When you go out to a shopping mall, what do you notice? When you’re out in public, what do you pay attention to? Noticing what we notice can not only help us diagnose how our spiritual growth towards purity is going … it can also carry us further along in this recovery.
When we make a new commitment to dealing with sexual sin, we start to see differently. It’s not simply a matter of not looking at sexually provocative images ... it’s a matter of changing our focus onto good things. We start to notice things we didn’t notice before that are “admirable,” “excellent,” and “praiseworthy” (Philippians 4:8). It’s like we get a new pair of glasses.
Think of the classic example of a person who’s planning to buy a car: Let’s say this person decides she wants to buy a Toyota Camry. Now everywhere she looks, she starts noticing Camrys. Where did they come from? They were always there, she just didn’t notice them before. Now she does.
The science of attention
In her excellent book Rapt, Winnefred Gallagher writes: “Rapidly developing neuroscience shows that as the terms ‘in focus’ and ‘out of focus’ suggest, attention shapes your experience by selecting and clearly depicting something in your external or internal world, leaving the rest a blur.”
Our senses are able to pick up an incredible amount of stimuli at any given moment, but the conscious part of our brain is only able to process a small amount of that stimuli. The way we deal with that discrepancy is that we learn selective focus, tuning out much of what we experience, and only consciously processing the things we find interesting or important. That is the role of attention … what we choose to focus on, and what we ignore.
This is why three people can encounter the same situation, and remember things quite differently. They were focused on – and thus perceiving and tuning out – different things.
Tuned into sexual arousal
When we were given over ongoing sexual sin, our minds were tuned in to sexual arousal, and we picked up signals from women or men, and potential sexually suggestive sights that other people wouldn’t notice. If an attractive woman walked across the street a block away, we were aware of it. We were looking at life through the window of potential sexual arousal.
But now in recovery, we are learning to tune into and appreciate beauty all around us that is not sexually suggestive. In the past we might not have noticed how funny the neighbor kid across the street really is, or how happy the old couple is who sit next us in church, or how wonderful the grass and the air smells after a rain, or the amazing color of a sunset. In the fog of our addiction, we blew right past so many beautiful things like this.
As part of recovery from struggles with pornography, many people find it helpful to look for beauty in unexpected places. Sometimes they find it in the character of people, in places, in (non-erotic) art, and especially in nature. It’s amazing to see what happens when you go through your day with “beauty lenses” on ... instead of “sex lenses.”