1.29.2009

Pay Attention 1 (a.k.a. "What's Your Name Again?")

[Note: In this series of blog posts, I examine the four basic "rules" that guide my practice of mindfulness and authenticity: show up, pay attention, speak your truth, and let go of the outcome. Thanks to the Gestalt Center of Gainesville for inspiring this blog series.]

Last week, we talked about Showing Up. Today, let's look at “Paying Attention.”

Attention is such a simple concept. We don’t even have to think about it, we just… attend. But the pace of our culture pushes us to fracture our attention in order to process an avalanche of internal and environmental stimuli. It’s impossible to keep up with the endless streams of thought, activity, and media that overwhelm our senses.

I suggest that we shouldn’t try. A future blog post will explore simplifying, one way to handle the tendency to overdo. But in the meantime, we can practice paying attention. When we allow our attention to rest fully on one thing at a time, we are available to appreciate the fullness of the thoughts, actions, and information we navigate each day.

We always attend to something (or somethings), but often this attention is automatic rather than deliberate. For many of us, a swirl of empty entertainments or internal worries and plans take precedence over the raw information available to our senses in real time. Now, I don’t condemn to-do lists, TV, or a little light reading! All I’m saying is that we can’t fully experience those things if we’re doing something else at the same time. Multitasking amounts to mindlessness.

“What did you say your name was again?”

Far too often, I ask this of someone I met only moments before. It’s embarrassing to admit that I was so wrapped up in my own desire to make a good impression that I didn’t attend to crucial data-- like their name. Part of the problem here is not showing up (see Showing Up for Life). But more specifically, my attention becomes fragmented. I am trying to both absorb information about this new person before me and appraise/predict/act to make a good impression. That’s too much to ask of my feeble mind and senses. The result? My attention gets fragmented, my priorities get skewed, and I fail to direct my attention on what is most important to me: learning about and from this lovely new friend.

Beyond the obvious price to relationships, the core problem with these distractions is that they take us further away from concrete, sensual experience. They steal our attention from the environment and thrust us into some once- or twice-removed state of disconnection.

Almost daily, I catch myself reaching for a magazine when I sit down to eat lunch, or I veer into a mental rehearsal of my to-do list while I walk the dog. Eating a meal and walking the dog are potential sources of immense beauty, learning, sensation, and pleasure. Sadly, when I’m distracted from these primary activities, I miss out on all they have to offer. Some people call this multitasking. I call it divided or fragmented attention.

On the surface, multitaskers appear so productive and accomplished. But I argue that it’s the old tradeoff between quality and quantity. When tasks are done one at a time, they’re done better. Ever hear of the concept of “flow?” That’s the intense connection we can feel to what we’re doing when we fully attend to it. Just as important, we can appreciate both the process and product of each task more if they aren’t overlapping and intertwined. There’s more satisfaction found in well-crafted, individual accomplishments than in a tangled mess of mediocre stuff crossed that we checked off a checklist.

I admit that on occasion multitasking might boost productivity, but at what cost to enjoyability? Personally, my priority is to slow down and appreciate my experiences, not to relentlessly churn out product. Sure, we all have to get things done. But we can take pleasure even in the most menial or tedious tasks if we attend to them fully. Full attention—even to job duties or housework—allows us to enter a state of mindfulness and appreciation of each and every moment.

Take just ten minutes to experiment with your attention. Right now or as soon as you can, turn off any background noise and work on a single task. If a distraction intervenes (such as a phone call or a crying child), simply direct your attention fully to that undertaking instead. Alternatively, take a break from action and passively listen to a song or watch a TV show with your full attention. The point is to try a one-thing-at-a-time approach. See if you experience any difference in quality or enjoyment. And please comment here to let me know what happens when you pay attention.

In the next Life Is Now post: Pay Attention, part 2 (a.k.a. Observation vs. Imagination).

For more information about the Gestalt Center of Gainesville, visit their website. For more Gestalt resources, try the Gestalt Therapy Network website.

1.25.2009

Showing Up for Life

[Note: In this series of blog posts, I examine the four basic "rules" that guide my practice of mindfulness and authenticity: show up, pay attention, speak your truth, and let go of the outcome. Thanks to the Gestalt Center of Gainesville for inspiring this blog series.]

A bell tinkled as I crossed the threshold into the old house. Several people already sat on soft couches, recliners, and the carpeted floor. We had gathered for a weekend workshop about Gestalt therapy, an approach that I hoped to use as a budding family therapist. On that first day, our hosts set some basic ground rules to help us make the most of the experience. When I heard these simple “rules,” I sensed that they held wisdom that would continue to enrich my life beyond the confines of the weekend workshop.

Several years later, I find that the four basic rules of that workshop continue to guide me as I practice mindfulness and authenticity. The rules are:

1. Show Up
2. Pay Attention
3. Speak Your Truth
4. Let Go of the Outcome

In my first several blog posts, I’ll talk about each of these guidelines and how they can enhance daily life. Today, let's look at “Showing Up.”

When I talk about “showing up” for life, this refers to more than getting out of bed, splashing water on my face, and crossing items off of my to-do list. And when I talk about “showing up” for relationships, I mean something more than those times I plop my rear end in a chair, make eye contact, and nod as someone speaks to me (I cringe to admit how many times I’ve done this without truly listening). So what does it mean to “show up?” Showing up is bringing all your sincerity and energy to the present moment. It requires being authentic and living in this moment, and now this one.

I don’t know about you, but my presence tends to wander. During conversations, I mentally rehash what I just said and what I’ll say next. I worry, try to predict and evade all possible risks, and monitor every detail of my self-presentation in the hopes that others will like me. So rather than hear someone’s name when we’re introduced or respond in a heartfelt way to their story, I focus inward and lose an opportunity to appreciate and contribute to the moment.

As the workshop group talked about “showing up” and its elemental presence, openness, and sincerity, I felt a little sick to my stomach. I began to consider how I rarely showed up for anything or anyone. I started down the staircase of guilt, recalling instances when I had decidedly not shown up with my husband, my sister, my clients… even my pets. I realized that, more often than not, I didn't show up even for simple things like enjoying a meal or connecting with my dog when she came to greet me at the door.

As someone trained in counseling, I like to think that I listen when people speak and take time to appreciate life as it unfolds. And sometimes I do! But much of the time, I analyze, evaluate, criticize, and judge. I often attempt to act witty and charming at the expense of authenticity. Yuck! I don’t want to be so busy criticizing or trying to make a certain impression that I don’t experience what’s right in front of me.

I started to envision what showing up would entail. I wondered, what “me” would people encounter if I truly showed up? Would I even know what to do or say without my facades? The whole thing sounded dangerous. And hard. But now that I had started to understand what it means to show up, I couldn’t deny its value. I mean, I would want my loved ones to show up for me. Who wouldn’t? But the only way to invite that is to risk doing it first.

I gave it a try, expecting it would take several tries to relinquish that protective wall I held up between me and the world. So I decided to start small and let go of some of that distancing persona. I tried to simply relax into the moment and see what emerged. It felt weird, but instead of feeling like work it was more of a relief. I felt lighter, free of all the effort and stress involved in trying to be a certain way. Sure, I encountered some surprising or awkward moments with friends and family as we adjusted to this more authentic me. We just weren’t accustomed to it, so it felt new and strange.

But after some initial adjustments, something amazing occurred: they started to show up, too. Something about showing up opens a channel of trust and honesty between the people present. Because suddenly there is something “real” about the interaction, people naturally become more aware of what they say and how they habitually relate to others. This new awareness of self and others allows for new ways of relating to occur.

Showing up is really just about being yourself. That sounds so simple, but it can take practice. I still catch myself falling into old habits of trying to charm someone or worrying about being liked. But I gently remind myself that all I need to do is show up. The rest takes care of itself. For me, showing up involves letting go of control. And it has opened me up to some wonderful new ways to be in the world. Instead of obsessing about how I come across, I release my need to appear perfect and just... show up.

Consider the ways you could “show up” more in your life and relationships. See what showing up means for you and how it might transform some old habits that keep you at a distance from the present moment and people in your life. Please share your comments to let me know how your experiment with showing up goes.

Next time in Life Is Now: Pay Attention, part 1

For more information about the Gestalt Center of Gainesville, visit their website. For more Gestalt resources, try the Gestalt Therapy Network website.

Welcome to the "Life Is Now" Blog!

Welcome to Life Is Now, my new blog about self-awareness and self-care. Your presence here indicates that you are curious about ways to enhance your life. Whether you are new to self-exploration or an advanced student of introspective learning, I hope this blog inspires you consider new options and explore fresh ways to take care of yourself.

In this column, I will offer ideas, suggestions, and resources that you can use to cultivate peace, gratitude, authenticity, and a sense of balance. Sometimes I’ll share a personal experience or favorite resource. Other times I’ll offer advice on wellness strategies. The overarching emphasis will be on the process of growth and making the most of the present moment. Because right now is all we have, the only space in which we can learn, grow, and flourish. I invite you to join me on the lifelong journey toward self-actualization.

Welcome to Life Is Now. Welcome to life!