The mother of all the skills is to learn the art of paying attention.
― Mwanandeke Kindembo
In this chaotic pandemic, politically charged, racially unjust, climate-unleashed world, paying attention is not easy. So many things compete for our attention. Something pops up on our phone, and we turn away from the person we’re with. The realities of busy, uncertain lives and stimulation from technology can keep our attention scattered to the corners of the earth. To be so scattered keeps us awake at night. In fact, it often leaves us feeling at sea – no clear anchor in sight.
One of the challenges is that we can truly only focus on one thing at a time. We think we can multi-task. We try. But we can’t. Research shows we are not efficient or effective when we multi-task, and it annoys our brains and the people around us.
It is wonderful, then, that practicing “mindfulness” has become popular. And to the extent that it settles us, allows us to feel more grounded and calm, it is a boon. The trouble is holding onto that calmness after a meditation session is over. How can we continue to be mindful through our day?
What or Who gets our attention?
Is it the person we’re with or our phone?
Is it whatever is headlined on our favorite TV news show? Is it the negative energy of people around us? Is it our family, our friends, our own needs?
The way I see it there are 2 big parts to paying attention. The first is the art itself. Really listening to someone. Hearing the message under their words. Not trying to glance at the phone or write an email while talking with them. It is learning how to quiet our own galloping minds when they’re running amok. It’s about taking time to be still. To slow our minds and our hearts. The art includes learning to quiet the racing thoughts and roiling emotions so that, when it’s time to go to bed, we can sleep.
Attention = A Limited Resource
The second part is choosing where to put our attention. This choice matters. Attention is a limited resource for each of us….limited by our energy and our habits. We can easily squander it. Usually we don’t realize we’re choosing. We just do what we’ve always done. Maybe that’s watching or listening to the news at our usual time on our usual channel. Maybe that’s tuning into Face Book several times a day. Or calling a relative to complain. If we pay attention to something that makes us mad, our anger grows. If the anger is about something we can influence, maybe injustice, this could be good, IF it leads us to take steps to transform the injustice. If it is just anger fueling anger, it is unlikely to be helpful either to a cause or to ourselves and our loved ones.
Paying Better Attention
The poet Mary Oliver says, To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work. She also says, Attention is the beginning of devotion.
I like where her thoughts point us. If paying attention is our endless and proper work, we need to practice choosing to pay attention to what really matters to us, and hone this mother of all skills. Here’s how I’m doing this.
- Pause for a second many times a day to notice where I’ve chosen to focus my attention.
- Fully taste every bite of food I put in my mouth
- Listen with my full self, mind, body, spirit, emotions to anyone talking to me
- Watch the water droplets as I water the garden….and the response of thirsty flowers.
- Enjoy the internet fully when I go there, AND
- Choose to leave rather than going down the many rabbit holes offered
When we consciously choose where we want to direct our attention, we can experience it as a spiritual act of sorts. “The beginning of devotion,” as Oliver says.
Paying attention matters a lot. Where we place our attention is where we spend our life. And that shapes us.
- Notice where your attention goes for a whole day. Notice when you give your full attention and when it is divided.
- For the whole next day, practice paying full attention to one person or task or experience at a time.
- Ask yourself if what you are paying attention to matters to you.
- Practice choosing where to give your attention. Notice how good you feel when you give your attention to what matters to you.