Deep Focus in Consciousness — Keeping the Big Picture and the Details in Focus, Simultaneously

Deep focus is a photography technique that can be metaphorically applied to consciousness. It means working on the details (which is what all work consists of), while keeping the larger purpose or perspective in mind. It means being zoomed in and zoomed out at the same time.

With deep focus, we’re more effective, and less anxious.

We’re more effective if we can compose the notes while also paying attention to the groove.

We’re more effective if we use a tool correctly, while also considering if we’re using the right tool for the job (and switching if needed).

We’re more effective if we serve not only one person, but also their organization, and the mission that is meant to guide their organization.

Don’t pigeonhole yourself as either a “details” person or a “big picture” person. To be effective (at anything), you need to be both. You need to have the capacity to deal with the immediate minutiae as well as the ability to see the larger, broader, slower forces at play.

I’m naturally a details person, and my tendency is to jump right in and start working before carefully evaluating the situation or problem. After wasting probably thousands of hours of work, I now try to ask myself a few questions before I get in too deep, including:

  1. Has someone already done the work — can the solution be borrowed or licensed instead of created from scratch?
  2. What’s the one thing that matters most? Is that thing working well, or can it be improved?
  3. Does the work really need to be done? What will happen if it doesn’t get done, or more specifically what will happen if I don’t do the work?
  4. What are the emotional dynamics of the situation? Can the problem be solved by addressing, assisting, or confronting someone’s emotional state? Or my own emotional state?
  5. What’s the ideal timeline? Is there any chance the problem will go away if left unaddressed? Or will it get much worse? What requires immediacy, and what is best addressed with delay tactics?
  6. What are my own motivations? Is my chosen course of action serving my own principles and chosen purpose in life?

So that’s the practical side of deep focus, using depth of field in consciousness to be more effective. But there’s also an emotional/spiritual aspect of deep focus. We can improve our mental state by existentially confronting the root of our anxiety (death and oblivion), and integrating the reality of impermanence into our daily waking consciousness.

Freedom of the Void

We’re less anxious when we embrace impermanence, and our miniscule size within the vastness of the universe, while dealing with the nuts and bolts of relationships, maintaining our health, and attempting to “achieve” things.

We’re going to die (along with everyone we know and love), and everything we create will be lost or become irrelevant or undecipherable to future generations.

Consider the impermanence of information (which includes all art, music, and literature, as well as your DNA and your stock portfolio). Anything stored on a hard disk must be faithfully copied to a new hard disk every few years or be lost. Things stored on/as plastic will last a few decades at most. Paper and wood might last centuries, and bronze and stone might last thousands of years. But in millions of years (which is a small fraction of the age of our planet), everything will be lost.

Should we still pour our efforts into creating things, and seek the utmost quality? Should we still carefully cultivate relationships with people who may only have a few more decades of life in them? Of course we should. But maybe we can fret less about perfection, and create more freely (and love more freely, and forgive more easily) if we remember that all we’re doing is participating in a dance of endless flux.

In our daily struggles to defeat entropy (maintaining our health, backing up our data, renewing our ties with other human beings, making art, contributing to the progress of civilization), knowing and accepting that we are doomed in the long run should only strengthen our resolve. Why? Because really we’re all playing the short game.

What we care about is each other, the people alive in the world right now, and the people that will be born in the next few centuries. What we do today does affect those people, our actions do matter. So we shouldn’t be nihilistic, even in the face of our own inevitable decay and eventual irrelevance.

Without deep focus, if we deny or constantly look away from death and oblivion, then we are vulnerable to inertia. We feel permanent, because we avoid the thought of impermanence, and thus lose any sense of urgency. At the same time, we feel anxious, because on some level we know our lives will eventually end, as will everything we know and love.

With deep focus, we gain both a sense of calm, and a sense of urgency. We accept and acknowledge our fate, and through that acceptance we become energized to take immediate action. Life doesn’t offer us permanence or built-in meaning, but life does offer us some time, and the chance to choose our own meaning and purpose.

Does all this seem a bit gloomy? That’s not my intention. I’m in perfect health, and none of my friends or family are near death (as far as I know). But I think about death every day, as a frame for my day.

When I was eighteen I lost my best friend to a diabetic coma. She was one of the most alive and warm-hearted people I have ever known. I don’t think she died “for a reason.” She died young as a result of an illness (Type 1 diabetes) and some bad luck. What I learned from that tragedy is that none of us, however deserving, are guaranteed a long life. We’re all vulnerable, all the time.

Depth of Metaphor

In photography, you need an enormous amount of light as well as a small aperture to achieve deep focus. Does the metaphor carry over on this level? We can’t focus on everything at once — to be effective we generally need to do (or think about) one thing at a time. Concentration is the small aperture.

What about the light? How do we achieve an illuminated landscape?

The light is knowledge of the world (history, evolution, astronomy, anthropology, psychology, etc.). Knowledge of the world, combined within concentration, allows us to achieve deep focus.

The third element is directorial; the decision to see reality with total clarity, to see life exactly as it is, and to eradicate any blurriness caused by ignorance or fear.

6 responses to “Deep Focus in Consciousness — Keeping the Big Picture and the Details in Focus, Simultaneously

  1. You’re describing my creative life in theatre. (I am a set designer and painter.) Theatre is a perfect illustration of what you are talking about. It requires great effort and attention to detail in its many parts without losing the big picture of the final product. I am also a type 1 diabetic diagnosed only a couple of years ago after a long, unexplained decline in my health. In many ways, I feel brought back from the brink and am experiencing a renewal of energy, but also get how temporary that is. So, especially for me, theatre is the epitome of impermanence; ephemeral, captured only in the moment it is experienced, which is so poignant because I am fully aware of my own mortality. And it is about collaboration and passion and relationship to my fellow travelers, the people I love, to whom I am willing to give 100% because I recognize the same dedication in them.

  2. Thanks so much for your thoughts. I need to engage the wide-angle aspect more, too. Quite therapeutic in concept and something I can take to heart… You give just as wonderful advice as someone that charges me $110 an hour. I am delighted to have found your blog a few months back. BTW, this summer I plan to experiment with your “no artificial light” idea.

  3. Thanks for a thought provoking post, which I’ll be chewing on – particularly the transient nature of our existence and the things we create.

    The physical artifacts of our artistic endeavours will indeed turn back into carbon relatively quickly, but I like to think, perhaps naively, that what we leave behind gets melded into the great artistic (and scientific) melting pot of ideas and live on that way.

    Buddy Bolden’s music was never recorded, nor was Mozarts, yet their DNA can be found in all western music, arguably.

    • No doubt, and in many cases the actual works (not just the echoes of the works) seem likely to survive as long as our civilization survives. Maybe some artists will even make the interplanetary jump if we ever get off this rock (Shakespeare being studied in schools halfway across the galaxy — why not?).

      Still, we’re up against entropy in the long run (universal expiration of stars/heat/life). The only “dodge” I can think of is if consciousness and reality are fully virtualized and relatively sped up (so that a subjective lifetime occurs in a second or two). In that case “we” might be able to extend consciousness and civilization indefinitely, using the dying embers and moments of the universe with unprecedented efficiency.

      Unfortunately, I think it’s just as likely that our descendents will *never* get off Earth, and that everything humans have ever created will be lost to oblivion far before our sun burns through its core hydrogen (thereby making Earth much less inhabitable).

      Something to think about more … worth its own post probably. Thanks for your comment.

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