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.


birdsong said...

I love this post, it's the first of yours I've read and I look forward to reading the rest and upcoming posts. I felt "busted" as I had the TV on when I began reading (I turned it off!). You've reminded me of the mindfulness I long to bring into my life, but repeatedly do not, so thanks!

Erin Kelley-Soderholm said...

Thank you for your feedback, birdsong! You gave me a good laugh with the "busted" comment... I'm glad the post topic got your attention and that you siezed the opportunity to turn off your TV and pay attention! You say that you long to bring mindfulness into your life, but clearly you're already practicing it. Remember to give yourself credit for that!

chikelley said...

I was also "busted" because I also had to turn off the TV.
I look forward to more of your blogs.


Madeleine said...

I just turned the t.v. off, too, while reading this post! Ok, we're all learning...and nowI'm going to make dinner, and just do that, nothing else. thanks for the aid in focusing my ATTENTION.