It’s a common refrain of the personal trainers on fitness programs I follow: your embodied experience will follow the story you tell yourself. That is, whatever you focus on will become your reality. Tell yourself that you hate working out or that getting hot and sweaty is a sign that you’re close to dying, and you will struggle to finish that day’s workout. On the other hand, focus on how much stronger you’re feeling than before and how fantastic you’re going to feel at the end of this, and you will find energy to meet the demands of the workout.
This idea that our focus determines our trajectory is not a new one. Think of all the times in scripture when the Israelites are instructed to rehearse the story of God’s faithfulness. They do this through feasts and festivals, some practiced weekly and others annually or over a rhythm of several years. There are many reasons for this, but the one that seems significant for me is this idea of regularly refocusing on the truths that will shape the way they move forward.
In the ceramics studio this week, I was practising a technique called sgraffito. This is when the clay is glazed and then marked using sharp tools with differently shaped ends. The tools are used to pull off the surface of the coloured clay, in lines or swirls or other patterns, so that a design emerges. It struck me as I looked at various examples that, depending on where you put your focus, the design could be seen either in the colour of the glaze that remains on the pot or in the natural colour of the clay that is revealed when the pattern is removed.
Again, this reminds me that we can choose to see one side of a reality or the other. Partly this is a result of our personal experiences, our family or wider culture, and the narrative we have been told or have told ourselves.
Interestingly, on the way to the studio I was listening to a podcast in which the author Ali Smith was interviewed. Her book, How to be Both, has been published in two alternative formats, one beginning with the story of one of the main characters and the other structured to start with the story of another main character. Both publications have exactly the same story, told in a different order. And time after time, readers of the books have said that they read both versions but could never completely get away from whichever telling they read first.