Focus and Discipline vs. Caring

December 2nd, 2010 by Steve Pavlina

After yesterday’s post on Life Purpose and Values, I saw some questions about why I dropped values like focus and self-discipline from my list. Are these values no longer important? Or do I feel I’ve mastered them to such a degree that they I don’t need to consciously think about them anymore?

Actually it’s neither.

Ironically I found that having such values on my list didn’t help me much when making decisions. They seem like good values to have, and I agree that they’re important, but in practice they served to obfuscate a deeper truth.

Does It Help to Focus on Focus?

Focus on what? Discipline yourself to do what?

What if you apply these values to the wrong pursuits?

When I was 19, I was very focused on shoplifting. I thought about it every day, kept improving my game, and disciplined myself to take action. And I got pretty good at it. Was that a wise choice?

Later I focused on running a computer games business. That focus gave me good results in some areas of life, but it also slowed me down in other areas. When I’d write an article to help people on the side, sometimes I’d chastise myself for it because writing articles would dilute my focus, drawing me away from publishing games. But I still felt motivated to write. I didn’t know I’d someday become a blogger, author, and speaker and end up writing more than 1,000 articles, having a book published in a dozen languages, and doing live workshops. Blogging didn’t even exist back then, at least not like it exists today. So even though it seems like a good value to have, if I’d clung to the value of focus more tightly than I did, I might still be writing computer games, ceasing all article writing as an unjustifiable distraction.

Look at your own life and ask yourself if focusing on becoming more focused has produced positive results for you. Is it paying off? Might it also be holding you back in some areas? Are you certain that your focal point is the best one for you?

In my case I would say there were some benefits to trying to become more focused and discipline as ends in themselves, but those results weren’t as strong as I’d hoped. I intuitively sensed that something was off. I’d do things that seemed more focused and disciplined, but often that made me feel more stressed and overwhelmed, which ironically make it harder to focus. Some part of me was resisting, and it wasn’t due to laziness.

I eventually realized that my resistance had to do with feeling disconnected. Often I would focus on actions that left me feeling unfulfilled, even though I initially expected to feel really good about the results. The deepest levels of drive and motivation weren’t coming through.

What’s Your Best Focal Point?

This got me thinking. Is there a better place to focus my attention, such that I’ll experience less resistance, feel more motivated, and be more fulfilled?

Eventually I figured out the focal point that works best for me. That focal point is caring.

That value has been present in my life for many years, but it wasn’t till recently that I became consciously aware of just how important it is to me.

The main reason I started this personal development website is that I care about helping people. You don’t succumb to writer’s block when you care. The words always flow. I’d find it harder to discipline myself not to write. I don’t have to discipline myself to write because I care about the topics I write about, and I care about the people who read my work. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t write anything.

Caring is why I’m a vegan. I have a deep sense of compassion for animals, and it breaks my heart to see them suffer needlessly. So I strive to keep reducing the amount of suffering I contribute to, and I keep holding the intention for us to co-create a more compassionate world. Perfection may not be realistic in such an inter-connected world. Nevertheless, I do the best I can. I’m not going to close my heart, even if it stings now and then. I know that joy and sorrow are a package deal.

Something that non-vegans are rarely aware of, but which many vegans know quite well, is that your relationships tend to improve significantly when you go vegan, partly because you feel much more connected to your fellow human beings. Even if you go vegan mainly for health reasons, as I initially did, a side effect is that your heart becomes less clogged (both physically and metaphorically). This allows you to feel and express love more strongly. After several years on this path, you look back to your past self and shudder to realize how cold and dark you once were. It generally takes years for this effect to play out, but a lot of vegans experience it. You can’t close your heart to animal suffering without also closing part of it to human suffering. When you open your heart more, and you behave more compassionately, initially it may seem more difficult to attract a decent relationship because your standards will be higher, but when you do connect with someone who cares as much as you do, the connection can be more intense than anything you’ve previously experienced.

Caring is the primary value I use in my relationships. I love to care for someone deeply and to express that caring — through affection, attention, playfulness, etc. I like making people feel good. This is why I resonate more with polyamory than monogamy. It doesn’t feel right to me to label caring for more than one person as cheating. Making love physically is one way among many to express caring, but for some it’s a powerful channel for giving and receiving love. If I’m going to discipline myself, then I might remind myself to give Rachelle a nice massage or to tell her how grateful I am for our connection. Or I might post some encouraging words on a friend’s Facebook page, or come up with a Twitter update that might help inspire people.

On the other hand, caring made it very difficult for me to separate from Erin. The last thing I wanted to do was to hurt her. Our connection couldn’t be transformed until I realized that it wasn’t enough that we cared about each other; we also needed to feel cared for. Since Erin and I give and receive love in very different ways, it was a struggle for us to express caring in ways that the other would receive it. So we had to let go and allow each other to seek out more compatible partners. We continue to care about each other, but now we express it differently.

When I see other people who haven’t opened their hearts, and they struggle to find something to care about, I see that they suffer for it. I’ve seen how much happier people are when they finally open their hearts and begin to care. Often that begins with giving themselves permission to turn and face what breaks their hearts — and to stop holding back the tears. What is it that makes you cry? What would happen if you allowed yourself to care about it every day?

A New Level of Clarity

My new list of values does a better job of clarifying what I want to focus on.

Focusing on making more money or on achieving more success doesn’t motivate me to do my best work. Often it just makes me feel more stressed. But when I focus on caring about people and when I enter into that place of knowing that we’re all part of the greater body of humanity, everything flows beautifully. I feel stimulated even if I might otherwise be a bit tired or drowsy. There’s just enough tension to drive action but not so much to make me feel stressed or overwhelmed. My mind feels sharp and alert, and my thoughts become clear and focused, like I’m flowing down a river with the current. I’m able to concentrate well. And I have this warm and powerful feeling in the center of my chest. When I write from that place, people seem to resonate with it, and my words are often coincidentally synchronous with events in their lives. A greater level of harmony is achieved.

When I focus on values like caring and oneness, I feel more fulfilled. I become stronger and more disciplined because caring is intensely motivating. If you don’t care about what you’re doing, it’s very hard to discipline yourself. But when you really care, it’s actually harder not to take action. You’d practically have to be restrained.

Interestingly enough, isn’t that what society does to us sometimes? When certain activists go out and express how deeply they care about certain issues, you’ll sometimes see them being physically restrained by those who’ve been conditioned to keep their hearts closed.

What kind of world would you rather live in? Would you be happiest living in a very focused and disciplined world? What kind of imagery that does bring up? The Nazis perhaps?

Or would you rather live in a very caring world? What would it be like to live in a world where everyone cared about each other and about the planet as a whole? Wouldn’t this make us more focused, disciplined, and efficient too — and in the ways that matter?

I choose the latter. I understand the importance of becoming the change we wish to see in the world. I think that what our planet needs most at this time is for more of us to wake up and care, not just through feeling but through action. At this time in our history, it’s more important that we learn to care about each other than it is that we produce a new iThing.

When I listen carefully (= care fully) to what tugs at my heart strings, those strings begin to play music. That music is very beautiful.


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