The Power of Paying Attention
Several days ago, I was having lunch at a Wegman’s when suddenly a woman came rushing by the table where I was sitting and went through a door with a large bright red sign that read “Emergency Exit Only. Alarm Will Sound If Opened”. The woman stopped briefly after walking through the door and appeared embarrassed though she clearly was in a rush and continued on her way. The alarm sounded loudly for several minutes before staff came to turn it off. The staff member looked over at me, her eyes wondering if I had been the one to open the door, as I was sitting closest to it. I informed her I had not. We then proceeded to have a conversation about the frequency with which this happens at this particular store. She told me this was an almost daily occurrence.
Being a mindfulness and meditation practitioner, I could not help but reflect on this experience as a symptom of a larger epidemic in the modern world, one that we all fall victim to. I felt a lot of compassion towards the woman who walked through the fire exit door, as I know what it is like to not be paying attention and to feel the consequences of it – in her case, it was the feeling of embarrassment. I reflected on the many ways that we humans do not pay attention to the present moment and are most of the time trying to get somewhere else. Whether that is a physical “somewhere else” or a psychological/emotional “somewhere else”. There are the “walking through a fire exit” experiences that do not carry too many heavy consequences. You can simply walk away with a vague sense of “oops”. Though, we also tend to not pay attention to more important things, such as our relationships and our own emotional states. Both of which carry the heavy consequences of disconnection from others and disconnection from ourselves.
For humans, feeling as if you belong is as important as, if not more important than, drinking enough water or having shelter, eating a nutritious diet or sleeping through the night. Extensive research has been done throughout the past century that further validates this truth (see further reading list), though despite this awareness we are living in a time where feelings of disconnection and isolation are at an all-time high and where fear of each other seems to be the norm.
Enter mindfulness. Mindfulness is a Buddhist concept that can live alongside formal meditation practice, though formal meditation practice is not necessary to practice mindfulness. At its core, the concept of mindfulness is simply the act of paying attention to the present moment. Taking it a step further, mindfulness also includes an intention to allow the present moment to be exactly as it is without judgment (i.e. this is “bad” or “good”) or wanting it to be something else. With this practice, space can then open up to acknowledge and compassionately tend to the fear, guilt or shame within ourselves that keeps us separate, knowing that we all feel fear, we all fear guilt and shame and we all need to know that we fundamentally are okay and that we belong.
There are a lot of misunderstandings out there about this practice, namely that mindfulness and meditation can lead to “laziness” or a lack of activity or complacency. In actuality, one of the purposes of mindfulness is to cultivate the ability to act from compassion; from the truest and most loving version of ourselves and not out of primal emotional reactivity which is often telling us we need to fight, flee or freeze in response to our circumstances and/or our own emotional states, keeping us in perpetual anxiety and a chronic sense of “not being enough”. It is my belief that the more we can open our hearts to our own pain through mindfulness, the more we will open ourselves to the pain of others and to the pain of our earth which naturally will incline us towards healing and compassionate action.
It is not easy to open to our pain, as most of us have been taught that it is best to ignore it so as to continue to live the lives that we have been told (or that we tell ourselves) we “should” be living. We are out of practice in being in present awareness. And it should be said that it is not always wise to open to our pain, particularly if we have a history of trauma where grounding and resourcing are far more effective. Though, in those moments throughout the day when we feel angry or fearful, if we can turn to them and offer nurturing, understanding and compassion, the way a loving parent would to a child, we will be less likely to walk through that fire exit door and more likely to recognize the big red signs pointing us back to ourselves and to each other.
Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha's brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Maté, G. (2003). When the body says no: The cost of hidden stress. Toronto: A.A. Knopf Canada.