For the past two years I’ve surveyed people about their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the skills of mindfulness and attention. Mindfulness as an idea is quite well known, but as a practice it actually involves a collection of attention-related skills. I’ve identified four skills that relate to the way we use our attention:
- Single-Pointed Attention (Focused Attention)
- Broad (Scanning Attention)
- Attention to Detail
- Presence (Present Moment Attention)
Generally, when it comes to these skills, we each have our strengths and weaknesses. In the course I teach on A Natural Approach to Mental Wellness, I’ve collected more than 100 self-assessments from participants from more than a dozen countries. Guess which of these four Attention skills is most often considered a “weakness” when people assess themselves:
It appears that for many of us, one of the biggest attentional challenges we face, from the moment we wake up, is paying attention to what’s going on in our life as it happens. Instead of being here, our minds take us elsewhere. We live in some thought or idea in our mind while real life just passes by. The Zen teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck refers to this as living a “substitute life.”
In my Mental Wellness course, there is a practice exercise each day, and I’d like to share today’s exercise since it has to do with Presence, something many of us probably need to practice.
Give Presence to People
Your goal today is to give 100% presence to the people you are with. This might be the check-out person at the supermarket, your colleague in a meeting, or your partner at the dinner table.
You’ll need to listen to the other person intently when they’re speaking to you — you can’t multitask and be 100% present. Make eye contact. When someone’s in your presence, notice them — what they’re wearing, their smile, the style of their hair. Listen closely to what they’re saying, rather than formulating your response while they’re still talking.
Be present when talking to someone on the phone, as well. If you notice your attention wandering, just bring it back to the other person.
When you’re with someone, offer them the experience of being important to you. At that moment, they’re the only person in the world who has your attention — your complete attention.
This exercise shouldn’t be that hard, but it is. A major obstacle is technology. We don’t make eye contact with the person we’re with. We attempt to point two different senses in two different directions – we listen to someone while we look at something else.
The Zen teacher, Mary Jaksch, identifies the following barriers to being present:
- Your mind is on other things and you are only pretending to listen
This is similar to what we contend with in meditation. The way to get past this barrier is by refocusing on the ‘now’. Tip: Open your awareness to ambient sounds as well.
2. You don’t want to interact, but don’t want to say so.
You need to make a decision whether you are willing to put your activity aside and really listen, or whether you are going to speak out and claim this time as your own.
3. You feel defensive.
Thoughts fueled by strong emotions create gripping mind-movies. When we feel defensive, strong thoughts and stories are created that start with “But…!” It’s as if we bat away everything we are hearing, instead of taking it in. Notice your defensiveness and put aside all the ‘but’ stories for now.
4. What you hear triggers emotions and stories in your own mind.
You’ll notice that your own stories are triggered by a desire to interrupt the other person and tell your own story. So often people break in with, “Yes, I know exactly what you mean! Here’s what happened to me …” Their own story has become so vivid that they can’t listen to what the other person is saying. When you notice this tendency in yourself, take a deep breath and refocus on what the other person is saying.
The wonderful thing about this exercise is there are at least two distinct benefits: You get to stay connected to your real life instead of the one you’ve created in your mind, and, you offer the person you’re with an experience of feeling important, even loved.
The present of presence.