Kathleen! Pay attention! These words, from my mother, from my teachers, dragging me back from my daydreams, still echo in my ears.
But what is attention? We think of it as focus, something we can do with a little effort. Just snap back to reality.
But I think it can be something more. Evidently, we can tell when someone is looking at us, even if our back is turned. It is as if we emit something – an energy, a force – when we “put our mind to it.” I had a client once who was sure she could make a certain man telephone her if she thought hard enough about it.
An interesting example of the power of attention, of being in the moment, was given by the great tennis star, Billie Jean King. After winning an important tennis tournament, she was asked how she prepared for the afternoon match. Did she watch videos of her opponent, analyzing the weaknesses? No.
She stayed present in the simple things she did during the morning, and was able to keep that calm attention going as she played tennis in the afternoon. She wasn’t blaming herself for past mistakes or stressing about what her opponent might do next. She stayed present.
Attention is something we need to make us thrive, like air and water for plants. Babies that are deprived of it don’t grow properly. Children are believed to ‘act up’ if they don’t get enough of it. And grown-ups need it, too.
In the famous drama Death of a Salesman, the wife says of her distraught husband, “So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”
Understandably, attention may seem in short supply in our busy lives. How can we be expected to listen deeply to our children or our partners given all the other things we have to do? Shouldn’t they just understand that we love them and let us get on with the dishes or a work deadline we must meet?
I am fortunate that my job as a therapist requires me to sit quietly and pay attention. My phone is off. I can’t use the time to organize my grocery shopping. I can’t be planning what I am going to say next when my client finally stops talking. If I’m doing my job well, I am staying present and listening, as well as talking.
Although I hope this benefits my clients, this is a wonderful opportunity for me. I find it easy then to be genuinely interested in my client and what he or she is saying. Images come to me that I would otherwise never experience that help me to understand the person at a level other than just the words that are spoken. This kind of attention deepens my presence both to myself and to the other person, and it is something so fundamentally human that no artificial intelligence will ever replicate it.
When the pandemic started and I needed to do all my work online, I worried that this quality of attention required being in person, and that it would be lost online. I was pleased to find that it wasn’t. Some years ago, a Japanese researcher found that we can alter the structure of water by thoughts, even at a distance. Maybe that client really could get her boyfriend to call her!
Even if we are not trained therapists, we can still improve the quality of our attention. Just by making that inner decision to ‘be there’, to connect with the power of our attention, is an important start. Knowing that paying attention really does have an effect helps us to put our ego aside, and consider the other. I find that life in general has more sparkle, is more interesting and even more meaningful when I am attentive.
The 19th century English Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, was a master at paying attention. His great rival was William Gladstone. When an important society woman was asked to compare them, she is reported to have said, “When I sit next to Mr. Gladstone at dinner, I am convinced he is the most brilliant man in all England. But when I sit next to Mr. Disraeli, I am convinced that I am the most charming woman in all England.” Attention wins again!
Attention has a mysterious power. Giving it benefits both to myself and the other. It affects all relationships. It is always at hand, yet easily overlooked.
How well do you pay attention to the people who surround you? Has anyone noted their appreciation for your attention? Do you think paying attention to people is important?