The Vanishing Art of Paying Attention

“Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.” (Jose Ortega y Gasset)

Attribution: Donna CameronWhat do you pay attention to? I know a woman—an artist—who notices color and texture and light everywhere she goes. And she thinks about capturing it on canvas, or fabric, or even just memory. Another person—a devoted animal lover—has her radar out for dogs: big ones, little ones, quiet ones, yappy ones, puppies . . .  she adores them all and it makes her quite a canine magnet. And then there’s my acquaintance who is always on the lookout for slights, for people who disagree with him, for comments he can interpret as disrespectful or confrontational. With his detector tuned to these encounters, he tends to find offense everywhere. He lives in a perpetual state of raised hackles.

There’s even a world leader who purportedly only pays attention when the news or information he’s viewing is sprinkled generously with his own name.

A couple of posts ago, I wrote about fear as one of the biggest barriers to kindness—both to our extending kindness and our receiving it. In the comments, Janis, of the delightful Retirementally Challenged blog, observed that for her the biggest obstacle to kindness is “not being in the moment,” and thus unaware that kindness may be needed. She notes that opportunities are lost if we fail so see what’s happening around us.

Janis is right. Our own obliviousness is one of the biggest barriers to kindness. If we’re absorbed in our own private world, or our technology, we simply don’t notice that the person right in front of us needs help, or that a child may need comforting, or that a kind word could lift someone’s day. We fail to see when one person goes out of their way to help another. On the receiving end, our obliviousness prevents us from noticing a stranger’s smile, acknowledging someone who held a door for us, or even recognizing our own need for self-compassion.

Since I started thinking about, writing about, and trying to live a life of kindness, I am ever so much more aware of it—of opportunities for me to extend kindness, of kindnesses extended my way, and of kindnesses—big and small—all around me. I still miss a lot, though. I tend to spend a lot of time in my own head, and, as my husband kindly points out, I can be oblivious not just to kindness, but also to clutter, dust, thirsty houseplants, and sometimes speed limits. Paying attention requires practice.

Technology is one of the things that gets in the way of our being attentive to our surroundings and the people around us. According to a 2016 study, most of us spend about two-and-a-half hours on our smartphones daily. Heavy users—the top ten percent of phone users—spend closer to four hours, or one-quarter of their waking time, on their phones. These heavy smartphone users click, tap, or swipe their phones an average of 5,427 times a day, while the rest of us clock in at a mere 2,617 times daily. It would be interesting to find a study that further breaks down phone time into work and non-work usage. Since my own average is probably about five touches a day, and perhaps five minutes—if that—I am clearly not holding up my end of this devil’s bargain.

I recognize that to decry technology is to declare myself a Luddite or at least a very old fogey. I don’t believe I’m either. But I am mindful of something that I tell strategic planning clients with some frequency: Everything we say “yes” to means we must say “no” to something else, so we need to think long and hard about what is most important to us and whether that’s where we’re putting our time, attention, resources, and energy. What are we saying no to as we say yes to a five-inch screen and perpetual connectivity?

There are good reasons to stay connected to our devices, but it’s worth asking occasionally if we are making a conscious choice or simply succumbing to addiction.

What we choose to pay attention to creates the world we live in. If our radar is focused on dogs, we will live in a world of laughing golden labs, cuddly collies, and frolicking puppies. If we look for slights and reasons to be angry, our world will be rife with insult and offense. If we pay attention to gratitude, we will find ourselves surrounded by things to be grateful for. And, if our attention is on kindness, there will be no end to our opportunities to experience or extend kindness.

I believe there are several “secrets” to living a good life. High on that list is the simple—though not necessarily easy—habit of paying attention. It all begins with choosing to be present and choosing what we will pay attention to.

“We become what we love.  Whatever you are giving your time and attention to, day after day, is the kind of person you will eventually become.” (Wayne Muller)

What If I Don’t Feel Like Being Kind?

“You may be sorry that you spoke, sorry you stayed or went, sorry you won or lost, sorry so much was spent. But as you go through life, you’ll find you’re never sorry you were kind.” (Herbert Prochnow) 

Attribution: Donna CameronKindness isn’t always tidy and straightforward. It certainly isn’t always easy. Sometimes it’s awkward, bumbling, or misunderstood. Sometimes all we can do is guess, and hope that our kindness will have the result we intended. We can put it out there—how it is received or perceived is out of our control. 

True kindness might also sometimes be false kindness in the sense that to be truly kind means extending kindness even when we don’t feel it, and, in fact, when what we really want to do is say the snarkiest thing imaginable. Or when we just want to let the moment pass and pretend we didn’t see the opportunity to be kind. This is when choosing kindness really means something.

Just as it’s easy to be happy when the sun is shining and everything’s going our way, it’s easy to be kind when our kindness takes little effort … or when we know it will be appreciated … or when the recipient of our kindness is someone we know and like.

The key to true kindness—like the key to true happiness—is managing to maintain our attitude or keep our resolve when all hell is breaking loose. When the cat throws-up all over a favorite sweater, the car is making a strange and worrisome noise, you’ve been on and off hold with customer support for over an hour, and a neighbor yells at you because all the leaves from your big tree blew into his yard.

When it’s simply a crappy day, is just holding it together the best we can do, or can we move beyond our instant, emotional, and sometime automatic response and consciously choose the hard response, the one that we want to define us: the kind response?

Michael Broome put it well: “Character is when we have the discipline to follow through with the goal after the mood in which the goal was set passes.”

I had a realization about halfway through this year of living kindly that my most important job—even more important than the one that has sustained me for more than 30 years—is to be kind. That’s why I’m here, on the planet. With that awareness, I see that the biggest kindness challenge is to be kind when I may not feel it.

Kindness may be simple, but it sure ain’t easy.

Learning to Pause Is Essential to Kindness

I recently read that when we feel threatened or angry we drop into our “reptilian” brain, which is where our survival responses are. These include attack, aggression, revenge, fear, and territorial behavior, among other responses. Once in that primitive, reptilian state, it takes about 20 minutes to shift back to our thinking and coping frontal lobes. And being kind from that reptilian state may not be possible.

My friend Ann Macfarlane of Jurassic Parliament—who expertly and enjoyably teaches people how to have successful meetings—describes this state as “amygdala hijack,” when our brains respond to perceived threat with anger and rage.

Whether our higher brain is hijacked or taken over by reptilian instincts, we do have the ability to choose. We don’t have to react instinctively or act on the first snarky impulse. If we can just learn to pause, we can choose who we are going to be in the next moment, and then the one after that. And we can always choose kindness.

Also Essential: Maintaining Awareness

If we pay attention, we can probably avoid amygdala hijack or attack of the phantom reptile. And then we can choose kindness, and the wonderful thing is that the experience of our own kindness will usually lift us out of our funk or fury.

Another element of awareness is understanding why we want to be kind, and how we want to respond to unkindness. Am I being kind to this person who was appallingly rude to me because I want to show them that I am better and more highly evolved? … that they are wrong? … that I will not stoop to their level? Or am I being kind to this person because I want to be kind no matter what and because my kindness serves life—which is perfect in its imperfection? More and more, when kindness is hard and I choose it anyway, it’s for the latter reason. Life is sacred and no matter where I am, or however small I am, I can serve it.

Another form of unkindness that we can avoid by paying attention is indulging in the practice of gossip. It can be tempting to dish the dirt—we’ve all done it—talk about the absent colleague, the weird neighbor, the flakey relative. But it never feels good later—in fact, to use a technical term, it feels icky. Instead, the kind response is to interrupt the spiraling cycle of gossip by saying: “Let’s not talk about Genevieve behind her back,” or “She handled that unhappy customer so well last week—I was really impressed by her professionalism, weren’t you?” Or, at the very least, we can say, “I’m not comfortable with this conversation,” and leave the room.

Sometimes we find ourselves in the middle of these sorts of conversations without realizing how we got here. That’s where paying attention comes in. As soon as we start to get that uncomfortable feeling—for some of us it’s in our stomachs, for others in our shoulders or neck, or elsewhere—we need to think about what’s not right here: Is this a conversation that diminishes rather than builds? Am I overlooking an opportunity to be kind? Am I stuffing my real feelings to be part of the group?

As I’m approaching the end of this year of living kindly, I have a growing awareness that my ongoing task is to keep learning how to be kind when kindness isn’t easy: when I don’t feel like it, or when I’m responding to rudeness or unkindness.

On this never-ending path, the true challenge is to appreciate the moments when kindness is hard or the object of our kindness pushes every one of our buttons—for these are the times when we can fully own our commitment to kindness, when we can say, “Choosing kindness wasn’t easy … but I chose it anyway.”

“Kindness is an inner desire that makes us want to do good things even if we do not get anything in return. It is the joy of our life to do them. When we do good things from this inner desire, there is kindness in everything we think, say, want and do.” (Emanuel Swedenborg)

9 Barriers to Kindness

“I expect to pass through life but once. If, therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again.” (William Penn)

kindness highlightedWhen things get out of hand, we all have different ways of regaining control of our lives. When I am feeling overwhelmed, I organize.

I need to make a distinction between organizing and cleaning: I don’t clean, my husband will be the first to tell you that, so to prevent him from posting an unflattering—but entirely true—description of just what a slob I am, I will repeat: I do not clean, I rarely straighten, I tend to be entirely oblivious to clutter. I’m not proud of that fact, but sadly, it’s absolutely true.

However, when I am besieged by deadlines and overcome by the sheer volume of tasks and responsibilities facing me, I get busy organizing. Once I have organized my life, I feel like I am back in control and able to tackle all of my obligations steadily and timely—and even enjoy doing them.

My first step in organizing is to make a list, or, more accurately, multiple lists. I make lists of everything I need to do and then sub-lists of the various steps to doing them. I make lists of things I need to remember. I make chronological lists, shopping lists, task lists … and when things get truly overwhelming, I make a list of lists I need to make. That is the point I have reached this week.

It was in this list-making frenzy that I realized I haven’t made many lists related to kindness. Maybe I hadn’t yet reached the stress-level needed for that. Fortunately, the universe has conspired to remedy that, and kindness has joined the ranks of lists that I employ to organize and bring order to my life.

The first list I sat down to write enumerates the barriers to kindness—the things that get in the way of our being kind or compassionate. I’ve identified nine factors that might keep us from being our best self. They are in no particular order, but the first is probably the biggest:

Fear – I could write an entire post just about fear (oh, in fact I did), but to condense it here, there’s a smorgasbord of fears to choose from:

  • Fear of Rejection – the gift of our kindness might be misunderstood or spurned. Ouch!
  • Fear of Embarrassment – what if I extend kindness clumsily and look foolish? Ouch, again!
  • Fear of Judgment – people will say I’m weak or maybe gullible. More ouch.

Better to do nothing than to risk the vulnerability…or is it? Part of the solution to dealing with fear is to focus not on the bad things that might happen but on the good outcomes you are seeking to bring forth. That’s a sure way to banish fear.

Laziness and Inertia – While there are certainly kind actions we can take that don’t require a lot of energy (a smile, a compliment, a door held open), many kindnesses do require that we extend ourselves. They require that we get off our butts, go out of our way, and sometimes even leave our comfort zones. Usually it’s just a matter of taking the first step and then our intentions take over and kindness ensues. But the hurdle is that first step and overcoming the inertia to take it.

Indifference – The antithesis of kindness, indifference is a barrier to living a kind life. One cannot be kind if caring is absent; one cannot be kind if one is willing to shrug and say, “It’s not my problem.” Indifference may be how we protect ourselves from strong feelings, from the caring that moves us to action. It may be comfortable to wallow in indifference, but kindness requires that we stop being a spectator and jump into life.

Entitlement – Sadly, there are many people who see kindness—if they see it at all—as something that can be selective. It’s not as essential to show kindness to the clerk, the cashier, or the homeless person as it is to the VIP who can help one get ahead or feel powerful. There’s an adage that says “a person who is kind to you but rude to the waiter is not a kind person.” It’s so true; selective kindness isn’t kindness, it’s opportunism. Kindness is something we extend to everyone at every opportunity.

Obliviousness – It’s easy to miss opportunities to be kind if we aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around us. We may not notice that there is a person behind us for whom we can hold a door, or that someone needs help carrying their groceries, or that a child is frightened or sad. Too often, we allow technology to take precedence over human connection—we are constantly absorbed in our hand-held devices, oblivious to the life around us and the myriad opportunities we have to offer the gift of our kindness. We can even be oblivious to our own need for self-care—unaware that we have depleted our energy and need to engage in some personal renewal if we want to be able to care for others. Paying attention to our lives is easier said than done, but it’s one of the essential elements of a kind life.

Habit – If we are in the habit of saying no, it’s hard to say yes—to someone who asks for assistance, for our time, or for a dollar or two to help them make it through the day. Of course, we can’t say yes to everything or everyone, but whichever answer we choose should come out of conscious conviction, rather than robotic routine.

Not enough timeIt takes time to be kind—to pause and think about what the kind response is, to offer assistance knowing that it might delay us from our tightly-packed schedule, to connect on a human level with the people we encounter throughout the day. It even takes time to be kind to ourselves—an essential quality to being able to extend kindness to others. In the face of so much hurrying, it helps me to remind myself that my number-one job is kindness; all else comes second.

ImpatienceImpatience might be a subset of feeling one doesn’t have enough time, but it’s more than that. We may have all the time in the world and still be impatient with someone who lacks skill or understanding in something. It’s just easier to roll our eyes and do it ourselves than to extend the kindness—the patience—to teach, or coach, or watch while someone fumbles or stumbles. Offering genuine patience is always a kindness.

FatigueResearch has shown that when we’re over-tired we’re not only more prone to accidents, have difficulty learning, and feel stressed, but we are also more likely to commit unethical or unkind acts. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to value sleep more than ever—and knowing that it helps make me kinder just makes my bed even warmer and cozier.

Having made a list, I already feel better. No OCD tendencies here. Have I left anything out? When you miss an opportunity to be kind, can you ascribe it to any of the above, or are there other reasons?

“Constant kindness can accomplish much. As the sun makes ice melt, kindness causes misunderstanding, mistrust, and hostility to evaporate.” (Albert Schweitzer)