Art & Spirit — Deep Focus, Big Joy

Photo: Gratefully with a big shout-out to Thomas Hetzler on Unsplash!

Austin-based Kirk Tuck is my favorite hard-working pro photographer.

Several years ago, Kirk posted a humorous piece, “Lydia in quality control – why it’s good to leave the entourage at home sometimes.”

I’m of an age when the world is very interesting, and I positively slaver when I find new connections. If you’re thinking that a pro photographer’s thoughts aren’t going to be relevant for your particular artistic practice, I beg you to reconsider. I believe they touch on universals. Yes, si, da, ja, and oui.

Kirk doesn’t tolerate fools gladly. He’s particularly impatient when people try to make photography more complicated than it needs to be. As a practicing professional who’s continually fighting deadlines, he’s deeply focused on trimming his gear and methods to the best possible working man’s tool kit. He’s very, very good it, and it has helped him be successful.

When I ran ultramarathons, I loved the idea of minimalism in sports. I loved to trim my gear to the bare essentials. Often I would set off into the wilds of the Marin Headlands bearing a frighteningly scant amount of gear: a small Camelback pack with water, electrolytes, and a single energy bar for a 30-mile jaunt of 6 to 7½ hours.

In part, it contributed to a feeling of lightness and freedom. But it also kept me focused on what I was doing, and on the inner experience of the day. And as a photographer and runner, I’ve always found that the greatest happiness comes from paying attention.

I’ve mentioned a friend, Tom Taylor, who managed a small country market outside Nevada City, CA. (For the Ananda folks, yes, it was Master’s Market at Ananda Village.) Tom loved his job, but there was one aspect that he positively hated: stocking the shelves.

Then he latched onto the idea that instead of fighting the onerous chore, maybe he should give it his full attention. In The Joyful Athlete, I describe what happened next. He decided to make a game of it. He would put all his attention into restocking the shelves—carefully lining up the cans and bottles, making sure the labels faced forward, and cleaning dust or stains from the products and shelves.

Tom reported that stocking quickly became an enjoyable part of his day, and that he was soon looking forward to it. He said that narrowly focusing his attention made him more aware, not less:

“What I do now is not only stock shelves, but I’m aware of everything that’s going on in the store while I’m doing it. I try to be aware of the customers. If I hear somebody ask for something, I tune in and get involved, and if somebody comes in, I’m talking to them. So I’ve made stocking shelves more than what it is. I do the best I can with every little thing I try to do, even if it’s just lining up the cans perfectly, and so I enjoy it. It isn’t difficult to enjoy something if you’re putting your energy into it. If you’re always resisting, of course, it’s no fun at all. I think that’s the thing you start to realize: that everything can be fun if you’re really there with it, and it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing.”

I know it sounds weird, but I’ve been able to finish some of my worst, most godawful runs feeling wonderful, simply by focusing my attention deeply on what was happening, even the bad parts.

Focusing attention energizes the part of the brain where positive attitudes and important problem-solving abilities are localized: in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and anterior cingulate gyrus. It’s a reason why yogis, Buddhists, and Christian contemplatives place emphasis on learning to concentrate calmly there. The PFC is a “feel-good” part of the brain. Researchers have long known that people who have a habitually positive attitude and are good at setting and achieving long-term goals have strongly activated PFCs.

Research shows that mental focus creates happiness, and letting our minds wander is a mistake. Not everyone will choose to be an “associater.” It’s the more difficult path, but there’s no doubt that it pays dividends.

Thanks to Kirk Tuck for reminding us that happiness grows when we avoid making our sport, our art, or our work more complicated than it has to be. Life will bring us all the complications we will ever need.