[Over a year ago I wrote the original Lessons from Abroad series. Since moving back to the US, I’ve found the lessons from living abroad have not abated; just changed. I’ve decided to continue this series with a periodic post on the new lessons as they crystallize for me.]
What’s on your mind? Have you thought about where your thoughts are spent? Maybe this Monday morning it’s planning out your week, or revisiting some great moment of the weekend. Maybe you are already into your workday, and your thoughts are on the job. Wherever your thoughts are going, that’s your focus. And wherever you focus, that’s where your energy goes.
This important concept is not new or novel, but it’s one that has been brought home to me in new ways since living in Italy and moving back to the US. I discovered there is nothing like removing yourself from your regular routine for an extended period of time, and then putting yourself back into that routine, to show you where you’ve been spending your thoughts, and consequently, your energy. While in Italy, I had the opportunity to change my thought patterns in unexpected ways. I stopped worrying about some things that had filled my thoughts on (I realize now) a regular basis, such as my weight and money, and created space for new thoughts to arrive. Thoughts about creativity, and photography. Thoughts that have fundamentally shifted my approach to life, and consequently, my focus and energy.
I’ll give a very personal example, that perhaps many of you will identify with: my weight. Since my high school years, I have thought and worried, and at times obsessed, about my weight. Watching what I ate, comparing my body to some unrealistic ideal, always falling short. Dieting, exercising, always keeping my eye on that number on the scale, the size of the clothes. If it was high, I would berate myself. If it was low, I would be full of happiness. The happiness only lasted for the moment… maybe days or months, until the number crept up again.
Then I moved to Italy. My weight had slowly been increasing for years before the move, a stressful job at work, and then preparing for an international move had triggered my stressful eating behaviors. So as we moved to Italy, I packed my “skinny clothes” with the intent to focus on losing weight after the move. I can remember the moment, early on in my time in Italy, when I consciously decided to not worry about it. I looked at those skinny clothes, and said, “To hell with it.” I was not going to spend my time in Italy worrying about what I ate, or my weight. I instinctively knew this would adversely affect my experience. I wanted to experience my life and travels during my time in Italy unfettered. Without the stress and baggage that losing weight would represent. So I put the skinny clothes on a top, unreachable shelf in the wardrobe and put the scale away.
For the first time in over twenty years, I lived without the constant thoughts about my weight. For the first time, my self-worth was not affected by the number on the scale. Sure, my weight increased a bit over the two years but it eventually plateaued. What I gained was so much more than a few pounds though. I gained the space in my thoughts to think of other things… to explore my experience deeply, to discover the call of art and creativity and to see myself in a new way – as an artist. I discovered an almost limitless energy available to me when I focused my thoughts in alignment with my heart. I found an energetic creativity that has touched everything I do, since.
I did not clearly recognize this relationship between my thoughts and my energy until I moved back to the US. You see, in Italy, there was so much going on, it was hard to sort out all of the influences that led to my personal creative renaissance. I had held off the thoughts around weight and other topics by telling myself I would deal with them when I returned home. So guess what happened when I returned home… they came back. Funny thing about thoughts like this coming up after a long absence: you notice them. They are obvious and clear, and felt so out of place in my “new” self. For a time, I succumbed to them. It was easy, part of my “living in Oregon” routine. Then at some point, in those first few months back I stopped and faced those uncomfortable thoughts and said, “I don’t want you anymore. I’ve lived without you for two years, and now I see I don’t need you.” The problem was, I didn’t have the wonderful distraction of living abroad to keep them at bay. This time, I had to deal with them at a fundamental level.
So, I’ve slowly but surely been figuring out ways to deal with these topics as they come up. I’ve had to face each one and find strategies to change my thought patterns. My experience in Italy helped, because I knew the value of letting those thoughts go. I now recognized that these thoughts were draining my energy. It hasn’t been easy though, to define new ways to think while living back here in the old place and routine. Behavior and thought pattern change is hard.
It is also worth it. Because I have learned that were I focus my thoughts, my energy will follow. I want my energy focused on creative things. I want my energy focused on art and photography and empowerment and connection. Things that bring value to my life and to those around me. I imagine you want those same things too.
As with all of my Lessons from Abroad, I hope that you will be able to learn from this lesson along with me. Here are a few ideas, to help you along:
- Consider where you focus your thoughts. Do you have any thought patterns that routinely come back to you? For me, a couple of trigger topics have always been weight and money.
- Notice your thought patterns around a trigger topic you identify. How often are you thinking about this topic? What kind of thoughts come up, are they positive or negative? Can you see how they may be stealing your energy?
- Try an experiment: For a few weeks tell yourself you are taking a break from this thought pattern. Give yourself a deadline. Then, set the thoughts aside and see what other things arise in that time frame. (You really can trick yourself into doing this, I know, because I did it for two years in Italy.) After your self-imposed deadline, see what happens. Do the thoughts come back? How do they feel to you? How did you feel during that hiatus period, without them?
- Get help where you need it. Let’s face it, changing thought patterns is difficult and we may not be able to change some of these thought patterns on our own. They involve the people around us, and our interaction with society as a whole. Use all the resources available to you – books, friends, counselors, whatever. For my weight issues, I’ve discovered Intuitive Eating “>Intuitive Eating as a great fit for what I learned in Italy, so I’ve been reading and taking classes to consciously integrate a new approach to eating and weight.
- Be clear on where you do want to focus your thoughts and your energy. It is much easier to say “no” to the thoughts you don’t want when you have thoughts you very much want to say “yes” to. For me, creativity and photography are so important to me, I don’t want any of these other thoughts diluting my energy. It makes it easier to deal with them. Changing my thoughts is no longer about being someone I think I should be, it’s about who I want to be. It’s a conscious and deliberate choice.
At the end of the day, all the matters is that each and everyone of us align our thoughts and our energy to our hearts. Imagine what our world would be like, if everyone did that. Right now, rather than changing the world, I’ll just settle for imagining my own life in this way.