpoints and see how it makes you feel.

Ask yourself:  What if I shaped my mind this way?

A living-breathing example:

I’m at the Starbucks and it is crowded, I’m in a line and I want my drink now and I really hope I get somewhere to sit.

Currently I’m annoyed and frustrated.  Not feeling good about this.  Makes me think of everything else that annoys and frustrates me.

Grateful:  I really wanted this coffee and I’m glad I found this Starbucks to even order this

Annoyed: I hate waiting.  I have better things to do.

My Grandma would say:  Why wait in line for coffee? This is ridiculous.  It makes me smile to think about how I’m making a mountain out of a molehill.

Five year old:  Woo Hoo!  I can buy a treat!

Each one of these creates a very different feeling and rather than be frustrated, today I’m going to go with Grandma and laugh at all of us who line up for drinks that purport to be coffee and have whip cream on them!

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