Podcast 108: Passive attention

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This is Podcast 108 and it’s about passive attention. Back in podcast 83 I talked about paying attention, about mindfulness. It’s a critical skill for being more effective and getting things done. It’s related to focus, but it’s a little different.

Focus is goal-oriented and active. Mindfulness is more passive. It’s about experiencing rather than creating. Both are necessary. Focus is what keeps you working steadily on one task instead of scattering your time and energy. Mindfulness is the larger scope of where your time and energy is going in relation to everything else. Focus is about doing and mindfulness is about being.

Doing is invigorating. Even when it’s stressful, we often like the feeling of being in motion and taking action. It’s very satisfying, especially when we see the results of our action right away. In this western culture, we associate success with doing. Notdoing feels like taking time off, or being lazy.

Butnot doing is as beneficial to doing as sleep is to waking. If we didn’t sleep (or skimped on it, as so many people do these days) we wouldn’t be doing much while we’re awake. We need that down time for body rejuvenation and mental and emotional processing. We need the absence of doing while we’re asleep to get anything done.

Mindfulness provides rejuvenation and renewal while we go about our days. Simple things like noticing how the leaves are turning as you drive down the street to work in the morning, or feeling the weight of a door you open against your hand. These are small things. They’re already happening. You don’t need to create them or even look for them. Just let them come in.

It’s not just experiencing those things, but taking another moment to be consciously aware of them, letting that sight of the beautiful trees or that physical sensation of the door’s weights come into your mind and take some space there. It’s turning off the mental soundtrack briefly for another type of experience to come in.

Just as meditation does, this reflection helps ground you and give you perspective on all your activities. If you have a particularly busy day, you can punctuate it with these moments of mindfulness and slow it down a bit.

When I say slow it down, I don’t mean take time with it. The paradoxical thing about these moments is that they can be very brief and still have a great impact. A few seconds of noticing delightful trees along one block can stay with you all day, or all week. It’s a moment of grace you can come back to time and again.

The other paradoxical quality is that these fleeting moments change the quality of the time you spend doing. You may not get more time in your day, but your doing time will be focused in a deeper, more concentrated way. You’ll spend less time getting off track and bringing yourself back again; that’s a time saver right there. Since you’ve allowed yourself to step back and see the larger picture, you can allow yourself to commit fully to whatever you are doing, knowing it’s the right way to spend your time.

But, you say, how do I do this when I’m always so busy? Always running from one thing to the next? Like any habit, it can take time to develop. Make it as easy as possible. Give yourself reminders like alarms, visual aids or written notes. These are ways to provide yourself with a mini meditation before you go on to the next thing.

Try an alarm that goes off every weekday before you have lunch. Alarm is a bad word though, isn’t it? Luckily, with smart phones you can choose the type of sound you want to hear. You can have a soft chime or even a meditation bell as your alarm. When it goes off, take a breath and let the morning go and welcome your break for lunch. That’s all.

A visual aid could be an image that you find relaxing or pleasing, or a crystal or stuffed animal or other small object that makes you happy. Put it in a place where you’ll see it easily, but not constantly. If it’s at your desk, have it in a spot where you need to turn your head to see it, otherwise it’s a visual nag or, worse, it fades into the background and you stop seeing it. When you turn to look at it, you can enter into that small space of stillness for a few moments and then go on with your day.

Put a Post-It on your front door or in a spot where you’ll see it when you leave the house for the day. Find a phrase to write on it that inspires you to pause and take in the words. It could be an intention to have a peaceful day. Here are some more I found online searching for mindfulness quotations: “Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky.” And “You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.” Those are from Thict nat hahn and Pema Chodron.

Like so many things I podcast about, this is a simple thing to do, but takes a bit of effort to work it into your life regularly. A little bit goes a long way!

What you can do right now: try one of the three suggestions I gave to bring passive attention into your life; audio reminder, object reminder or visual word-based reminder. See how bringing a little ease into every day makes the day more productive and relaxed at the same time.