Last week I left the stove on, accidentally omitted a team member from an email, double-booked myself in the evening, and nearly ran out of gas well over 40 miles from the nearest gas station. I seem to spend my days buzzing from one open file to another on my computer, both energized and frantic in a desire to get everything done during the week to allow time for play on the weekend.
Choosing a new theme
Winter was my Season of Intention, and sticking with intention for the spring would have made sense. I considered play and creativity as well. But the whole leaving-the-stove-on episode brought my need to pay attention to the forefront. Intention referred to where I was going. Attention is being solidly where I am.
As with most words, the meaning of the “attention” has changed over time
The word attention shows up beginning in the late fourteenth century and at that time meant “a giving heed, active direction of the mind upon some object or topic,” from the Old French and from Latin before that. It literally means “to stretch toward.”
Its meaning later evolved to “observant care” (around 1740) and then to the “power of mental concentration” (around 1870). Observant care (of others) thus transforms into an internally-focused power of mental behavior. Attention is observant care when I write an email so that I don’t accidentally exclude someone. Observant care allows deep listening when I’m with my clients, friends, daughters, husband, visiting family members, and when meditating. Harnessing the power of mental concentration when working so that one thing is done before another is opened. Active attention to the stove, still on, and the nearly empty gas tank but transformative intention when we slow down in service of others.
Paying attention is the most basic and profound expression of love.Tara Brach
After completing our training, we physicians become “attendings.” We provide observant care to the patient. While we could not do what we do without our colleagues–nurses, pharmacists, social workers, physical therapists, and many others–only the physician responsible for the patient’s care is referred to as one who attends. My friend and colleague, Dr. Ron Epstein, author of Attending, writes, “Even in these difficult times in health care, I see more and more health professionals tending to the soil in which their focused attention, curiosity, creativity, compassion, and resilience can grow.” He continues, “…they are doing this in spite of their organizations, which they continue to find unsympathetic and unsupportive.” Attention is both essential and, in many ways, an element of being with ourselves and others that we have to seek out and protect no matter where we are.
Is attention the same as mindfulness?
Yes and a little more. Mindfulness helps strengthen your “muscle of attention.” Focusing on this breath, in this moment, is something that has helped me build a practice of being present. I meditate each morning and continue to call on this practice when I’m grateful, filled with awe, content, overwhelmed, anxious, sad, frantic.
In an age of speed, I began to think nothing could be more exhilarating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still.Pico Iyer
But I think that attention requires something in addition to mindfulness. In these days of hustle culture, slowing down enough to be attentive has become counterculture. Attention requires taking time, pushing other stimuli aside, and a concerted effort to protect our own attention and that of others. Rather than spreading thin the precious resource of our attention, we can be intentional about how we spend our attention. Whether providing observant care or honing our powers of concentration, attention is worth the effort and is worthy of having its own season.
How about you?
Would you benefit from taking some time to pay attention, to providing yourself and others observant care? What situations sap your attention? When are you most distracted? How can you intentionally protect your attention? What would it make possible if you were to devote attention to the people and things most important to you?