I once witnessed a car accident while driving with my sister-in-law. At impact, the red minivan two cars ahead of us lifted up and spiraled like a football into the ditch. Mercifully, there were only minor injuries. After attending with water (and chocolate) until the paramedics arrived, we were asked to write witness statements. Upon reading each other’s, my sister-in-law and I were surprised to find that what we’d paid attention to was wildly different. Our attentions can be inherent to our coded personalities, cultural, or based on personal experience. But here’s the secret: retraining your attentions will give you incredible freedom of action.
Now let’s go to the grocery store. If you noted and evaluated every single one of the tens of thousands of products sold at your average grocery store… well, quite simply, your brain would shut down. In reality, we each walk into a markedly different store, depending on our tastes and habits. Like those big green signs on the highway, our attentions allow the rest of the landscape to blur into the background. A few weeks ago, I was standing in the salad dressing aisle with a bottle of Miracle Whip in my hand – not only Easy Squeeze, but on sale too! See that fellow on my shoulder in the illustration above? That’s Mitch – my insatiable human itch. When you give something an identity (Mitch’s origins will be explained in an upcoming post), you give yourself the freedom to open a dialogue. NOTE: This isn’t any sort of talking-to-yourself or actually seeing the little guy weirdness, just a fun philosophical allegory, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra or Virgil’s guides in Dante’s Inferno (although I don’t suppose either of those two examples could be called particularly ‘fun’).
When you can dialogue with your primal human drives, habits, and interpretations (dare I say subconscious), you can begin to challenge your reflexive attentions, thoughts, and actions. In this case, choice of salad dressing. Don’t let a touch of natural, biological anxiety hold you back from trying something new. Our neurotransmitters are calibrated to keep our patterns stable in this so often unstable world… just push through (practice makes it easier). I’ve always thought about trying to make my own dressing, so told Mitch to shove off, and through the subsequent catecholamine haze, went hunting for apple cider vinegar, canola oil, and a good novelty mustard.
This shift in attentions began to change my experience of the store. New products came into focus, new flavour combinations, textures, and possibilities for combination. I was essentially shopping a different store, not literally, but a new menu for selection had opened up on familiar shelves. In lieu of an allegory brush off, you can also try this…
Practical Exercise For Retraining Attentions: Next time you’re in the grocery store, arbitrarily pick a 2′ by 2′ area of shelving. For every product within that square, imagine being served a sample at a dinner party. How does it taste? Smell? Look? What is it being served with? What are people talking about while eating? Build a story around it. Then pick one of these products (one you’ve never picked before) and have the balls, yes I said it, balls, to put it in your cart. You can stop here, or if you’ve really got kahoonas, build a dish around this product and see how your story plays out when you serve it to your family.