“Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.” (Jose Ortega y Gasset)
Remember how annoying it was as a child or adolescent to hear teachers repeatedly admonish their students to “Pay attention”? Sometimes it was code for “this will be on the test.” Other times, it was said over and over because the teacher had lost the students’ interest and instructing them to “pay attention” was probably easier than exploring new ways of making geometry or 18th century European history exciting. The best teachers rarely said “pay attention”—they didn’t need to.
All these years later, I keep a little slip of paper bearing the words “Pay Attention” taped next to my desk. I think it’s one of the secrets of a good life.
I’ve also come to see that it’s one of the requirements of a consistently kind life. If we are unaware of what’s going on around us, it’s so easy to miss opportunities to be kind. It might be something simple like holding a door for a stranger, making eye-contact and smiling, or offering to help someone who is struggling with heavy packages. Or it may not be so simple—it might be recognizing despair on a friend’s face and taking time to listen to their story, or thinking about just the right words to say to help a child deal with disappointment or rejection. If we’re oblivious, we miss all these opportunities to make a difference.
Opportunities to extend kindness are all around us, but they’re also easy to miss if we aren’t paying attention. And these days we’re all so distracted by technology that we lose awareness of what is going on around us.
Meetings are a major component of my profession: educational seminars, conferences, board meetings, committee meetings, breakfast/lunch/dinner meetings. It’s how we learn, how we network, how we get the business of our non-profit organizations done.
It used to be that during breaks at meetings and conferences, people would help themselves to a cup of coffee and chat with others attending the meeting. Now, people still grab the coffee, but then they stand in solitude at a distance of about four feet from one another and they stare intently into their devices. They check email, they text, they surf the net. What they do very little of is connect with other people in the room. I’ve had people admit to me that sometimes they pretend to check emails because it’s what everyone else is doing and they feel self-conscious just standing there with no one to talk to. If I’m going to be completely honest, I’ll admit that I’ve done it myself.
That person-to-person networking of days gone by was often as valuable as the formal education of the meetings. It’s where practical, informal learning took place, not to mention cultivating business connections and making friends. Have we all really become so important and indispensable that we can’t disconnect for two or three hours? And if it’s true that we are expected to be constantly connected, is that a good thing? I don’t consider myself a Luddite—though some may call me one after reading this—but I do think we’ve become too connected to our electronic devices—to the detriment of connection with our fellow humans.
I think we’ve lost sight of our own capacity to set boundaries. We’ve let the devices rule us, when it should be the other way around.
At the park near our house I see parents absorbed in their smartphones, oblivious to their children’s exuberant cartwheels or triumphant heights on the swings. I wonder whose loss is greater here….
I see couples in restaurants, apparently on a date, but both of them repeatedly checking their phones and responding to texts or emails. I see people walking along busy streets and sidewalks, oblivious to everything but the phone in their hands. At the symphony, I saw the glow of many hand-held devices—their operators oblivious to the magnificence of a Sibelius concerto. What are we missing when we choose not to be fully present to our lives?
When I lead groups in strategic planning I remind them that everything they say “yes” to means there is something else they must say “no” to—so they need to think hard about what is most important to them. It’s the same for us as individuals: what are we saying “no” to as we say “yes” to perpetual connectivity?
Mindfulness Fosters Compassion
There is research from Jon Kabat-Zinn and others that mindfulness cultivates compassion and altruism. Experiments have shown that mindfulness training makes people more likely to recognize and help others—even strangers—in need. It doesn’t seem like rocket science: if we’re present for our lives—paying attention—we’re going to recognize when our gifts are needed: a smile, a word of kindness, a proffered hand.
I suspect it works for self-kindness, too. If we are aware and awake to our lives, we are more likely to recognize that we are tired and we need to rest, or we are stressed and need to pause. As we cultivate awareness of our own lives, we will be better able to recognize and respond to the needs of others. We can’t live a life of kindness toward others if we are not kind to ourselves.
And it all begins with the simple act of choosing to be present, and choosing again and again what we will pay attention to.
“Every day, we are given countless opportunities to offer our gifts to those at work, in our families, our relationships…. If you give less than what you are, you dishonor the gift of your own precious life.” (Wayne Muller)