I just returned from a wonderful Mindfulness and Psychology conference in La Jolla, CA, where I gave several presentations. In one of my presentations, I talked about the relationship between Gratitude, Attention and Criticism. A lot of research supports the idea that intimate relationships thrive when they are characterized by positive interactions rather than negative ones, such as criticism.
Both gratitude and criticism rest on a foundation of attention. For us to express appreciation to our partner, we must first notice that she did something to support or help us. If I notice that my wife made the bed this morning, then I can let her know that I appreciate it. But if I don’t notice, then I have no basis for thanking her.
Now why wouldn’t I notice it? Well . . . my attention may be occupied elsewhere. I may be noticing something she did to cause me difficulty or inconvenience. Perhaps there was no coffee left when I went to brew a fresh pot of coffee this morning. If my attention is on the fact that she didn’t get a bag of ground coffee when she was at the store yesterday, then I may not notice that she made the bed, or that she dusted the piano. Once I notice that there’s no coffee I may end up making a critical comment: “How come there’s no coffee? Didn’t you go shopping yesterday? How come you didn’t buy coffee?” This type of comment isn’t likely to cause a divorce. But what can happen, if you’re not careful, is that your conversation becomes dominated by such comments and that expressions of gratitude are limited. It’s not that there’s no basis for expressing thanks – there’s plenty of things your spouse does every day that benefit you. It’s just that you’re noticing, and commenting on, the ways she’s causing you trouble or inconvenience.
We would generally think of “ingratitude” as being the opposite of “gratitude.” But when we realize that both criticism and gratitude are grounded in a foundation of attention, we see that criticism is actually the opposite of gratitude.
This isn’t just about intimate relationships. It’s about our entire approach to life. Where is your attention? Do you go throughout the day noticing, and commenting on, problems? If this is the normal path of your attention, then you’re missing all the ways in which the world is supporting or caring for you. Unfortunately, your mind has several things going against it. First, the more familiar you are with something, the less likely you are to notice it. If your car starts right up every morning when you drive the kids to school, you are less likely to notice and have a sense of appreciation for your car starting. You just naturally expect it to do so. Second, your brain has a built in “negative bias.” I’ve discussed this in another blog post (A Cup of Negativi-tea). Essentially, your brain naturally gravitates towards noticing problems and difficulties. So if you don’t consciously work with your awareness, this is where you are likely to end up.
The whole field of neuroscience is very popular right now. We’ve learned a lot in the past ten years about how our brain works and why it does what it does. Some of these ideas are truly fascinating (i.e. neuroplasticity) but knowing this information is relatively useless unless we actually practice something in real life that helps us become more skillful with our attention. Otherwise it’s like reading a lot of books on automotive engine repair. You know a lot about how your car works, but it’s still broken because, ultimately, you have to get your hands dirty and work on the car if it’s going to run properly.
From April 11 – May 10, 2022, I’m teaching the ToDo Institute’s annual program on “Working with your Attention.” This 30 day distance learning program is where you actually practice working with your attention on a daily basis. The goal is not just to learn about how your attention works, but to become more skillful in using your attention in your life. We usually have 50-100 people from all over the world. It’s fun, fascinating and practical. One of our maxims is, “Your experience of life is not based on your life, but on what you’re paying attention to.”
Most of us spend a great deal of energy trying to change, or improve, our circumstances. But our joy and suffering are more related to how we use our attention, than to the objective circumstances of our life.