Attention and Effort: The Secret to Change

Socrates said, “The secret of change is to focus all ofimage your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”

This quote resonates with so many of us at such a profound level.

But what does it actually mean?

This popular quote from Socrates can be more deeply and accurately understood by two complimentary quotes, which serve to elaborate Socrates’ true meaning:


“What you resist not only persists, but ultimately grows in size.” (C.G. Jung)

“What you focus on expands.”

These, too, are both very popular quotes, and they resonate as truth when we hear them as well.

I believe it is crucial that for us to first observe more closely the deeper meaning behind these quotes that we may gain clarity. Often we read or hear something – maybe a popular quote; or something a speaker says; or a sentence or excerpt from a book – and it immediately resonates as truth within us. We sense and know it to be true. But gaining clarity allows us to shift from just hearing the truth and merely sensing it as true to actually understanding it at a practical level in which we may apply it to our life and even teach it to others.

Fighting the Old: What You Resist, Persists

As humans, we resist anything we do not like; anything that make us uncomfortable. Oftentimes, what makes us uncomfortable is merely change in the right direction. Other times, it is perceived suffering and injustice in the world we live in which brings us so much discomfort we find ourselves unable to accept it is a part of human experience. Because we despise suffering and injustice so much, we react at the emotional level by waging war on the suffering or injustice, and warfare is always a form of resistance. Anything we must “fight against,” in essence we are resisting against.

Simply look at our current state of affairs on a global scale and we can easily observe this truth: We have waged a war against everything under the sun that threatens our sense of security, peace, and justice.

There’s the war against violence, the war against terrorism, the war against poverty, the war against cancer, the war against child abuse; the war against rape and misogyny, the war against drugs… the list is virtually endless.

Yet can we not deny that ALL of these things we are fighting against (resisting) only continue to grow? Can we not deny that ALL of these things are getting stronger and more prevalent in modern society?

Everything from the mainstream news to our own Facebook feed is a smorgasbord of negative energy and insanity. It’s becoming increasingly frequent – almost daily – that we hear of another terrorist attack (either foreign or domestic); another friend or relative diagnosed with cancer and given only months or weeks to live; another co-worker who can’t afford to repair the blown engine in his car or pay her electric bill which is in danger of being shut off; another child abused and/ or murdered or woman raped and beaten at the hands of the insane; another teenager or young adult found DEAD from a heroin or drug overdose…

How long will we continue  to deny that this approach is not working?

What The “Bigger Picture” Teaches Us About Ourselves

The greater reality is that this truth applies to creating change and fighting what we don’t like on an individual level as well. The whole always teaches us about the parts and vice versa. We can accurately see the truth of our own unique life in the truth of the world: Fighting against what we do not like or want is futile because in resisting what is, we empower it with attention.

Let’s reiterate that last statement: Fighting against what we do not like or want is futile because by resisting what is we empower it with attention.

The reason attention empowers resistance is simple: what you resist, will persist, and ultimately grow in size and strength because what you focus on expands

Building the New: What You Focus On Expands

Giving something excessive emotional attention is what gives it the nurturing and nourishment it needs to grow bigger and stronger.

We must be aware of what we don’t want in order to contrast it to what we do want. But once we have figured out what it is we do want, we must begin to shift our focus onto that with exclusivity.

In order to be able to finally build a new life-one you do want – all that is required is that you begin giving your attention and conscious energy over to it.

Acceptance: The Opposite of Resistance

Acceptance is taught in Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and rehab centers all over the world because acceptance is the starting point of all change. In order to stop fighting and resisting the old and begin building the new, we must accept who and where we are in life.

Just as resistance causes what we do not want to persist and grow, acceptance has the opposite effect: it allows what is to be without emotional content and our mind is free to begin giving attention to what we do want. By shifting awareness onto what we do want to create – on a life we truly want to build – we diminish the power of what we do not want and it eventually ceases to exist.

Acceptance is first and foremost because it requires us to be consciously aware and humble enough to acknowledge who and where we are in life as well as what may be holding us back in our efforts to change and build the life we truly want.

All change begins in the mind, where thinking and awareness exist. Acceptance of what is and who we are in the present moment is merely acceptance that we have no control over past mistakes or failures and that our incessant worry, doubt, anxiety, regret, shame, or anguish of any kind is futile and pointless because they simply cannot undo what has been done, nor can they change current consequences of past actions.

To put it simply: acceptance is conscious humility and acknowledgement of what we cannot control – the past and its current consequences.

What We Do Have Control Over

Despite not having any control over the past or its consequences we may be living with today, what we do have control over is infinitely more important: our conscious awareness here and now, in the present moment.

How do we control the present? By giving who we want to be and the life we want to build daily, continuous  attention and effort.

It is through daily conscious attention and effort that we have created who we are now. It will only be through daily conscious attention and effort that we build a new life and become who we want to be in the future. But we must begin NOW to focus on the right things to get us there.

Every single one of us has the ability to do this. Every single one of us has absolute power and control over our conscious thoughts. Even those diagnosed with psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) have been successful with the right professional cognitive therapy in gaining control over their conscious mind and thoughts.

Most of us simply have no excuse. Despite the constant chatter in our minds, the racing thoughts, the continuous stream of incessant thoughts and feelings which we believe we have no control over, the harsh reality to accept and take responsibility for is that we DO have control over it.

What is required to gain that control, that power, is daily, continuous attention and effort (There are only a few rare exceptions such as people with legitimate neurobiological disorders – such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, or severe cases of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder – who are genuinely unable to gain control over their conscious thoughts.)

So there truly are no excuses. That’s where the effort component comes in. Daily attention and effort. The effort comes from training the mind to give attention to and place focus upon that which matters: building a new life and a new world.

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