Spring

Right here.

Right now.

At this moment.

I stand.

My feet are on the ground.

Breath enters my nose.

I hear.

Birds. So many of them, in wild conversation. As I keep walking, I notice more and more. Are they always there and I just don’t pay attention?

Cars. The sound of their tires humming against the pavement, each wave of sound a bit different from the last.

I see.

Branches swaying gently. Leaves emerging, daring to show themselves after a long, long winter.

I breathe. In. Out.

I feel.

My clothes on my body.

A first spring breeze on my face.

A hint of heat.

Look what happens when I stop, just for a second.

Look how much is around me.

This kind of moment is always here, available to me. This quality of attention is something I carry with me.

If only I remembered that more often.

I am. Here. Now.

Attention and Intention

I first began practicing yoga regularly in 1999, and for much of my first few years of practice, I took more classes from Rolf Gates than from anyone else.

Rolf doesn’t cut the familiar profile of a yoga teacher: he’s an ex-Army Ranger, marathoner and wrestler who is built like an NFL running back, one for whom physical hardship is something to chuckle at. When I’d be straining 30 minutes into a class and Rolf would smile and bellow, “We have miles to go before we rest!” I’d know that Rolf had been there and done that, and I’d remind myself to toughen up a bit.

But although the physical toughness was what you’d first see when you met Rolf, he taught a deeply reflective and introspective class. The son of six generations of ministers, Rolf followed his time in the Army with a stint as a social worker and a substance abuse counselor. All of this came together in a yoga class that might have seemed to be about sweating like crazy and the serenity that followed, but really was about wisdom and perspective. Regulars at his class used to call it “the church of Rolf.”

Rolf and I both left Boston years ago, and I miss his class, so I’m thankful that I can now take his class virtually, online.

I took one of these classes the other day, and I noticed that, as Rolf has continued to grow and deepen as a teacher, his wisdom has become both simpler and more profound. I experience Rolf as a student of life, someone who is winnowing down what he is learning, finding his way to the essence of his truth.

In the class that I took, the mantra Rolf kept repeating was, “As you breathe, know that you are breathing.”

Indeed.

This phrase stuck with me the next morning as I made my way to the train on my  commute – walking too fast as I quickly checked the weather on my phone, rushing and distracted. And then I looked up, saw the blue sky, the bright white clouds and the swaying trees, and thought, “When I walk, shouldn’t I know that I am walking?” Of course I should.

This is about attention and intention.

Attention is the choice to focus my energies on the action I’m engaged in. If I’m walking to the train, I can bring my attention to that action, and experience the world more fully. This gives the space to allow what I’m doing penetrate my mind and my body.

Intention both precedes and follows attention. I can use my intention as the source of the actions that I take. And intention can follow attention since the act of reflection can give rise to a new set of intentions in a powerful set of connecting loops: I set a purpose in a given moment, and, when I am fully present in that moment, I can let that experience guide my next intention – a loop that is both deliberate and open.

What I’m realizing is that I’ve come to the point in my life where I’ve got no more time to squeeze out of my days. There are no big breakthroughs in efficiency on the horizon. If that’s the case – if I’m not going to uncover any more time – then the only leverage left to me is around how I spend that time. Sure, I may still be able to shift how I spend a few hours here and there, but the big remaining shift, one that I’m sure will take a lifetime to unfold, is around the quality of attention and intention I bring to each and every moment.

Less ubiquity, please

My office is in the Google building so I’ve gotten to see lots of Google Glass beta testers riding up and down the elevators.  My bet is that Google Glass will be a product flop, but that it will be a bit like the space program – the product itself won’t sell much or be relevant to most people, but the underlying technology will probably have a huge impact on our lives.

This may be old fogey-ish of me but I don’t believe that it is just a generational question that keeps me from embracing the notion of ever-present, ever-available access to the web and email and apps with the tilt of my eyes.  Yes, I could imagine that at some not-so-distant date all glasses will come with a camera option (the head is a nice, steady way to take pictures) but I don’t buy the argument we need Google Glass because with it we at least won’t look down at our smartphones when we’re at a restaurant or in a large group.  What matters isn’t where our eyes go, what matters is where our attention lies.

And I suspect that over time we will have to re-teach our children the skill of sustained attention, the skill of having an empty moment and not doing anything with it, the skill of intense conversation and real listening.  Did you know that the average teen sends 3,000 texts a month?

In today’s world we all are continually experimenting with the lines between connection / productivity / responsiveness and distraction / rudeness.  Two colleagues of mine suggested the following four rules for managing incoming email and handheld devices, which I liked:

  1. Turn off desktop alerts of new emails coming in (the little box that pops up)  (in Outlook: File > Options > Mail > Message Arrival > Uncheck “Display a Desktop Alert”)
  2. No reading email before breakfast
  3. No reading email while in transit
  4. No phone or email in the bedroom

My own scorecard is as follows:

  1. I turned of desktop alerts for new emails about a month ago and I love it.
  2. I almost never read email before breakfast and when I do it’s a sign that I’m under a crazy deadline or stressed for some other reason.
  3. Hmmm.  I made a rule a couple of years ago not to look at my phone while in elevators, and I’ve stuck to that (it had become a reflex), but I spend enough time in transit that I don’t know that I can commit to this one.
  4. I do have my phone in the bedroom but I can honestly say it’s 95% as a time-piece and alarm

 

In reality these four rules are a really low bar.  Increasingly I think we will all be playing with the limits and rules that work for us, and everyone’s line will be different.  What makes me nervous is when I get reflexive about checking.  That sort of unconscious behavior feels unproductive.

 

I remember a year ago I was on a family vacation and my wife told me how proud she was of me, because one day on vacation I’d let my iPhone battery die.  That should not be seen as a major accomplishment.

Quiet, and silence

Pay attention, the next time you hear someone speak, to the difference between quiet and silence.  Quiet is the sound of people paying attention and listening actively.  But there are still rustling papers, people still shift in their seats, adjust their clothes or just uncross and recross their legs.

And then there’s silence.  It overtakes the room, covers it up, stills the air.  It is a presence so real that you can’t help but hear and feel it if you’re paying just a bit of attention.  It is stillness.  It is people leaning in.  It is people actually holding their breath.

I’ve started paying attention to when this moment happens, and it seems to me that it is the moment that a speaker steps towards real truths.  This truth can come in the form of honesty, in the form of openness and in the form of vulnerability.  It can be stark or honest.  It is always unadorned and there’s never any showmanship.

This kind of silence doesn’t last long – 30 seconds maybe, because people can’t hold their breath forever.  But if you start to notice it you can start to see what it really takes to get people to listen with their whole bodies.  Truth.

Walking by the candy stand

I never noticed the giant candy stand in the subway station, right past the turnstile, that I’ve walked past twice a day nearly every day for the past five years.  Never noticed that I could grab a drink or a candy bar or a magazine, even though I’ve had more than 2,000 chances to do just that.  The place didn’t register because I’m always rushing by it either on my way to or from work.  My head’s down, there’s a crowd, I’m focused on other things.

Generosity Day (sign up here) is a little more than a month away, and I’m reminded of the original moment that kicked this whole thing off for me – the homeless person I walked by with my head down.  The guy I didn’t notice because I was busy doing other things.

A lot of the online conversation about my generosity talk on TED focused on giving to the homeless, as in “does it make sense to give to the homeless?”  That’s really not the point.

Rather, the point is that it’s high time we pick up our heads or, better yet, get out of our heads and really see the world around us.  The point is that there are other human beings around us every day who are craving our acknowledgment, our support, our attention, our generosity – just as we crave it from them – yet we’ll never notice them if we let ourselves keep on walking by.

To me the first step in leading a generous life is actually stopping to notice the full world around us – and notice it in an open way, a non-judgmental way, a way that’s not governed by fear or by separation.

Heck, if I can walk by a guy selling Twix bars (I LOVE Twix bars!!) every day for five years, then I’m pretty sure that I need to let go of the tunnel vision.

The simple act of stopping and noticing is how we begin.