On the Exquisitely Simple and Difficult Task of Paying Attention

As a yoga teacher I frequently give lip service to being present. When all else fails using the simple act of focusing on your breath to bring your mind back to the same moment and space as your body.

And while I remind myself of this often, like everyone I spend most of my day, and most of my life elsewhere: fretful with worries both big and small or dwelling in a pleasant memory or hopeful possible future.

The problem is that most of life seems so excruciating dull: commuting the same route hour after hour, day after day to the same job to do the same thing with the same people, shopping at the same store for the same groceries to make the same meals. It seems completely forgivable that we distract our minds with apps and texts and 35 tabs open on our browsers.  That we let each tiny shiny new thing that tugs at us for our attention have part of us for part of our time.

But divided out like that, we are left as partially everywhere and fully nowhere.

I know that I’m far from the first person to realize this. When I railed against smartphones effect on social interaction over a year, I lamented how the devices can turn you into a less empathic person who inadvertently makes whoever you with feel like they aren’t important to you.

This notion is perfectly illustrated in this short film. (The fact that it has nearly 26 million views means that despite the fact that everyone seems to have a i-something we may be fatigued with its overwhelming presence in our lives)

Some have argued that social media has made it so that we spend our time over-documenting our lives instead of living them. And while Instagraming meals and live tweeting concerts does remove you from simply experiencing the thing you are chronicling, I don’t think the impulse to document and remember is wrong, perhaps just the means and timing.

The process of really paying attention to life, the process of fully living even, begins with noticing that same kind of minutiae. Because that’s what life really is — the bulk of it — those tedious meetings and uncomfortable commute, the exquisite boredom of waiting for a light to change.

You can remove yourself from it with distraction or you can notice it — really notice it. Someday before I know it won’t be Tuesday, or Fall, or 2013. Someday before I know it all of the mundane details of my daily life will be different.

and see.

I think that documenting can be part of being aware of life, just perhaps in a different way than reflexively taking out your phone. I’ve been keeping a two sentence journal for several years now (where I record the events of the day every evening in a brief format), but inspired after reading David Sedaris’ latest book where he recounts how he keeps very detailed accounts of his life, I’ve started to take brief notes on things I observe each day.

The simple act of writing it down: “fuzzy purple cattails in slanted mid afternoon sun,” “beautiful dedication written in new book,” makes not only the tiny forgettable details of normal days seem more poetic, but it gives my silly little life more meaning — if a moment has no value, it’s wasted, it spent for nothing. Add up a million wasted unnoticed minutes and you have a wasted unnoticed life.

Of course all of this talk of paying attention to life and the easy distraction of smartphones couldn’t conclude without mention of the Louis CK rant that’s been getting so much attention. In it he articulates what I’ve been unable to when I walk down the street and everyone is bent over thumbing tiny screens oblivious to their surroundings, or every conversation the gets paused and punctuated with reflexive phone checking.

Of course ownership of a smartphone doesn’t make you a better or worse person, it doesn’t automatically make you less mindful or empathic. The act of checking out of life because it’s boring or painful is an easy reflex regardless of technology that makes it easier. But feeling bored, and sad, and angry, and guilty and sitting with it is what makes you human and makes you realize and savor the happy moments.

I remember before I got married everyone said how fast the day zooms by and how it’s hard to remember much about it. Because of that I made an effort to pause several times (even during the moments when getting ready when nothing much was happening) and say to myself “This is it. You are happy. Hold on. Remember this.”

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2 responses

  1. Really interesting post. I love the photos and the videos. I have a smart phone but have a call and text option only – no internet. That way I am only connected when it is absolutely necessary (i.e. when I go to my computer for specific internet-based tasks twice a day). And even though I travel over two hours a day, I simply enjoy looking out the window, doing affirmations, thinking….

  2. […] things are going to happen this year, and I don’t want to miss them. I plan to pay attention to the minutes and hours of my […]

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