the power of attention
Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves. (Albert Einstein)
As a teacher, I am well-acquainted with the terms of attention. I am first a magician who must mesmerize students with something that will keep their attention long enough to relay some information that is on my agenda. Then a salesperson who must demonstrate the value of acquiring attention as a beneficial life-long skill. And finally an educator whose aim is to share a strong, passionate belief in the amazing power of attention.
But what can I say to students about the transformative power of attention in a world where they are constantly being called to attention and then shamed for not being able to pay attention long enough only to get an earful of seemingly useless information? To them, the word attention is loaded with expectation, compromise and perhaps even boredom.
The word “attend” means “to expect, wait for, pay attention,” and directly from Latin attendere “give heed to,” literally “to stretch toward”.
With the intention of occasionally closing young mouths while not closing young minds, I begin each class with a few minutes of corporate silence as a way to ask my students, ‘in your actions and your words, to what are you attending? Stretching your mind toward? In this moment, what are you expecting?’
The practice of intentional stillness and silence is a struggle for most of them but a welcome break for others.
After the silence, I ask:
- Are you fixating on the details in the fabric?
- Measuring each moment with a hyper-vigilant awareness?
- Stretching your mind to some perceived perfect place?
- Or is your mind an aimless wanderer on a journey to nowhere?
- Or have you not even noticed where your attention has settled?
- Or quite possibly, are you not able to name the several dozen places your attention has quickly travelled before I have finished asking the question?
While there is no right answer to these questions, there is space for students to become of aware of their intuitive or learned style of attention. And the impact of it.
With the intention of reducing the weightiness of paying attention, what about replacing the word ‘attention’ with observe? Or notice? And with learning to sit with experience with less scrutiny and more openness to what is?
Teachers and parents, can we take some of the weight off the word ‘attention’, add the invitation to observe and notice instead and see if it transforms the ability of our children to be present? Let’s encourage them to genuinely and gently notice their world as opposed to mentally documenting it, passively disengaging or restless running from what is in front of them. And more importantly, can we model that for them?
You can become blind by seeing each day as a similar one. Each day is a different one, each day brings a miracle of its own. It’s just a matter of paying attention to this miracle. (Paulo Coelho)