Can you control how you experience reality?

Sometimes it feels that way. You debate about whether to get a new kind of car, and suddenly that exact car seems to be all around you on the highway. You’re having a baby (or trying to), and your neighborhood and grocery store become filled with strollers and expectant mothers.

Did your thoughts make the cars and mothers appear out of the ether? No. But something about your thought patterns made them more visible to you than ever before.

How does what you pay attention to shape what you experience and who you become? The stakes are higher than how many strollers you can count in the produce section. There is a quote often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson that goes like this:

“A person will worship something, have no doubt about that. We may think our tribute is paid in secret in the dark recesses of our hearts, but it will come out. That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshiping, we are becoming.”

…what we are worshiping, we are becoming. Brain science seems to back this up.

You might have heard the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means that the cells in your brain that transmit information form pathways based on your habits, experiences, and patterns of attention. Short story: your brain clears an easily navigable path between things like hot stove and pain, or “I’m bored” and checking Facebook. The more you experience those two things together, the deeper the path.

With focused attention or deep habits, a substance called myelin wraps around neurons connecting them, making the path between them even faster. What was a residential road between two thoughts becomes the express lane; dial up internet becomes broadband in the mind.

This is either good news or bad news, depending on what experiences are connecting.

Over time, the way you experience life itself changes because of what you pay attention to. You literally experience life differently than you did before because of the connections you make between things. Life begins to appear more beautiful the more you associate beauty and life. Life becomes more terrifying the more you experience or focus on terror. There isn’t more terror or beauty in the world, but the pathways in your brain simply have an easier time experiencing beauty or terror. Life starts to look more like love, sex, money, mistakes, power, compassion, guilt, shame, annoyance, beauty, generosity, etc. when those connections are formed.

This doesn’t have to be a thing that just happens to you. You have a choice in what you practice, what you pay attention to, and what connections will be made in your brain.  You have a choice in what reality you experience.

A practice of articulating gratitude in a daily journal makes it easier for your brain to experience things that make you grateful. The habit of carrying a book or journal helps your brain jump to creativity or learning instead of social media during moments of boredom. Writing or saying out loud your important skills or accomplishments each day helps your brain associate “you” with worth, and not failure. And like that, a life is made.

That’s what worship is. Practiced attention. Practiced worth. Connecting your life with things that matter, so that when you open your eyes in the morning, there is a shorter distance between you and possibility, wonder, and love.

What we worship, we are becoming.

“A single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” – Henry David Thoreau

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