Pay Attention 2 (a.k.a. Observation vs. Imagination)

[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.]

I want the person I'm with to feel validated, understood, and accepted. In order to make that happen, I need to receive communication with an open heart and mind. At times, my biases and judgments interfere with that.

Last week’s post explored how distractions diminish mindfulness and enjoyment of the moment. This entry extends the concept of attention to communication.

When I pay attention to someone, I absorb information. I gather data in the form of language, tone of voice, facial expression, and body language. Somewhere along the line, though, something goes off track and my attention to these tangible aspects of communication gets scrambled. Instead of attentive presence, my mind goes into processing mode; it automatically sums up all this raw information and spits out a total.

But the total is not “what is.” My mind overrides “what is” in favor of “what it means” so instantaneously that I barely realize it! Rather than tuning in to raw information, I leap straight to my interpretation of someone’s words, actions, and appearance.

An example: I’m talking with my neighbor, Joan. She sighs deeply. I notice the sigh and ask, “What’s wrong?” In this case, I initially paid attention and observed that Joan sighed. So far, so good. My response, however (asking her what’s wrong), was to the meaning I attached to the sigh. In reality, there may be nothing wrong with Joan (other than needing some extra oxygen). But in my mind, I already decided (imagined) that her sigh represented feelings of distress, boredom, or irritation. In a split second, I retreated into my thoughts and projections. Pretty narcissistic.

An exercise called “I observe; I imagine” helped me discover how stubborn this tendency is in me. The objective of the exercise is to understand the difference between raw observation and our subsequent interpretations. To do it, first tune into your senses to observe one thing about someone in your presence. Then, identify whatever meaning you attach to what you observed. You state your observation and its meaning in the form of, “I observe ______; I imagine ______.”

In its ideal form, the exercise will look like this: I see my husband and say, “I observe Karl make eye contact with me, drop his shoulders slightly, and smile when he enters the room; I imagine that he is happy to see me.” In reality, I cannot know what Karl is thinking or feeling. But it’s easy to assume or imagine that I know.

The tricky part is to separate out ONLY what you observe. Often, what we say we “observe” is actually our interpretation of the data— imagination, not observation. To illustrate how easy it is to make this mistake, I had to correct this error in the example I just wrote! At first, I wrote: “I observe Karl make eye contact with me, relax his shoulders, and smile.” Nothing wrong with that, right? But when I reviewed that phrase, it hit me: I can’t observe his shoulders “relaxing” without touching the muscles! The fact is that I merely saw his shoulders shift position and then imagined that they relaxed. It’s a subtle but important difference.

What are my alternatives? And what would be the point of observing Joan’s sigh or Karl’s smile without imagining its meaning? The value of making this distinction is to practice mindful presence in its purest form. It’s letting people be who and what they are instead of jumping to conclusions. In my first example, Joan’s sigh could mean anything or nothing. If I want to find out, I don’t have to imagine. I can ask Joan what it meant to her. I see that as a more respectful way to experience Joan, because it gives her power over what she communicates. It also takes pressure off me-- I am no longer responsible for trying to read her mind.

We benefit in many ways when we pay attention to people in our lives. For a start, checking the validity of our interpretations takes the guesswork out of communication. At the same time, it lets others know that we care enough to get it right. True attention also leaves our minds open to further information and surprises. Perhaps most importantly, if we learn to identify and stay with “what is,” we can learn to accept it. And acceptance is the starting point for peace and unconditional love.

If you wonder how this applies to you, try the “I observe; I imagine” exercise with a friend or group of friends. Let your friend offer feedback on how well you separate observation and imagination. I invite you to leave a comment to let me know how it goes.

Next time: The same process of attention that helps us perceive others in a more conscious way can apply to ourselves. When we turn attention inward, the body alerts us to unfinished business and personal truths. Next week’s Life Is Now blog post will examine why it’s important to listen to and liberate your inner voice to “Speak Your Truth.”


Anonymous said...

Erin? I just discovered your blog today, and your insights are really useful to me. I've read the Showing Up and Paying Attention parts, and now I just realize you must not have posted the next part. At least I should say LOL I observe that there's no link to the next part about Speaking Your Truth. I need to read on...so I hope you will post it now. Thanks!

Erin Kelley-Soderholm said...

Hi there! If you want to read on, click the links to the right for February, March, etc. I'll send you a direct link by email, too.

Thanks so much for reading Life Is Now!