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• Last updated: September 12, 2022

Podcast #832: The Power of Unwavering Focus

When you were a kid, teachers and parents probably told you to concentrate. And as an adult, you likely often think about how much more productive, present, and happy you’d be if only you had better focus. But despite how much we think about our desire to improve our focus, no one ever gets any training in how to do it and even explains what focus is, exactly.

My guest today is an exception to that rule. He was taught the secrets to concentration when he spent ten years as a Hindu monk, and today he’s on a mission to share them with others. His name is Dandapani, and he continues to live as a Hindu priest, though he’s now also an entrepreneur and author, with a book just published called The Power of Unwavering Focus. Today on the show, Dandapani defines focus and shares the existential reasons why developing yours is so vital. He explains how that development begins with understanding how the mind is different from awareness, that where awareness goes, energy flows, and the need to bring awareness to attention. We walk through how to stop practicing distraction and start practicing concentration by making each of your daily activities a focused practice, and ultimately, making your whole day a practice. We also discuss how daily sessions of meditation are inadequate for developing focus, how mindfulness is different than concentration, and how the ability to control and direct your awareness is one of the greatest powers you can possess.

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When you were a kid, teachers and parents probably told you to concentrate. And as an adult, you likely often think about how much more productive, present, and happy you’d be if only you had better focus. But despite how much we think about our desire to improve our focus, no one ever gets any training in how to do it, and even explains what focus is exactly. My guest today is an exception to that rule. He was taught the secrets of concentration when he spent ten years as a Hindu monk, and today he’s on a mission to share them with others. His name is Dandapani. And he continues to live as a Hindu priest, though he’s now also an entrepreneur and author, with a book just published called The Power of Unwavering Focus.

Today on the show, Dandapani defines focus and shares the existential reasons why developing yours is so vital. He explains how that development begins with understanding how the mind is different from awareness, that where awareness goes energy flows, and the need to bring awareness to attention. We walk through how to stop practicing distraction and how to start practicing concentration by making each of your daily activities a focused practice, and ultimately, making your whole day a practice. We also discuss how daily sessions of meditation are inadequate for developing focus, how mindfulness is different than concentration, and how the ability to control and direct your awareness is one of the greatest powers you can possess. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/focus.

Dandapani, welcome to the show.

Dandapani: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

Brett McKay: So you are a Hindu priest and a former Hindu monk and the author of a new book called The Power Of Unwavering Focus, where you, for a lay audience, talk about practices from your faith tradition about how to have more focus in your life. Before we talk about your book, let’s talk a little bit about your background ’cause you’re interesting. You’re the first Hindu priest I’ve ever talked to. What’s monastic life in Hinduism? How does that work? Can anyone become a monk? Is it like Catholicism where you don’t have to be a priest to be a monk, or you can be a priest and a monk. How does that work?

Dandapani: Yeah, no, it’s similar to Catholicism. Hindu monks live celibate lives. They take vows of renunciation, and often other vows as well. And typically monks live in a monastery with other monks, and some monks live independently by themselves and often even sometimes in a forest, in a mountain by themselves. So in Hinduism, there are two paths. There’s the path of the monastic and the path of the householder. The monastic is the monk, and the householder is the family person. So Hindu priests actually fall under the category of a householder. So a Hindu priest can get married, can work at McDonalds, be an entrepreneur, have kids, live a regular household life. Whereas in the Catholic religion, Catholic priests are very similar to Catholic monks, where they lead celibate lives and live in cloisters with each other or all by themselves. So that’s the big distinction between Hindu monks and Hindu priests. So I was a monk for 10 years. I lived in a cloistered monastery, taken vows in the monastic order. And then when my vows expired, I left, and I chose to live as a Hindu priest. So now I’m married. I have a daughter. I’m an entrepreneur. I live in the world just like a lot of people do.

Brett McKay: Well, what’s a day-to-day life like for Hindu monks? What’s their role in Hinduism and their purpose?

Dandapani: I would say there is so many different traditions of monastic traditions within Hinduism. I can speak for the order that I belonged to. The primary goal of a monastic in that order was self-realization or enlightenment, seeking through deep meditation to experience divinity within ourselves. So that was the primary goal of the monks in our order. But while pursuing that, monks also pursued a life of selfless service where they took ancient Hindu teachings and tools and shared it with the world. So in our monastery, we published books. We had a massive digital platform where the monks had podcasts, similar to podcasts, and blogs, digital content. Idea was to empower people with these timeless teachings and tools to help people live better lives, more rewarding lives, and ultimately guide and steer people towards enlightenment. And that really was the role within our monastic community.

Brett McKay: And so you mentioned you didn’t renew your vows. You are now a householder. You’re a priest, and you’re an entrepreneur. So like what do you do with your work? Who do you work with these days?

Dandapani: So I work as an advisor to entrepreneurs and high-performance athletes. I would say primarily my clients are entrepreneurs, successful ones that have built very successful companies. So I train them personally. I often do one-on-one coaching with a few of them, not too many. And then I speak to companies, to senior leadership teams, sometimes to the whole company or departments within a company. Companies like American Express, Bloomberg, Nike, and things like that. So that’s what I do. And primarily what I do is I help them understand the mind, how the mind works, teach them how to concentrate, help them to practice concentration so they can be good at it. But ultimately, it’s leveraging the mind so they can be the best at what they do. And the same for athletes as well, high-performance athletes. Most of us, like I always say, never get taught how the mind works, never get taught how to concentrate. So if we can learn how the mind works, and we can learn to focus the mind, then we can live much more rewarding lives, but at the same time also be much better at what we do on a daily basis.

Brett McKay: Well, yeah, that’s a nice segue into your book. So you start off the book, in The Power of Unwavering Focus, talking about how parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, they’ll tell people like, “Stay focused.” But we never really… I don’t think I ever got an explanation on what it meant to be focused. I kind of picked up what I thought people meant. But we just kind of expect people know how to concentrate and how to focus. What do you think have been the consequences of not teaching people, like actually sitting down saying, “Here’s what I mean, and here’s how to do it when I say focus.”

Dandapani: I would say that one of the consequences of not teaching people how to concentrate is that we leave that up to our environment. It’s the same way with not teaching people to eat healthy. Then where do people get their eating habits? Through their environment. And what is the environment? It’s companies selling people junk food, crappy food to eat. And so if people don’t have any ability to discriminate between what food is good for their body and what’s not, then they’ll just buy into the best marketing out there for crappy food. And similarly with the mind as well, if we’re never taught how to concentrate, and the world is always vying for your attention and trying to show you different things to engage with you, then you’re gonna be trained in the art of distraction by the world around you.

And unfortunately, that what’s happened because if I asked you, “Were you trained in how to concentrate? Did you have formal classes on concentration growing up in school, every day, like Math, Science?” You probably would say, “No.” And I’ve asked this everywhere I’ve traveled around the world, in all my workshops and events, “Has anybody here had formal classes on how to concentrate every single day in school the same way you’ve had formal classes in Math, Science, Geography, History?” And no one’s ever put their hand up. And we can’t concentrate. And we just tell people to concentrate and assume that they would know how to do it, and that’s just a bad assumption.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and then people will get frustrated ’cause they think, “Well, something’s wrong with me ’cause I can’t concentrate. So maybe I have ADHD.” Well, maybe. Or maybe you just don’t know how to concentrate.

Dandapani: Exactly. And that’s one of the arguments I put in the book. There’s a whole lesson on ADD and ADHD. That lesson is called Please Don’t Drug Me. And the whole concept there is that… I share a story where a man… And I’ve had many parents come up to me at events. A man came up to me at an event and said, “My son has been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD. And he’s on drugs now, and I’m really unhappy about it.” And I said to the man, “I’m not a medical expert. I’m not a doctor. I don’t truly understand ADD or ADHD, but can you tell me what’s the essence of the problem?” And he says, “Oh, my son has a really hard time focusing. He’s always distracted at school, at home. And so the doctor diagnosed him with ADD and put him on medication.” Then I asked the dad, I said, “Have you ever… If he has trouble concentrating, have you ever taught him how to concentrate?” And the dad goes, “No.” And I go, “If you haven’t taught him how to concentrate, how do you expect him to concentrate?”

It’s the same way if you told your son to play the piano, and he couldn’t play the piano. And then you had diagnosed him with PPD, Piano Playing Disorder, and then drugged him for it. That would be unfair. So I’m not saying that diagnosing someone for having trouble keeping their attention on one thing is bad. There’s nothing wrong with the diagnosis of that, it’s what is the treatment for it? The first treatment shouldn’t be drugs. The first treatment should be, well, let’s teach them how to do it. And then let’s help them practice what they’ve learned so they can actually be good at it. Because if you don’t practice something, you don’t be good at it. And after a few years of that, they still struggle, maybe medication can assist. But that shouldn’t be the first go-to.

Brett McKay: Well, so let’s talk about definitions because we hear the word focus, and I think we all have a general idea when someone tells us to focus. We think we have an idea we need to sort of… Just to put all your attention on one thing for a long period of time. But how… And we’ll get more into the definition ’cause what I love about your book is you’re very systematic in explaining…

Dandapani: Thank you.

Brett McKay: You need to understand what this is before we get to this. But big picture, when you talk about focus, what are you talking about?

Dandapani: Focus is my ability to keep my awareness on the person or thing I’m engaged with until I choose to consciously move it to something else. So if I’m speaking with you, I keep my awareness on you and completely engage with you. Once I’m done with my conversation with you, I shift my awareness to the next thing I want to do. And that’s my ability to focus. So I think, often, people might think focus is just my ability to keep my awareness on one thing or one person for an extended period of time. I would say that’s a partial definition of focus. The other half of the definition of focus is my ability then to say, “Okay, I’m done with this task. I’m gonna switch it now to this task.” Which, at the end of the day, tells you that you have a conscious choice of who and what you are engaging with on a moment-to-moment basis.

Brett McKay: Okay. Let’s talk about why do you think… You also make, in the beginning, you make the case for focus. Okay, people get told you need to focus but like, “Okay, why? What’s in it for me?” What is your case for developing this focus?

Dandapani: In the book, I put three impetuses for leading a focused life. The greatest one, which is the third one I talk about, is that life is finite, that we will all die. So regardless of our religious affiliations or beliefs or philosophy that we’re subscribed to, the fact that no one can argue with is that at some point in this life, we all die. We just don’t know when. So if our life is finite, and I very clearly say in the book that life is not short, it’s finite, meaning there’s a clear, definitive end to it, then the question is, if I want to live a great life, a rewarding life, a content life, a happy life, I need to define my purpose, my priorities, and then be able to focus on those things. If I focus on who and what I love, and I’m in aligned with, the by-product of that is happiness. The by-product of that is contentment. And the ultimate by-product of that is I live a rewarding life, a fulfilled life. And to me, that’s one of the greatest impetus for leading a focused life, is that you get one life. You don’t get a second shot at this. You don’t wanna get to the end of your life, look back and go like, “Oh, I should have done that. I should have this. I should have spent more time with this person.”

And if you can’t focus, the other impetus, too, is that a lot of people work hard for their money. They save their money so they can go out for a really nice meal with a friend… With a friend, or with friends or family, or go on a nice holiday. And then when they get to that meal, and when they get to that holiday, they can’t concentrate long enough to actually enjoy it. How many times have you gone to a meal and looked across to the table across from you and seen someone on their phone, texting, distracted with their phone rather than enjoying the meal, enjoying the company of the person that they’re with? So if you can’t focus, then… You work so hard to save money so you can go and have this beautiful meal in this beautiful restaurant, but you can’t stay focused long enough to enjoy it.

I had an entrepreneur tell me, he’d been building his business for years. When he sold his business, one of the first things he did was take his family on this luxurious holiday. They were on a private boat sailing to another island on a speedboat… Sorry, it was speedboat going to another island. And at one point, he realized that his whole family was enjoying going from an island to island on the speedboat, and he’d been… His face was buried in the phone for the last 15 minutes. So you work so hard so that you can earn money to give you and your family the experience of this beautiful holiday in the Carribean, or wherever it was, but then when you actually get there, you can’t focus long enough to be present in that experience to actually enjoy it, just know you’re distracted with something else.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean he might say, “Well, I was focused on my email,” but he probably wasn’t consciously deciding to focus on that. It was distraction.

Dandapani: Exactly. And if you wanna focus on your email, why don’t you stay home and do it? Why go all the way out there? The whole purpose of being on a boat traveling between islands is so that you can spend time with your family. And how many times do you sit with someone, you’re having a conversation with them, and you see they’re completely distracted. They’re not even listening to what you’re saying. They’re physically there, sitting in front of you. Their head has been subconsciously trained to nod at what you’re saying. But mentally, their awareness is somewhere else, checked out. And you know they’re completely distracted, and it’s like, “What’s the point? Why are you here?”

I call people out on that. I go like, “Where are you?” And they’re like, “Oh, I’m here.” And I go like, “Where’s your awareness? I know you’re physically sitting here, but your awareness has wandered off somewhere else. And I can see that. Bring it back. ‘Cause if you don’t wanna be here, I’m happily good to leave and go somewhere else and do something else.” But going back to the question, what you said was like, “What’s the greatest impetus?” The greatest impetus is that our time is finite, and it’s so precious, and distraction is the biggest thief of that time. It robs us of that time that we have, that precious time. And for me, it’s not worth it.

Brett McKay: And you also talk about that if you want to develop focus, you have to have to have a desire for it. And I imagine that desire can come from knowing that life’s finite. It can also come from wanting the happiness and meaning that, as you said, is a by-product from focusing on what’s most important. And I can see people saying, “Oh yeah, I want that. I wanna be happy. I wanna be focused.” But sometimes they don’t really want it. They kind of want it, maybe, and you say that’s not enough.

Dandapani: They don’t desire. Yeah, they don’t desire it enough. I think people go through… What I’ve realized since leaving the monastery and being engaged in the world, I’ve been doing this for over a decade now, is that I think when people are going through a challenging time in their life, whether it’s a personal crisis or divorce or whatever it may be, loss of a job, a death, loss of a loved one, that’s when they desire. And then when the pain starts to ebb away, then they just default back to who they were, and they don’t want it badly enough.

Brett McKay: So how do you cultivate? How you keep that desire going when the bad time goes away?

Dandapani: I would say remind yourself, write it down. Remind yourself every single day. Someone asked me a long time ago, “Dandapani, how often do you think about dying?” And I said to him, “I hardly ever think about dying, but what I do think about every single day is that my life is finite.” I don’t say my life is short, that my life is finite, meaning at some point I will die, that I’m only here for a limited amount of time. And that drives me to make sure that every day I’m leading a full life, that I’m focusing on the people that I love. I’m focusing on the things I love. ‘Cause that also reminds me every day that the people I love, their lives are finite too. And I don’t know when they’re going to die.

I look at the… People look at young kids. They might look at their daughter or their son who is five, six years old and go like, “Oh, they have their whole lives ahead of them.” Not necessarily true. They could die tomorrow. We want them to have their whole lives ahead of them. We want them to live till their 90s or 100, and die then, but that doesn’t mean they are going to. So while I have these people and things in my life, I want to enjoy them. And the ability to focus allows me to enjoy them. The realization that life is finite is the greatest impetus for leading a focused life, and to make sure that we don’t waste this precious gift that we have, which is life itself.

Brett McKay: Okay, let’s talk about how to develop this focus. And it’s important… You make this point in the book. In order to understand how to develop focus, it’s important to understand some of the metaphysics that underlie Hinduism. Let’s talk about what the mind is. You say you teach people how the mind works. When you talk about the mind, what is the mind?

Dandapani: So I describe in the book the mind as a vast space with many different areas within it. So, you can say one area of the mind is happiness, one area of the mind is jealousy, anger, food, sex. There’re so many different areas of the mind. And I talk about awareness. One description of it, is a glowing ball of light, and I describe that ball of light being able to travel to any area of the mind that it wants to go to, and you are in essence, pure awareness, pure energy, traveling through different areas of the mind. So if you go to the angry area of the mind, you experience being angry, from there you can shift your awareness to the happy area of the mind, you can experience being happy, you can shift your area to the technology area of the mind and be immersed in technology.

What we can surmise from this is that there’s two things. One is, there’s a clear separation between awareness and the mind. They are two distinctly separate things. And number two is that at any given point in time, you, or your environment, the people and things around you, can dictate where your awareness is going. So I can choose to go to a happy area of my mind. And if I don’t choose to do that, I can allow my environment to take me to the happy area of the mind, but I can also allow my environment to take me to the sad area of the mind. The goal ultimately is to be able to have conscious mastery of where awareness goes in the mind. And if you look at most people around you, because we haven’t been trained in this, we haven’t been taught this, most people allow their environment, and again, I define environment as the people and things around them, to dictate where their awareness goes.

They see something on the news, the story on the news takes awareness to a depressed area of the mind. They see a picture of a politician they don’t like, awareness goes to an angry area of the mind. They see their best friend, awareness goes to the happier area of the mind. Then they see something else awareness goes to this area of the mind. And within the space of two to three minutes awareness could be balancing around the mind. And within a space of a day, your environment could take your awareness to a million areas of the mind, and then you’re no longer focusing on the people and things that really matter to you.

Brett McKay: So, there’s a distinction between mind and awareness. You’re saying we’re not our mind instead we are our awareness, and we get to control that. And I think that’s interesting because I think oftentimes when you read books about mindfulness… We need to maybe talk more about this… ’cause you kind of have a pet peeve about mindfulness. But people talk about like, “Well, my mind is wandering, my mind is just… It’s all over the place”, and you’d say, “Well, no, it’s not your mind, it’s just your awareness is all over the place.”

Dandapani: And Brett another thing people will so often say is that I have a monkey mind. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that statement before.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve heard that, yeah.

Dandapani: Yeah, so the mind doesn’t actually move, it’s your awareness that’s moving within the mind. I mean, all you have to do is just look at your day from the moment you woke up. Your awareness is moving through different areas of the mind. Do you remember the very first podcast you did for the show?

Brett McKay: I do.

Dandapani: Who was it with?

Brett McKay: There’s a guy named Marcus Brotherton.

Dandapani: Okay. And you did it from your home?

Brett McKay: I did it from my apartment and… When I lived in an apartment a long time ago.

Dandapani: Okay. So now your awareness has moved to that area of the subconscious where the memory of the first podcast resided. And I could sit here the next five minutes and take your awareness to different areas of the mind by asking you different questions. At this point, I’m in charge of where you’re awareness is going and what you’re feeling. I can take you to a sad area of the mind, I can take you to happy area of the mind, I can take you to an angry area of the mind. And this is what’s happened, your mind doesn’t move, it’s awareness that moves within the mind and the goal is to control where awareness goes. And it’s as simple as that, really. It doesn’t get more complicated. We make it very complicated, but it doesn’t get more complicated than that.

Brett McKay: Oh yeah, you do this great exercise to show… To highlight the distinction between mind and awareness. Someone could be listening to this podcast right now and their awareness is on our voices, but that we can just say, “Well, wiggle your toes and think about how your toes feel,” and their awareness is gonna go to that immediately.

Dandapani: My awareness just went to my toes [laughter] Yeah.

Brett McKay: Right.

Dandapani: Exactly. And that’s what happens and that’s… He’s another point, and we talked about being distracted earlier. If I’m having a conversation with Joe and Joe’s sitting in front of me, I’m talking to him and Joe’s nodding his head going, “Mm-hmm, Yeah, I see, okay. Mm-hmm.” He’s physically present, but my question is, Where is your awareness? ‘Cause if your awareness has drifted out somewhere, you’re not there. Have you ever had the experience where you’re talking to someone and someone says to you, “Hey, where are you?”

Brett McKay: Yeah. So I’ve zoned out.

Dandapani: In the context.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Dandapani: Yeah, in the context of this book, the correct question, with the right terminology would be, “Where’s your awareness?” ‘Cause if someone asks you, “Where are you?” The correct answer is, “Well, I’m standing in front of you.” But when you ask someone, “Where’s your awareness?” Then they go, “My awareness is off somewhere else in my mind, thinking about something else while you’re speaking to me.” And that’s the big distinction. That’s why understanding awareness in the mind is so critical. People talk about time management, I’m balancing life and working, so many hours and someone might say, “Okay, I’m gonna spend an hour and a half with my family every day or two hours with my family every day, and 45 minutes of those two hours is having a meal and dinner with my family.” So every night they come home and they have dinner with the family, so they can check off the time management box and say, Okay, today I did 45 minutes having dinner with my family, every day and be very proud of it. For me, my question is, yes, you were physically present, those 45 minutes having dinner with your family, but I wanna know in those 45 minutes where was your awareness?”

Cause when your husband was talking or when your wife was talking and your kids were talking, was your awareness somewhere else in your mind? Or were you or your awareness engaged with them and… That’s the critical question. Does that make sense?

Brett McKay: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. And I think that that distinction, it’s really useful ’cause I’ve been thinking about that a lot. It’s like, “Well, I’m gonna control my awareness, I’m gonna shift my awareness to different parts of my mind.” So one thing you talk about the book is something you learned from your guru is this phrase, “Where awareness goes, energy flows.” What does that mean? And what are you talking about when you’re talking about energy?

Dandapani: So, Tesla, Nikola Tesla the scientist had a beautiful saying, “If you wanna find the secrets of the universe, think in terms of energy, frequency and vibration.” I elaborate a little bit more on that, to add to that by saying that everything in this world is made up of energy, and that energy is vibrating at a certain frequency. You want something to manifest in your life, you wanna create something in your life, invest energy into it. There’s another phrase, and I’ll tie this back to what my guru wrote. There’s another phrase I have in the book where I say, “Life as a manifestation of where you invest your energy.” And the best way to understand the statement is to look at energy the same way we look at water. So if I took a watering can and I watered a garden bed, both the weeds and the flowers will grow. Water has no ability to discriminate between the weeds and the flowers. Similarly, energy has no ability to discriminate between what’s positive and what’s negative. Whatever I invest energy into will start to grow in my life. So if you look at your mind as having different areas, and let’s look at the mind… Take an analogy as the mind as a huge garden made up of a thousand garden beds, one garden bed is anger another garden bed is jealousy another garden bed is growing tomatoes and lettuce and, there’s so many different garden beds. Now, if I took a watering can and I watered the garden bed, that garden bed would start to grow.

Similarly, I have these different areas in my mind of anger, jealousy, happiness and contentment, and as awareness goes to those areas, that’s where energy is flowing to that area of the mind. And as energy flows to that area of the mind, I strengthen, you could say the muscles in that area of the mind. So where awareness goes, energy flows. If my awareness is constantly going to the angrier of the mind, that’s where my energy’s flowing. That area of the mind starts to strengthen. I deposit more energy in the angrier area of the mind. Eventually it starts to strengthen and strengthen.

Now it starts to vibrate at the frequency of anger, whatever that frequency is to say, 50 kilowatts, I’m making up some number. So remember what Tesla said, think in terms of energy, frequency, and vibration. Now the stronger, the more energy I deposit in the anger area of the mind, the stronger it becomes energy’s magnetic. And now I start attracting into my life, anything of a similar frequency and because that area is so highly magnetized, it also then has the ability to pull awareness there really quickly as well.

And have you ever met someone who’s so quick to get angry no matter what you say, they’re just, that’s the default place they go to in their mind. Because in an area they’ve been cultivating and dissimilarly, someone can cultivate a happy area of their mind, a jealous area of the mind, a fear area of their mind. So where awareness goes, that’s where energy flows and that area gets strengthened. And the more it gets strengthened, the more magnetic force it has over awareness and the ability to pull awareness there as a default place to go to.

Brett McKay: Well, yeah. And you see this idea in neuroscience, this idea of, neurons that fire together, wire together. So if you just keep on thinking the same sort of pattern, you’re just gonna, that pattern’s gonna get stronger and stronger. And you’re more likely to follow that whenever you’re put in a similar situation.

Dandapani: Yeah. And a lot of times we do this without even being conscious of it. We say things, we think things repeatedly over and over again, someone might look in the mirror every morning, go like, “Oh, I’m too fat. I don’t like my nose. My nose is this. I’m unhappy, I’m sad. I’m depressed. I’m depressed.” Now, if you say I’m depressed 20 times a day, every day, seven days a week, what are you gonna be after six months? Depressed. Because you’re creating that pattern in your mind, awareness is going there, investing energy and that’s a repetition. That area becomes strengthened. I think I gave an example in the book where, you know, I met this guy many years ago when I just left the monitory and I did a workshop in New York. And after the workshop, I had talked, spoken about all of this and he didn’t quite believe it.

And I asked him, I said, “What do you do?” He says, “I work in the stock exchange.” And I said, “Would you do an experiment for me?” He said, “Sure.” I said, “Every day, I want you to go to the stock exchange when you’re working there Monday to Friday. And I want you to say 15 times a day, all my stocks, all my shares, all my bonds or whatever is failing. And I’m losing tens of thousands of dollars. And this is how I want you to say it. And how I want you to impress your mind with these words, would you do it?” And he looked at me and he said, “No.” And I said, ” Why not? You don’t believe in any of these things?” But he said, “No, I’m not gonna do it.” No entrepreneur, no athlete will go out there and say, “I’m terrible at what I do. I’m failing. I’m gonna fail. My business is failing.” They won’t, right? But we do this in our personal life all day long. You know, we don’t understand awareness in the mind and we repeat things. We send awareness to negative areas of the mind all day long, strengthening those areas of the mind, which then negatively impact our life. So learning to control awareness in the mind is highly critical as one of the first, first steps.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for words from our sponsors.

And now back to the show. Well, let’s talk about how we can start controlling our awareness. And you say the first step to that… Okay. Well, first you’d understand what awareness is, what the mind is. But the idea is you need to under… You need to bring awareness to attention.

Dandapani: Correct. Yeah.

Brett McKay: What do you mean by that?

Dandapani: So awareness has to be aware of itself. You don’t know… Have you ever been in a conversation with someone talking to them. Now they start talking to you, your awareness drifts away, and it may take you like 15, 20 seconds later before you realize you’ve drifted away. Their mouth is still moving. And you’re like, “Oh my God, they’re talking. And I haven’t heard a single word they’ve said.”

Brett McKay: Yes. That’s happened to me.

Dandapani: You can only get… [chuckle] You can only get to that place where an awareness can be aware of itself and go, “Oh my God, I’ve drifted away.” And once it’s aware, it’s drifted away, it can bring itself back. So the first step is bringing awareness to attention. It’s like, “Oh, I’ve drifted away.” And that exercise, that practice comes through one’s ability to learn to concentrate. They kind of work hand in hand. So the more I learn to keep awareness on one thing at a time or one person at a time, the more observant I become, because observation is a by-product of prolonged states of concentration. The more observant I become, the more conscious I become of my awareness drifting away from what or who I’m engaged with. And unless I’m observant of it, then I won’t know.

Brett McKay: Right. And you do this another great… I love that you have these really practical exercising due to highlight this idea of bringing awareness to attention or awareness, being aware of itself.

Dandapani: Yeah.

Brett McKay: It’s like if you’re in a movie, you’re at a movie theater, you’re watching the movie, you’re sucked into the story. Your awareness is inside the story that’s being portrayed in the movie. But then you say, well, you can shift your awareness to where you’re no longer inside the story. You’re just observing the people around you. Maybe just observe… You’re looking at the screen, but you’re just saying, noticing… You know, this is just light being projected on a screen.

Dandapani: Yeah. That’s when you separate awareness from what it is engaged with, right?

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Dandapani: And the movie is a great place to do this ’cause you normally see everyone seeing that everyone’s watching the movie, they’re laughing or being sad or upset or whatever emotion the director wants you to experience. But if you can pull your awareness out of the movie and just like wiggle your toes. I give that simple example. If you start to wiggle your toes, your eyeballs go down, you look at your toes. You’re no longer engaging with the screen anymore. So when you’re no longer engaging, your awareness is no longer engaging with the screen. You’re not experiencing the movie. Now you’re looking at your toes. Now when you look back up again and you look around you, you can see people laughing and people gripping onto their chair or whatever it may be. Now you realize my awareness is separate from that, which it is engaged in.

And I can choose to let my awareness go back into the movie. And once my ball of light gets absorbed back into the movie, now I experience everything. The movie wants me to experience. And if you start playing that game and that exercise of pulling awareness in and out of things, you realize that at the end of the day, I have complete control over my awareness, and I can choose at any moment in the day, if I wanna engage with something or not engage with it. And you think about the freedom that gives an individual. I lived in New York for 11 years, Brett. And I’d walk down the street and something would be happening or in the subway. And everybody’s awareness gets engaged with a couple arguing, for example, in the subway train, in the subway car. And now they’re all upset about the whole thing that’s going on because they’ve let their ball of light go to that experience and get engaged with it. And now en-matched in the same emotional area of the mind that the couple is arguing in the subway car. But if they could pull their ball of light out of it, then they go like, “Okay, I can see them arguing, but I’m not gonna get engaged.” Does that make sense?

Brett McKay: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. Yeah, that experiment… The thought experiment at the movie. I mean, really, it’s a great way to practice the separating awareness and showing that you do have control over your awareness. So, like you said, in the subway, you can see someone fighting and you can decide, “Well, am I gonna allow this to take my awareness to my angry part in my brain? Or am I gonna stay in a neutral part where I’m just watching what’s unfolding.”

Dandapani: And here’s the thing right you see on social media all the time, people say things like be present, be the observer. What the hell does that even mean? It’s like telling someone, “Be focused.” Okay. How the hell do I do it? And people always say this in the spiritual context and, “Be the observer.” “Okay like, that’s great. Wanna show me how the, how to do it?” It’s about understanding awareness in the mind. If I can keep my awareness with me, then I’m watching from here. Like you said, in a neutral place, the couple are fighting, now I’m observing, I’m not emotionally reacting. As soon as I let my ball of light, leave me and go to the couple and get involved with them. Now I’m engaged with that. Keeping my ball of light with me, like you say, in a neutral place or in a happy place or peaceful place is me being an observer of what’s happening in me, outside of me. And that’s why in the book I spent so much time talking about awareness in the mind because this lays the foundation of so many things going forward. Not only just learning to concentrate, but learning how to be observant, how to be present and things like that.

Brett McKay: Okay. So concentration or focus, use those words interchangeably is the ability to consciously choose what you’re gonna direct your awareness on. Now and you can choose to direct your awareness on that thing in your mind, or in your environment for as long as you want. It’s gonna be a really long time, or maybe just for a little bit of time, but you’re, you’re choosing to direct your awareness there.

Dandapani: Yes.

Brett McKay: That’s concentration. That’s focus. Let’s talk about the opposite of that distraction. What is distraction?

Dandapani: Distraction is when something or someone outside of you moves your awareness from one thing to another, without your permission. So you surrender where awareness goes in your mind to your environment around you. So I let TikTok, take me to a happy earth of the mind, ’cause I see a dancing cat and then two seconds later, it take me to a sad area of the mind because I see something else. And then three minutes later, it take me to an angrier of the mind because I see something that I don’t wanna see. That’s distraction. That’s allowing your environment to dictate where your awareness goes in your mind and the more you practice this. So an external force can do that, but it can also happen internally, right? Your own subconscious. If the parents and your subconscious mind are distracted of nature, then it can move your awareness from one thing to another to another all day long as well.

Brett McKay: And you make this really… I like this point, you make the reason why you have a problem with distraction is because you have practice distraction. What do you mean by… How do we… People don’t think, “Well I’m not practicing distraction. I’m just looking at my phone. I’m not practicing anything. I don’t wanna do this.” So what do you mean by we practice distraction?

Dandapani: There’s a lesson in the book called the law of practice and what I mean by that, I say whatever we practice, we end up becoming really good at, regardless if it’s good or bad for us. So anything we repeat over and over again, even if we’re not conscious we’re doing it. It becomes a pattern in our mind. So if we on a daily basis, allow our awareness to jump from one thing to another, to another, to another, to another in quick succession, we’re training our awareness to be distracted. And that’s what we practice all day long. Most people practice all day long and technology is feeding that, right? You know, people want… Like your videos need to be 15 seconds to 30 seconds long in order to capture audience. So everyone’s making this short reel soon TikTok and stuff. And that’s how long we’re being trained every day to keep our awareness on one thing. ‘Cause that reel or story can only be 15 or 60 seconds long. And then before the next thing is fed with you. So if I’m on TikTok every day or Instagram reels everyday for two, three hours watching things for 60 second periods before it switches to something else, that’s what I’m being trained to do. That’s what my awareness is being trained to stay on one thing for the 60 seconds before it’s then switched to another area of the mind based on what’s being fed to me. Now I sit down to have coffee with you for an hour. I can only keep my awareness on you for 60 seconds before I need to move it to something else.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Before you pick up your phone to look at what’s going on.

Dandapani: Pick up my phone, look past you see what’s happening behind you, who’s walking, what’s the waiter doing, or I see the bird sitting on the tree or I wanna change the subject because TikTok, social media, Instagram, all these things are changing things. Every 16 seconds, every 60 seconds or 15 seconds or whatever it may be. They’re feeding you something completely different. So awareness is now moving within the mind to different areas in the mind, every 60 second blocks of time. And if you do this 2, 3, 4 hours a day, that’s what you become really good at.

Brett McKay: All right. So we practice distraction. We don’t wanna do that anymore. So let’s talk about how to practice concentration and you make this case that, and when people think, well, I gotta get more focused. I wanna become more focused individual and think, well, I’ll do some, you know, mindfulness meditation for 15 minutes a day. You say that’s not enough.

Dandapani: Yeah.

Brett McKay: That’s not gonna be enough to develop your concentration and why is that?

Dandapani: Because, you know, in the example on the book I give is that we need to look at our life the same way an Olympic sprinter looks at his life. Take Usain Bolt for example, when he was competing, I don’t know much about this guy, but the fastest man on earth. He had the hundred meters at 9.56 or 5.4 seconds or whatever it is. I am assuming his whole day when he was competing was structured. Meaning that he drank water, he exercised, he did weight training, he ran, he sprinted, he stretched, he rested. His whole day was there to support the 9.56 seconds as opposed to 9.56 seconds supporting the whole day. So people often think that if I meditate five minutes in the morning or 10 minutes in the morning, that’s gonna help me be focused the rest of the day. My question is, what are you doing the 23 hours and 50 minutes of the day. That’s the critical piece.

The first step is structuring the lifestyle that can help you then support a meditative practice, a concentration practice. So the idea is then to look at your life and go, “Okay, if I wanna be good at meditation, I need to be good at concentration. So I need to practice concentration throughout the day. How do I integrate this practice and concentration in everything I do?” And we define concentration as doing one thing at a time, one simplified definition. So if I’m speaking with my spouse, I give my spouse, my undivided attention. If I’m speaking with my daughter, I give my daughter my undivided attention. And speaking with my employees, I give my team my undivided attention, my clients. I practice doing one thing at a time.

So if I’m doing this 7, 8, 9 hours a day doing one thing at a time, then when I actually sit down to meditate for 15 minutes, I’ve been trained at doing one thing at a time. So now when I sit down to meditate, my awareness has been trained to just stay in one place. But if I’m distracted all day long, if my awareness is jumping from one thing to another, every 60 seconds throughout the whole day, then when I sit down for 15 minutes by myself, what do you think my awareness is doing in my mind?

Brett McKay: Right. It’s gonna be all over the place.

Dandapani: Exactly. We become good at whatever it is we practice. It’s not like… I do my awareness practice as something different for eight hours. And then when I sit down with myself, all of a sudden I can be like hyper focused. It doesn’t work that way.

Brett McKay: So what you’re saying then if you want to practice concentration, you just said to make it a part of your daily life, like find opportunities to practice the practice of concentration.

Dandapani: Exactly. Yes. And in the book we go through a very systematic process of identifying what I call the non-negotiable reoccurring events. So for example, if you live with your spouse, with your kids, speaking to them is non-negotiable, they’re part of your family, they’re part of a life. You can’t not talk to your child, every day you talk to your child. And if you talk to your child for half an hour, a day or an hour, a day or two hours a day, then every time you speak with them, give them your undivided attention. Now, when you do that, you practice in concentration. And if you speak to your child two hours a day, that’s two hours of practice in concentration. Now but if I practice the piano two hours a day, every day after six months, what would I be good at? Playing the piano.

Brett McKay: Right.

Dandapani: If I practice concentration two hours a day by giving someone my undivided attention every day, then after six months, I’m naturally good at concentration. After a year, I become really good at it.

Brett McKay: How is this idea of you know, look… Using your day to practice concentration? How is this different from mindfulness? You read blog posts about that. Well, when you’re washing the dishes, be mindful of washing the dishes, is it the same thing? Are you talking about the same thing?

Dandapani:No, because you know I… To me, it’s really helpful to define words, right? And because then there’s clarity what that word actually means. So that in the book, as you know, as you go through the book I take time to define all these words. And I turn to the dictionary for definition of the words, because who am I to define the words? So when you look at the word mindfulness and how it’s defined in Websters or Oxford or dictionaries, it defines a state of being observant or conscious from a moment to moment basis. Mindfulness is a byproduct off a concentration state of mind. You don’t practice mindfulness, you practice concentration. And when you can concentrate, then you can be mindful or observant. I can’t be mindful if I can’t be focused. How can I be mindful of where I’m stepping if I’m not focused on where I’m walking.

Brett McKay: Yeah okay. That makes sense. So focus is… It undergirds. Like it’s yeah… Mindfulness is a byproduct, focus is how you get there.

Dandapani: Exactly. So you don’t tell someone to be mindful of washing the dishes. You tell someone to be focused, keep your awareness on the dishes you’re washing. The byproduct of that… That awareness being focused on the dishes is that you become mindful, you become observant of the dish. You start to see where it’s dirty, the stains, how to scrub it, clean it, make it better, look nicer. But mindfulness is a byproduct. You don’t tell people to practice mindfulness. You tell people to practice being focused. Mindfulness comes as a byproduct of it. It’s the same way you know, I talk about meditation in the book, right? Ranch like people say, “Oh, you know, when I walk my dog at night, that’s my meditation. When I’m cooking, that’s my meditation.” What do you call this that we’re doing right now? Is this your podcast?

Brett McKay: Yeah, this is my podcast.

Dandapani: Do you have a partner or a spouse?

Brett McKay: I do.

Dandapani: A spouse?

Brett McKay: Yes, a spouse.

Dandapani: Okay. When you talk to her is that a podcast?

Brett McKay: That is not a podcast.

Dandapani: Are you sure?

Brett McKay: I’m pretty sure.

Dandapani: So you don’t go around having conversations with a person at Starbucks and ordering a coffee and say that’s a podcast.

Brett McKay: Right.

Dandapani: Podcast is this a structured conversation that you talked about that you’re interviewing for a very specific reason. So we use words like meditation, walking my cat’s a meditation. No. Then what the heck is sitting down closing my eyes and breathing? I think a lot of times people don’t define words clearly and because they don’t define words clearly, they use it incorrectly. And that causes confusion to the mind, words like mindfulness, meditation, focus, you know, like you said, hey, get focused. Okay what does that mean? Define it so people understand. Once they understand the meaning of the word, then it’s so much easier to use it.

Brett McKay: Okay. So if you wanna start developing your concentration, find those non-negotiables in your life, things you have to do. And then really bring attention to awareness. Just I’m gonna… All my awareness is gonna be on this thing. I’m gonna choose to bring my awareness to my conversation with my spouse. I’m gonna bring my awareness to washing the dishes, I’m gonna focus on that. That’s how you do it. And you have to do it. Like it’s like a sport, like you said, it’s not just something you can do in 15 minutes. It’s something you have to do all the time because you’re…

Dandapani: All day.

Brett McKay: Right. ‘Cause you’re… If you’re practicing distraction all day to counteract that you’re gonna have to practice concentration all day, all the time.

Dandapani: Exactly. I can’t eat junk food all day and then eat a bowl of salad at night and expect to be healthy.

Brett McKay: No, it’s not gonna work.

Dandapani: Right, my whole day needs to be a healthy diet. So the same way, if I’m practicing distraction all day long, then I think, okay, I get up in the morning and do 10 minutes of meditation, now that’s gonna counteract 10 hours of practicing distraction, it’s not. The day needs to be structured to support that. And every time you’re doing a task or speaking with someone and your awareness drifts away to… Say you’re washing your dishes and your ball of light drifts away, it goes to something else. Bring it back, keep it on the… On washing the dishes. At the end of the day, what comes out to of all of this is that you start to have profoundly deep experiences with all the people and things that truly matter to you. So when you sit and talk to your spouse, you can be completely present because your awareness is just anchored in her. It’s not drifting off anywhere else. You get to hear what she’s saying, you get to experience her. You get to experience your child. You get to experience the emotions, what they’re going through, what they’re saying to you. That becomes really rewarding. And that’s a great impetus for practicing focus.

Brett McKay: So you’ve been talking about one of the reasons you wanna develop focus is so you can have this enriching life that I think most people want?

Dandapani: Yeah.

Brett McKay: But you also talk about how a focused life can counteract things like anxiety, fear, anger, depression. I know a lot of people are struggling with these things. How does developing a focus life, how can that help with those?

Dandapani: It’s… Essentially you could say that my ability to focus is my ability to control where my awareness goes in my mind. That would be like another definition of focus. Now take fear for example, you know, in the book, I share a story that my guru shared with me when he was a kid that he had experienced. This was 1934 in lake Tahoe. He was coming back in the family car. It was snowing really heavily and he was worried he was gonna miss his favorite radio program. And he saw what was happening in his mind. He saw his awareness going, leaving the present moment, sitting in the car, going into the future, creating a situation in his mind where the car got stuck in the snow and they got home late and he missed his radio program. And then now his awareness came back to the present and started worrying about this experience he conjured up in his mind. And then at seven years old, he observed all of this happening. And then he said to himself, “Are we stuck in the snow? He asked himself. He said, “No.” “Are we still moving?” “Yes.” And then he said to himself, “I’m alright right now.” And that’s a great example a story that shares what fear and worry is, fear and worry is future based.

If you look at all the things you’re worried about, all the things you’re fearing they’re in the future. Awareness leaves the present, goes into the future and says, oh my God, what if I get old and I never find a partner or I never marry. And I end up being alone. Now awareness comes back to the present and start worrying about that. So if you can control awareness, you can prevent awareness from going into the future in your mind, conjuring up things that haven’t happened. And then coming back to the present and worrying about those things. That doesn’t mean awareness can’t go into the future and think about negative things, it’s okay to do that as long as you’re coming up with solutions for it.

Brett McKay: And also as long as you’re consciously deciding to do that.

Dandapani: Exactly. So I gave an example in the book, an entrepreneur is creating a restaurant. So he’s thinking about how his restaurant’s gonna look like, and he’s seeing seven months from now, when it’s built on a busy Friday night, there’s 150 people in there. Everyone’s busy eating, work, chefs, cooks are cooking. And then a fire breaks out. This is… He’s conjuring this up right, in his mind. He sees a big fire in the kitchen. Now he brings his awareness back to the present. Now he can worry about that and say like, “Oh my God, we could have a fire. I could get sued. People could die. I shouldn’t build a restaurant. What if the fire spreads to the building upstairs?” That’s worry. Or he can say, “Okay, if a fire breaks out in the kitchen, we need to make sure there’s an emergency exit here and here. We should have a sprinkler system. We should fire… Have fire extinguishers. I should consult with… ” Blah, blah, blah. Maybe they put some I don’t know, fireproof insulation to think… Now he’s solving for the problem. And that’s very different than worry.

But that all comes down to controlling awareness in the mind. Most people allow their awareness to go into the future, create a problem, then bring the awareness back to the present moment and they’ll start worrying about the problem they created in the future. Five minutes later, awareness goes back into the future again to the same problem, thinks more about it, amplifies it some more, comes back to the present and starts worrying about it, some more. Repeat this process over and over again, that fear becomes so huge that it becomes crippling in your life. Learn to control awareness in the mind and you learn to overcome fear and worry.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and I think this works… Can work for anger, depression. I’ve already been using this, just that understanding that the mind is separate from awareness. Whenever I find myself getting frustrated, I think, “Well, I’m just in the frustrated part of my brain right now, I can direct my awareness to something more neutral or positive if I want to.”

Dandapani: My three and a-half-year-old daughter went up to my wife a few months ago and said, “Mom, you need to move your awareness out of the unhappy area of the mind.”

Brett McKay: Even a three-year-old can pick it up, this isn’t hard stuff.

Dandapani: It’s not difficult, right. Because we’re not talking here about scientific terms, we’re not talking about neural pathways, we’re not talking about the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, or this or that part of the mind, which are things that most of us don’t know. We’re talking about a ball of light called awareness traveling to different areas of the mind. Okay, my awareness went to the unhappy area of the mind, if it went there, then it can come back here, or it can go somewhere else. A three year old can understand this. I’ve taught this to kids and kids just get it so quickly, ’cause it’s not complicated to see what’s happening in your mind, the same way you are experiencing it now. Every time you’re in the anger area of the mind or even in the happier area of the mind, you can say to yourself. “I’m in the happy area of the mind, now my awareness is in the happy area of the mind and that’s why I’m experiencing being happy. The same way is when my awareness is in the angry area of the mind, I’m gonna experience being angry.” I’m not anger, I’m pure awareness, experiencing the state of mind you call anger. As easily as I’m here, I can move to another area of the mind by using my willpower and false powers of concentration, I can move my awareness to a different area of the mind.

And once you start to see this happening in your mind and you start to do it with small things. You realize the freedom it gives you, then it’s a matter of practicing it over and over again, so you become better and better at it and are able to apply it to more challenging experiences in life. The simple things in life, yeah, that’s fine. Someone says something to you on the street, yeah, I can control my awareness. But when more difficult things happen, crisis in life, bigger crippling challenges, that’s when the true test of how well you control awareness and the mind is displayed. And I also wanna point out one thing, if I may, choosing to move awareness in the mind is not ignoring the problem in the mind. It’s giving you the choice of when you want to choose to engage with that problem, do you see the distinction in that?

Brett McKay: Yeah, I see that. Choosing when, but also how you’re gonna engage.

Dandapani: How? Right.

Brett McKay: Right. This isn’t magical thinking here. I think I can see some people taking this idea well. Whatever you’re aware that’s your reality. Well, yeah, to an extent, but it’s not gonna make the problem go away if you just ignore… If you don’t even direct your awareness to the problem at all. What you’re saying is, you can direct your attention at the problem, but you get to decide how or when you direct that awareness.

Dandapani: Exactly and where to, right? If I’m at work and I have a problem with my spouse, now I don’t want my awareness to be engaging with the argument I had with my spouse this morning, so I keep my awareness in the work area of the mind and focus on work. And then maybe I have an hour lunch break, and I go to the park and I go sit down for half an hour and I move my awareness to my spouse area of the mind and reflect on what the problem is. So I can choose when, where, how I’m engaging with my problem it doesn’t ignore them, it’s not ignoring the problem, it’s giving you the conscious choice of when you want to engage, how you want to engage and where you wanna engage with the problem. That is a tremendous amount of freedom.

Brett McKay: Well, Dandapani, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Dandapani: My website is probably the best place. If you go to dandapani.org, you’ll find all of the links there. The book is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, online, and also in book stores. And here… And my website has more information about my weekly newsletter that I send out or email that I send out and the courses I have online, my app, and things like that.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well done Dandapani, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Dandapani: No, thank you so much for having me and thank you for all this wonderful, thoughtful questions. And I so greatly appreciate that you’re starting to see how awareness in the mind works, and you’ve been able to apply that in your life as well. That’s very rewarding for me.

Brett McKay: That’s great, Well, like I said, a three-year-old can do it. So, I think there’s hope for all of us.

Dandapani: There is, [chuckle] there still is.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Dandapani, he’s the author of the book, The Power of Unwavering Focus. It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere, you can find more information about his work at his website, dandapani.org, also check out our show notes at AOM.is/focus where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at artofmanliness.com, where you’ll find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you could think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com. To sign up, use code manliness at checkout for a free month’s trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Spotify, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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