The Selfless, Spiritual Nature of Paying Attention

A recent New York Times newsletter chastised “You’re Not Paying Attention, but You Really Should Be.” The subtitle, “How to actually notice the world around you,” promised more than was delivered.

As a sociologist minded academic, I like to think I’m more observant than average. At the same time, close friends and I sometimes poke fun of the Good Wife for often driving right by us oblivious to our pointless honking and waving. She claims it’s because she’s focused straight ahead, but her awful vision probably contributes to the sometimes funny phenomenon as well.

But don’t sell her short. She picks up on things others, like me, often do not. Por exemplar, a few days ago she left this for me on my corner of the kitchen island.

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My dad died 24 years ago. If someone asked me what his favorite bird was, I would reply, “No idea.” But the Gal Pal, who interacted with him 1% of the time I did, knew.

The New York Times newsletter writer unsatisfactorily scrapes the surface when trying to teach others to pay attention.

Paying attention is one of the most concrete ways one person shows another they care for them. My wife knows my dad’s favorite bird because he was important to her. Her default is to care for everyone, but she cared even more than normal for him because he was important to me. She paid extra attention to him, and to my mom, knowing how important they were to me.

She cared for and loved me by paying extra close attention to them. There’s a spiritual component to truly paying attention that the New York Times writer misses. Paying especially close attention to the details of others’ lives is a selfless habit of mind most evident in spiritual people.

Another example. An Olympia friend of mine is visiting his wife’s family in the Midwest. He shared several pictures of her hometown online with explanatory captions. At the end, he wrote, “I was glad I stopped and took the time to find out out more about the town which played a big part in the lives of Mary, her parents, and her sisters and brothers.”

“I stopped and took the time” is the exact advice given by The New York Times writer. To pay closer attention he writes, unplug, slow down, look around. But the second half of my friend’s summary sentence, “. . . which played a big part in the lives of Mary, her parents, and her sisters and brothers,” speaks to the selfless, spiritual nature of truly paying attention.

My wife and friend are two peas in the same paying attention pod. They demonstrate genuine, heartfelt care for their closest family and friends by observing, hearing, and remembering what matters most to them.

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Left to right, less attentive, more attentive.

Don’t Just Follow The Money

Saturday night the Gal Pal and I (and Kris and Brian) went to a concert at Traditions Cafe in downtown Olympia. When we go out, we go all out, which means some grub beforehand. Traditions concert tickets are $15. I counted about 40 peeps tucked into the small cafe. So I started to do the math because I’m always doing the math, can’t help it. Actually, MaggieZ does math, I do arithmetic. $600 divided between three musicians minus one-third to the cafe (guessing) equals $400 divided between three or $133/per. Don’t forget to factor in a few CD sales, but still less than $200/per.

And yet, all three musicians, Larry in particular, performed like it was a stadium concert with 40,000 people. His technical prowess as a guitar player and singer was impressive, but not nearly as much as the profound joy he had for sharing his gifts. The intrinsic genesis of his art was a beautiful, downright spiritual thing to observe.

And it got me thinking about whether I’d share my teaching gifts with the same committed passion if I only had a few students. And how I like to be well compensated for my time. And how I want to be more like Larry when I grow up.

Fast forward a few days to a story our local on-line paper ran on a local citizen who is doing a mindfulness workshop for local educators. Interested in mindfulness, I snooped around her website only to find a “shopping” section with bullshit mindfulness products. And her teacher workshop costs twenty Tradition’s concert tickets. I don’t begrudge her the right to run a profitable business or her desire to build wealth as a young person. Also, people pay decent money for yoga classes, but the overt commercialism and explicit selling of mindfulness, not only makes me want to run the other way, but likely turns off others who could benefit greatly from it.

Granted, it’s easier to take my advice to be like Larry and not just follow the money all the time, when you have some money. But whether you do or don’t have money, nonstop selling becomes habitual, meaning the extrinsic overwhelms the intrinsic until one’s work contributes very little to the greater good.

I’ve referenced two PressingPausers—Kris and MaggieZ—whose loyalty to the humble blog I greatly appreciate, but I’m thinking about a third who shall remain nameless because that’s the way he’d want it. Check out this other article from our same local on-line paper, “Puget Sound Honor Flight Recognizes Veterans One Flight At A Time”. When I first saw it, I immediately skimmed it for my friend’s name, but somehow he didn’t make it into the article. The fact that no one is watching him get up at 4 a.m. to drive to Sea-Tac Airport monthly, or watching him sometimes accompany local veterans on the actual flights, or watching him attend board meetings, makes all those activities much more meaningful.

Larry didn’t need much if any money. All he needed was a small group of people to share with. Same with our esteemed, third PressingPauser. All he needs is an appreciative veteran or two to share with.

 

 

 

On Hunger

I took a total looker to the Hippy Theatre last weekend. Thinking I might get some action, we sat in the balcony, but alas, a few other people, too close for comfort, kept me from making much of a move.

We saw All the President’s Men, thinking of it as a prequel to Mueller’s probable findings.

There’s a pivotal scene early on, when two lowly Washington Post reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, begin reporting on the Watergate break in. A senior editor says Woodward and Bernstein are not nearly experienced or skilled enough for what could end up being a national story (understatement). He advises Ben Bradlee to hand off their initial reporting to some established heavyweights. “They’re hungry!” their direct editor argued. Bradlee, conflicted, bet correctly on youthful ambition.

Cyclists routinely let off the gas after cresting hills. Their pedal cadence slows as soon as they begin descending, sometimes to the point of stopping altogether. “I’ve worked hard enough,” legs say to the brain, “I deserve a break.”

Many reporters and people coast, to varying degrees, once accomplished, however they define that. Of course there are outliers, oldsters who continue to grind well past the point of most of their peers.

As evidence of the fact that I’m not nearly as hungry as my younger self, rewind the tape eighteen months. Shortly before moving, I “organized” an underwhelming garage sale. Fewer than normal people showed because of my half-ass marketing. I hollered something sarcastic at my friend across the street like, “Dig the traffic jam!” To which he astutely replied, “You’re not hungry.” Touché. The truth of the matter was, a bit of bacon wasn’t nearly as motivating as saving a few trips to Value Village, which as it turned out, wasn’t much motivation either.

I’m not nearly as Ambitious as in the past, but I’m still ambitious. I care more about personal improvement than professional accomplishment. I want to learn to listen more patiently, to be increasingly selfless, caring, and loving.

That’s a type of hunger. Isn’t it?

 

 

Why Teach?

When asked why teaching, one recent applicant to the teaching certificate program I coordinate said, “Because I have to REALLY get out of retail.” I wanted to stand up and yell, “STOP dammit! Stop! Thanks for coming and good luck making retail less stultifying.”

Most applicants are pulled, rather than pushed into the profession, but their reasons still routinely speak to ulterior motives.

• “I’m a good story teller and students’ find me engaging.”

• “I love when the light bulb goes off when a student learns something new.”

• “It will be nice to have the same schedule as my children.”

That’s understandable. I recently wrote that everyone cares about compensation, benefits, work-life balance, but I’m waiting longingly for a prospective teacher to say something like this:

“I want to become an educator because I have a hunch that teaching is a continuous exercise in selflessness and I want to learn to lose myself in service of others. I’m an impatient listener and prone to self-centeredness. I want to learn to listen to young people in ways that help them fulfill their potential. I suspect teaching will provide me the opportunity to become not just a positive influence in young people’s lives, but also a better person, friend, partner, and citizen.”

I suppose, if that more Eastern starting point leads one to ask, “Relative to others, how well are you serving others and modeling selflessness?” practicing selfless service to others could turn into a tail chasing, self-regarding exercise. “Too bad others aren’t as selfless as me.” Ego is a perpetual trap.

Despite that conundrum, I’m wondering if I should add this tagline to our Teaching Credential Program’s promotional materials, “People with Buddhist sensibilities are strongly encouraged to apply.”

 

 

L’eggo My Ego!

That pun will be lost on the youth.

Recently, while training indoors for next summer’s Tour de France, the DVR offered slim pickings, so I ended up watching an ESPN documentary about the mid-90s Orlando Magic. As the story goes, one year the Magic got to the NBA finals thanks to the play of two young superstars, Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. Then they got swept by the Houston Rockets in the Finals. The next year they got swept by the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Then Shaq left for Los Angeles largely because he couldn’t stand sharing the spotlight with his increasingly popular running mate. Twenty years older Shaq admits “it was ego” that got in the way of him staying, and realizing, the Magic’s obvious potential for championships.

Then after a couple of championships in LA, he left largely because he couldn’t stand sharing the spotlight with his equally, if not more popular, superstar teammate. Recently, he’s expressed regret that his “ego” got in the way then too. At the end of the film he says if he could do it all over again, he never would’ve left Orlando. He’s also expressed regret for leaving the Lakers when a few more rings were clearly within reach.

In the end, Shaq won half as many championships as he could’ve because he chose to be “the undisputed man” on lesser teams.

Daily it seems, I see examples of the downside of ego, both the more common male version, and the less familiar, female. Granted, more subtle and nuanced examples than the Big Aristotle’s, but still consequential. The challenge is for leaders to combine self confidence with a Buddhist-like selflessness. Whether star athletes, coaches, teachers, principals, pastors, politicians, or businesspeople. Leaders who don’t need credit for what their team’s accomplish. Leaders who let their legacies take care of itself.

Why did Shaq Daddy so desperately need the brightest spotlight? Why couldn’t he share the credit for his team’s success?

Why do we? Why can’t we?

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Postscript. This just in. Adrian Wojnarowski on George Karl’s new book, Furious George. “Truth be told, Karl was everything he said he disdained about all his players, he was all about the next contract, all about the attention, and always about himself over the team.”

 

But How Will It Look On My Resume?

Statistics show people don’t tend to read any particular blog for very long. I’m not jumping from blog to blog, I’m reading fewer, which begs the question, why read this or any other blog? One common thread in the few blogs I read regularly is the authors link to interesting and insightful writing that I wouldn’t otherwise come across.

The best bloggers are connoisseurs of some specialized content and curators who provide an invaluable service in the Age of Information Overload—they help focus people’s attention.I try to do that, but my statistics reveal that few readers follow my links meaning posts like this probably don’t work that well. If I knew how to change that I would.

Starting for real now. An email arrives from an ace college roommate, a successful psychotherapist specializing in adolescent development. His 12th grade daughter has been admitted to two highly selective colleges and is conflicted about which will look better on her resume. Dad’s equally torn about where she should go. What does the college professor think?

The college professor can’t get past the fact that the daughter is worried about her resume. I wrote back that the schools’ respective prestige was within the margin of error and that the only thing that matters is whether she builds lasting relationships and develops interpersonal and intellectual skills that cannot be easily automated.

Her family enjoys far greater economic security than 90-95% of people. I don’t understand her thinking, but I know that if she is pre-occupied with her economic future, it’s no surprise that anxiety disorders among adolescents are at an all-time high.

I suspect something deeper is at work in this college decision-making case study. Something spiritual. Cue David Brooks, who wrote this essay in Sunday’s New York Times. It’s Brooks at his best. Lots of self-righteous readers savage him, for in essence, not being a Democrat. How dare a Republican reflect on what’s most meaningful in life. I wonder what it’s like to have one’s politics and daily life in permanent, perfect alignment.

Brooks is scheduled to discuss his new book, The Road to Character, on the Diane Rehm show Thursday, April 16th at 11et.

When to Retire?

Most people retire as soon as they think they can afford to. Every week personal finance periodicals run stories about people delaying retirement due to the housing correction, health insurance inflation, and in the end, insufficient savings.

Look around and you can’t help but see older workers. Prepare to see more and more. A boatload of sixty, lots of seventy, and even some eighty something half or full-time employees.

While tossing the majority of my mom’s office files last week, I came across a remarkable memo my dad wrote on December 3rd, 1990 to the two owners of the major corporation he was running at the time. Here it is:

The three of us should sit down and have a talk. I’m 65 in 1991, and as we have discussed pensions around the office we’ve used 12/31/91 as my retirement date. We should discuss the future leadership of S&E. I find myself ambivalent about retiring or staying on.

He then listed the “PRO’s for staying” including “we are an organization that works and we have good sales and profit growth.” Then he shifted gears:

The CON’s are: I will have been at the helm for 7 years, and a change in leadership could bring fresh ideas, a different approach and faster sales and profit growth.

Age slows one. It’s something none of us avoid. I find myself like the aging ballplayer—I don’t want to stay on when new leadership could take S&E forward more effectively. Others see the slow down before you do.

I feel too strongly about the company and its future to become an impediment. What are your feelings?

The more I reflect on this memo, the more unique I find it that he’s putting the company’s interests before his own. No one enjoyed his work more than my dad and no one out worked him. Yet, he acknowledges “new leadership could take S&E forward more effectively.” That’s like President Obama saying someone else might have a better working relationship with Congress and accomplish more on behalf of the American people. Or an aging college professor saying students might benefit more from an energetic, 30-something academic.

I don’t begrudge any older, moderate income person their decision to work past their prime, but for older, financially secure people, my dad provides a selfless example worth emulating. The question isn’t just what’s best for me, but what’s best for the company or even the community.

Footnote to the story. The owners did sit down with my dad. Shortly afterwards they extended his contract and also named him Chief Executive Officer of a second corporation they owned.