The only thing that you will ever really have

9 minute read

In the last centuries it has been the capitalistic and materialistic societies that have flourished the most. Societies that hold the believe that working harder, that collecting more stuff, will somehow be the solution to all of your problems. And the fact that these are the societies that grow, goes to show that this is indeed a very healthy mentality. Anyway, a healthy mentality for the society itself.

On the other hand, individuals within these same societies can have a poor emotional development. I am talking about people with a materialistic mentality. People whose biggest values in life is collecting more money, who believe that they can buy themselves and those around them happiness. Feeling sad? Well, just buy a new plasma TV, that will fix your problems!

Contrary to the society as a whole, individuals with these believes don’t flourish at all. Their sense of emotional stability and self-worth depends on an ever-increasing paycheck. And imagine what would happen to them if the stores would suddenly run dry? What is good for a society need not be good for the people living within this society.

In order to understand the problem with this materialistic mindset, we need to take another look at the nature of money. What is money really about? If we look closely, money is nothing more than a useful tool to divide labor. If I work 10 hours of hard labor, I should get enough money to get someone else to work 10 hours for me. Right? And yes, of course we cheat a little here and there. For example, I cheat when I buy clothing from low-wage countries. When I get 10 hours of labor for only working 1 hour myself. If I pay 20 euro for a t-shirt, this means that I expect this t-shirt to require more of less 1 hour of labor to make. And is that really fair? I certainly don’t believe I can do this. But I am letting myself get carried away.

I am not here to lecture you on fair fashion. Rather, I just opened a monologue about the value of time. The value of money, in many ways, is a direct representation of an amount of time that you are buying from someone. An hour for an hour. And I mention this because it is something we often overlook.

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Shadow of time by Aarrti Zaveri

We tend to think of time as something that is free. The question “could I have a minute” is often answers without thinking. “Sure, have 10”! We give large chunks of our time away to vague acquaintance or pawn time from the future. “I will do that tomorrow”.

However, all of us only possess a very limited amount of time. “Lost time is never found again”, as Benjamin Franklin once said. Time is a very limited asset, and every human being is more or less equally advantaged in it. All of us know that we will die someday, and for all we know that day could be tomorrow. Our time on this earth is so very limited.

But hé, time by itself does not carry any value either! All of us have known moments where we didn’t know what to do with the damned stuff. “I wish this day where over”, we say in despair. We wish there was some way to simply make time disappear. And we have become quite good in making time disappear in turn. Just think about all the hours you spend scrolling down your Facebook and Instagram feeds. Hours we know full well will never return to us. Hours we spend distracting ourselves, pulling back from the intimidating reality of the ‘outside world’.

“Modern man thinks he loses something – time – when he does not do things quickly. Yet he does not know what to do with the time he gains, except kill it.”
― Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving

There is only one thing that makes even time worthwhile. And that one thing is attention. Time spend attentively is time spend being alive. Time spend attentively is worthwhile. It doesn’t matter if you were feeling ecstatic, crying on the floor or screaming your guts out. If you spend time attentively, you will feel good about whatever it was that you did. Paying attention is what makes life worth living.

At this point, I would like to share with you my golden rule: whatever you give attention, grows. This one phrase is one of the simplest and most profound things I learned this far in my short lifetime. So, I’m just going to say it again.

Whatever you give attention, grows. I give attention to one of my friends? Our friendship deepens. I give attention to my partner? Our love spreads. I give attention to my parents? Our bond strengthens. Whatever you give attention, grows. I give attention to my anger, my anger grows. I give attention to self-pity? My sense that I’m a sorry sack of shit gets bigger. I give attention to the pain in my big toe? I never suffered more in my life. Whatever you give attention, grows. I give attention to the idea that people disrespect me? People will disrespect me more. I give attention to the idea that I am good at my job? I will get better. Whatever you give attention, grows… Good and bad, regardless.

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Growth by Emily Bleske

Attention is a bit of an abstract concept though. We talk about it as if we all know what it is – “Hé, I’m talking, pay attention!” – but before I continue, I would like to pull this word out of the vague shadows that surround it.

To set off, attention is the ability to be aware of that, what is already there in the space of your consciousness. To clarify on this sentence, imagine the last time you were reading a book, only to realize that you got lost in thought 3 pages ago. You have no clue what was written on these pages, but when you re-read them you realize that every sentence is familiar. You read the pages, the words have appeared in the space of your consciousness, but you were not aware of them. You were not aware because you were not attentive.

Your consciousness includes experiences of hearing, smelling and tasting, thinking, feeling (emotionally, physically) and seeing. All of these are always being registered in your mind, in the space of your consciousness. But we won’t be aware of any of them as long as we don’t pay attention.

In addition, we have two tools at our disposal to shape and direct our attention: focus and concentration. Focusing is the ability to narrow your attention down to a specific experience, a specific part of your consciousness. To narrow it down to a single ling of thought. Or to listen to your friend’s voice at a noisy party, while cancelling out the other noises. Concentration is the ability to maintain a certain level of attention (and focus) over longer periods of time. 

The direction that your life will take from now on, starting with today, utterly and completely depends on what you pay attention to. And your ability to direct your attention depends fully on the extent to which you can manage to cultivate focus and concentration. I know, I know, you have been told since primary school that you should concentrate and focus, but I think most of us nevertheless greatly underestimate just how important these two qualities really are.

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George is not able to concentrate very well like this

Without being able to direct your attention, without being able to steer your focus and stay concentrated on whatever you are focusing on, you are completely out of control of your own life. You cannot have a deep and meaningful conversation with a family member, if you lose track of the conversation with the first ping from your phone. You cannot truly develop a deep connection with your spouse, as long as you lose yourself in every discussion. As long as you are not able to move your focus away from your own anger or feeling of unjust and move your focus to a genuine interest in the needs that caused your spouse to have an argument with you. You cannot have a fulfilling job, as long as you are not able to move your focus inward. To see your own hidden needs and desires, and to craft your own career accordingly.

Nevertheless, we lose attention constantly. We get distracted because of disturbing thoughts. We get distracted because we are obsessing over all the possible futures that might happen and how we think we will feel about them when they happen. We get distracted by the lack of time we feel we have. And before we know it, we were drowning in our distractions for the past two hours without ever realizing that it was focus what we were lacking all this time.

We distract ourselves because becoming aware, because cultivating focus and concentration is not a comfortable process. It requires strength. It requires us to slow down and look into ourselves. The only way to cultivate focus and concentration is to spend time submerged in focus and concentration. It requires us to spend time deprived of distraction. Distraction that we crave because it protects us from the painful emotions that might lie hidden beneath the surface of our awareness. It requires us to train our mind, just like we train our muscles in exercise.

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Street sign art by April Soetarman

The way in which to cultivate these qualities, to train this mental muscle, is deceptively simple. All you need to do is to sit down somewhere quiet, close your eyes and choose a single point of focus. I myself like to observe the sensations of my breath. And as I watch my breath, I feel the constant pull of all these distractions. A thought. A smell. A sudden feeling of pain in my knee. To cultivate focus and concentration, is to observe this pull of distraction and to return to the object of focus regardless. Return to the object of focus without getting angry at ourselves for getting distracted. Simply begin again. Without judgement. Again, and again, and again.

To cultivate focus and concentration is to practice acceptance. To realize just how vulnerable the tiny bit of sacred attention is that we can bring into our day to day life. It is to realize that we have to treat ourselves like the gentle little flower that we are and to not accept anything less from the people that are close to us. Your attention is sacred. You need and deserve these quiet, undistracted moments where it’s just me, myself and I. And you are the only one who can give this to yourself.

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