Your mind’s active focus and awareness guides you to notice and achieve
Intention is the starting point to anything.
When we intend to start a business, for instance, we might start thinking about it. We imagine possibilities. Then suddenly, wham, some strange coincidence happens — a guy shows up at a party who has the perfect connection to help us.
Sometimes we think of such things happening in our life as “circumstance” or good luck. Many of us can look back over our lives and see a moment or two where we had the big break that seemed to change our course.
But, we govern these circumstances more than we might think — through the way we focus our mind, and through our enhanced perception and awareness towards the goals that we desire.
This article explores how intention is really a way of focussing our mind towards a goal, and that when we do this, our brain starts to take notice and even construct those things that help us along this path. Through the active focus of intention, our brain perceives and notices the world around us differently, highlighting those things that apply to our intention, and empowering us to notice possibilities and potentials that will change our reality.
Growing up and getting a break
When I was a kid, you would have said that I was probably a most unlikely person to ever become an orchestra conductor — a young girl growing up in the middle of rural Saskatchewan with no orchestras in sight.
I had a big break one day. As a young music teacher, I was interested in conducting, but didn’t have much experience. I went to a summer course at the University of Calgary in my early 20s when my big break happened — I met my future teacher, who, at the end of the course, invited me into his conducting program at the University of Michigan — changing my course towards becoming a professional conductor. I owe a lot to this man, H. Robert Reynolds.
But when I think back to this moment, I realize that I had been preparing for it, I had already started to carve a path of intention. I had known that these were important conductors in the program, I was ready to take the next step. I realize that I studied extra hard, prepared my best — I might have come off as someone who was really serious as a result.
It was a big break, but the path of intention had led me to it. I was aware of the potential that was laid out before me, and I could see where I was going.
That path led me from a humble town to a new possibility, and intention was always out just in front of me, helping me see and take each new step.
Creating a new path
When I left my rural roots and started driving on the road to Michigan to begin a new life, my Honda civic piled to the roof with my belongings — I had, up until that point, only driven on small single-lane highways in Saskatchewan. As I drove the two-day trip towards Michigan, the road expanded into eight-lane super-highways going through Minneapolis, Chicago, then greater Detroit — and this drive alone seemed to metaphorically open up my world into greater speed, possibility and risk all at once. This was literally a whole new path. I remember approaching an interstate toll booth for the first time and frantically trying to figure out how to put money in the basket. The whole experience was beyond anything I had attempted before.
When I set out on this new adventure, a friend gave me Paulo Coelho’s book The Alchemist.
The universe conspires to help you follow your dreams, it said.
This thought gave me great comfort and courage — the idea that I wasn’t alone in the world, that I was part of something bigger than myself. In the book, a young shepherd goes out in search of treasure, and in his adventure learns many lessons about himself and life along the way. It still remains a favourite book.
But does the universe conspire to help us? Well, maybe and maybe not. We all believe different things — there are many possibilities.
But in this article, I want to explore what the potential is within our own minds — that our mind, in a sense, is a universe within itself — regardless of whatever is beyond it. If we can understand our mind’s capacity, even just a little, we can impact our reality, experiences and perceptions through our awareness.
When we take an active step towards something, (intention) — our mind elevates its awareness towards those things that connect to our goals.
The mysteries within our brain
The mysterious way that our brain works —the process of creativity, how we connect to our subconscious and conscious minds, our memories, and the evolution and function of various parts of the brain — it’s all fascinating.
Neuroscience is able to study certain aspects of the brain so far, and this is an area of continual research, but there’s so much of our mind’s capacity that is still an enigma. It’s difficult to measure subcortical events inside the brain (the older inner parts below the main cortex) because of difficult access. And the neocortex, where cognition and big ideas reside, is difficult to study (and to understand) because of its complexity and abstraction.
Scientists are able to study visual aspects of the brain more easily because studies can test variables that deliver tangible, measurable results. But, how do we study consciousness, subconsciousness, cognition and memory? These are more complicated.
A quick definition before we go on:
Neocortex — this is the “new” part of the brain, developed in humans through evolution. (It’s most of the wrinkly top part of the brain above the stem that we see).
Pre-frontal cortex — the front part of the neocortex where “executive functions” such as planning, action and goals take place.
The old/primitive brain (sometimes referred to as our “monkey and lizard brain”) — the innermost part of our brain, closest to the spinal cord, that carries out the same functions as it did for our distant ancestors. Including the brain stem, thalamus and limbic system, it carries out basic functions like breathing, motor responses, and attention. The thalamus filters out sensory information before passing it up to the neocortex. The limbic system connects us to emotion.
The bizarre concept of “constructed memory”
Recently I was reading The World in Six Songs by neuroscientist and musician,
Levitin writes about the concept of constructed memory and how studies of the brain show that when we remember things, our brains don’t remember everything, rather, they are assuming (or constructing) based on rules, patterns and structures that have already become known or assumed by the brain. He goes on to use song lyrics as an example, and how our mind might not actually retain each specific word, but might use rhyme to help construct a pattern, or connect to our buried fragmented memory using the pattern of the rhythm to help us remember syllables and stresses, or to guess the words. We might remember a few of the words, and piece together or guess the rest.
This means that much of our memory comes through what we “expect” to happen based on the patterns that our mind constructs.
The concept of constructed memory might seem impossible when you first think about it. If I go back and tell a story about a childhood memory, I think I’m reproducing it exactly as it happened— like a video that replays itself. You might have experienced the situation, too, where you thought you’d forgotten a memory, and then someone says something that triggers it and causes it to flood back into your mind. But some of this memory might be an illusion.
Through studies of memory, and the mistakes made when subjects recount what they remember in various tests, scientists have come to understand that we aren’t actually recalling an exact reproduction. The big idea, or the pattern of the event has been remembered in some way, but the details, are often largely made up:
Imperfections…provide critical evidence for the fundamental idea that memory is not a literal reproduction of the past, but rather is a constructive process in which bits and pieces of information from various sources are pulled together.
Our brains seem to abstract our information to create schemas, or patterns, and then, when we try to remember things, it follows the gist of these expectations or schemas. This creates efficiency because our brain doesn’t have to remember every detail, but can construct spontaneous multi-millisecond possibilities based on expectations. You can find more on this constructivist theory of memory by reading the pioneering research of F. C. Bartlett.
But how might this be affected by our intentions? Well, it shows us how our brain sheds some details and passing others on — it notices certain things and misses (or dismisses) connections to others. What can seem like reality to us is really our mind’s constructed reality.
Reality is what we make of it
And if that isn’t fascinating enough, here’s another mind-trippy concept to think about. Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman talks about how our brain perceives reality in a great interview The Neuroscience of Optimal Performance with Lex Fridman here.
Our brain constructs reality through our perceptions. It’s hard to get our mind around this, but reality isn’t reality — it’s different for each person (or being) depending on the way that information is translated through the senses.
In our neocortex, our brain abstracts what it sees or experiences, and creates its own version. There are many layers — in our visual system for instance, the information passes through various visual areas, filtering as it goes. At first it starts in the old brain and sees only basics like light and dark, relationships of three basic colours. Huberman says, that in these relationships, the thalamus notes outliers. Anything unique, that stands out — gets shot up to the cortex. Lots of other stuff gets filtered out before it gets there.
The neurons get more and more specific as they pass through various visual areas, to a point where a literal single neuron can recognize the face of specific friend. But then, eventually, after around visual area 4, the information becomes more abstract and elaborate.
Lex Fridman puts it in a great way when he compares this concept to computer programming — “When you are thinking about Python programming language, and you see all that it is doing, it’s awe-inspiring to realize that underneath it all is just a bunch of 0s and 1s.”
In the way that the brain abstracts what we experience or see, it creates the scenario where we notice, or experience a different reality from someone else standing right beside us. In this way, one person can see green while the other sees brown. One person can think that a movie is the greatest they’ve ever seen, catching all of the intended symbolism, while another hates it and doesn’t see any. One person can see potential in a moment, while another doesn’t notice it sitting there.
To understand this (how can we ever understand this?), is to open up our minds to the question “What is the reality here in front of my eyes?”, and to open our perspective. To me, it underlines the question “What am I noticing?”
This brings us back to intention and awareness. Through this brief discussion of constructed memory, the patterns that our minds create, and the slim understanding of how our brain creates reality, we can see that there are layers of reality, but often we don’t experience all of them.
With intention, we determine what we notice. We actively choose what is important to focus on. We choose what we read, what actions we take, who we talk to, what opportunities we try out. We feed this extraordinary mind, and then let it do its further work.
Our intention creates the reality, or at least puts us on the path towards the reality that we want. This is empowering stuff.
Much of “us” is buried in our subconscious
If some of what we learn and experience gets parked into some subconscious part of our brain (and our brain constructs some of the rest based on expectations and patterns), then we don’t pay attention to them anymore and yet they still reside in the recesses of our memory. In this way, our childhood, or everyday experiences, become a part of us without our even noticing. We draw subconsciously from our memories and experiences and emerge as a combination of all of them. People often can tell that I’m from Saskatchewan, or that I’m Canadian, and I have no idea why — but it’s there.
As a conductor, I think about how we use automaticity to perform and how this also resides in our subconscious. This is the kind of memory that we develop in athletics, music, business, cooking, or any kind of performance training — we practice skills, again and again, to such a degree that they become automatic. A violinist practises a certain passage hundreds of times, and eventually the brain, the fingers, the ears — they all just “automatically” know what to do. We set out, with intention, to learn how to ride a bicycle, and at first we are focussed on the details — eventually we just ride.
Once those skills are “overlearned”, they become automatic and we don’t need to focus on them anymore so that our mind can focus on something else. They disappear into our subconscious. This is another example of our brain’s efficiency in action (similar, in this way, to constructed memory).
Often though, as performers, we notice that these skills need to be brought out again into our conscious, and reworked. They get sloppy, stale, too relaxed. The subconscious can relegate important things to complacency. If we notice this in performance skills, how many other things in our lives could stand to be shined up with with a little bit of mindfulness?
I just got a new iphone, and I’m amazed at how much technology I didn’t notice before — apps I wasn’t using, functions that were there all along on my old phone, but only now, through my new awareness and excitement, do I see them emerge now.
Intention shines a spotlight on the world around us
If our brain is so good at dropping “unimportant” pieces of information and relegating them to patterns, or creating automatic subconscious thought, we can change our potential just by becoming aware the depth that’s in our mind. It’s this extraordinary brain capacity to bury or simplify things that helps us function in such complex ways, but is also the reason why we miss things, or why our perceptions fail to note potentials around us.
Intention brings our goals to a conscious, thoughtful mind. We start to pay attention, and we notice things in the present as they relate to that intention. Now we can guide our desire or plans for the future with attention. This is what causes us to notice the “big breaks” when they come our way, or to create the possibilities for them.
If we weren’t paying attention we wouldn’t even see the big break in front of our eyes. We would let it go.
My Michigan story continued
When I was studying at the U of M, I noticed that there were lots of post-grad musicians who remained living in Ann Arbor, and that there was an opportunity to create an opera company with all of the available talent. Together with some fellow singers, I started a small opera company. This experience led me to being hired at the Carmel Bach Festival because I now had experience with baroque opera. And then, at the Carmel Bach Festival, a collegue told me about a new conducting job with the Vancouver Symphony, which became my first full-time professional conducting position. And so on. My career unfolded in steps, each of them with intention. This was my own version of the shepherd boy on his adventure — you have your own story.
We have to watch for opportunity. Ambition covers a lot of ground. But, intention is not just waiting for opportunity or working hard. It’s like you are starting a motion, and that motion continues to expand ahead of you.
- Pay attention to your mind and how it perceives, reacts, and notices the world around it.
- Each day, review your goals, underline what elements are critical to their success, and this will connect you to your awareness of them.
- Every day, take note of the gratitude that you have for the things you have noticed and discovered, those things that your intention has opened up for you on your path.
- Have gratitude for the people, the kind actions and generosity of those around you and who have helped you. Be grateful to yourself for your determination, constant struggle and commitment.
- Pay attention to circumstances which, because of your awareness, you are able to see, appreciate, and capitalize on.