A More Complete Attention

To really see each other, we have to bother to look.

Sharon Salzberg

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© Kim Lieberman

A young friend once came to me seeking advice. He had been to India, where he met a guru who had become very important to him. Now my young friend wanted to bring his father to that crowded, hot city, halfway around the world, to meet the guru. I thought about it for a moment, and then said to him, “You know, I don’t think it’s a very good idea. That particular city in India is very unpleasant. The food will be foreign, he may well get sick, and there will be annoying bugs. Besides, I myself found the scene around the guru kind of strange, and your father might well be repulsed by it. He may then dismiss all spiritual endeavor, which would be a terrible outcome. My suggestion is, don’t do it.”

The young man completely ignored my advice and did indeed go off to India along with his father. When he returned a few months later, I immediately saw how very wrong I’d been in my counsel. His father just loved everything about India and felt right at home there. Not only did he admire the guru, he became his disciple. And not only that, he was determined to teach in the guru’s lineage, and was initiating a complete life change. My friend and his father were extremely happy. Having been proven so wrong in my advice, the question was, could I be happy for them?

Sometimes we feel a need to be proven right as we look at someone else’s life choices; it is not that they are necessarily doing anything wrong or hurtful, but they may be living in a different way than we have decided they should be living. Or perhaps our advice turns out to be unappreciated or incorrect, as mine was, and we come face to face with the fact that someone’s happiness does not revolve around us and our fabulous prescience and good sense; instead, it is based on their own good sense, or even on sheer good luck. Can we let go of our need to try to dominate people’s lives and our determination of what the correct outcome of their decisions should be?

Sitting with my young friend and hearing about the glorious experience of his father in India, I saw the cascade of emotions in my mind—embarrassment, skepticism, a touch of derision, and even a little resentment—and I knew I had a choice: sometimes kindness takes the form of stepping aside, letting go of our need to be right, and just being happy for someone.

Sometimes I intentionally ask myself the question, “What would I gain from this person’s loss?” and it is quite clear to me that I don’t benefit at all. The true benefit is in stepping off of center stage, and experiencing the kindness of delighting in someone else’s good experience.

Rules for Kindness
Once I was leading a meditation group in the D.C. area. The group had rented an elementary school auditorium for the day. All along the walls of the corridors were posted rules for being kind. During the breaks in the day, I would just stand and read them again and again. They seemed so simple, yet like many simple truths, if we were to live them rather than merely admire them, they could change our life. They rest on principles like dissolving the rigid boundaries we hold between ourselves and others, including rather than excluding, recognizing our actions (and words) are consequential, and being thoughtful.

Carderock Elementary School rules for being kind:

• Treat people the way you would like to be treated.
• Play fair.
• Respect everyone—other students and all staff.
• Everyone can play.
• Help others when they need help.
• Don’t hurt others on the inside or the outside.
• Honor all of the pillars of ethics.

I decided that weekend that every week I’d take one of these rules and hold it as a touchstone: to remember, to make choices by, to experiment with deepening, to enjoy. One of the most provocative and poignant rules was “Everyone can play.” When I first read that rule I imagined a child who was left out, staring at the in-crowd, feeling unwanted or unseen—then being beckoned forth, invited to join in, affirmed.

As I practiced this tenet, I seemed to notice more hints of loneliness in those I encountered than I had seen before, more subtle echoes of that forlorn child than I expected. When I began to include others, I watched as something unfurled within them and began to flower. In making a point of including others in conversation, I felt some subtle walls within me dissolve as well. There was a growing sense of rightness, of balance, because, after all, everyone should get to play.

© Kim Lieberman
© Kim Lieberman

Paying Attention
A friend once told me about repeated fights he and his wife would have early on in their marriage. Much of their conflict centered on how to have dinner. He liked to eat hurriedly, standing up in the kitchen, getting it over with as quickly as possible. She liked to set the table elegantly, sit down and eat leisurely, together. Many nights they fought instead of eating with each other. Finally they sought the help of a marriage counselor.

As they examined the layers of meaning hidden in the simple and familiar word “dinner,” they each discovered how much association, and how many people, they were actually bringing to that table. He talked about his father, a brutal man, often only home at dinnertime, which became a nightmarish experience he wanted to escape from as quickly as possible. She spoke of her fractured family, where her mentally ill brother consumed her mother with worry. It was mainly at dinner that an effort was made to talk to her, to find out about her day, where she felt she indeed belonged to a family. Dinner was rarely just dinner for either of my friends, and their partner was often not the person standing in front of them, but an “other” made of an amalgam of past hurts, long-held dreams, and tentative new yearnings.

Can we ever actually see another person? If we create an “other” out of our projections and associations and ready interpretations, we have made an object of a person—we have taken away their humanity. We have stripped from our consciousness their sensitivity to pain, their likely wish to feel at home in their bodies and minds, their complexity and intricacy and mutability. If we have lost any recognition of the truth of change in someone, and have fixed them in our mind as “good,” “bad,” or “indifferent,” we’ve lost touch with the living essence of that person. We are dwelling in a worldview of stylized prototypes and distant caricatures, reified images, and often very great loneliness.

Meditation practice is training in stepping back—in getting a broader perspective on what’s happening. Mindfulness, one of the tools at the core of meditation, helps us refrain from getting lost in habitual biases that distort what we’re seeing about our feelings. Without mindfulness, our perception is easily shaped by barely conscious decisions like “My stomach is roiling with what seems to be fear, but I could never allow myself to admit that. I’ll pretend it never came up.”

Mindfulness also helps us see through our prejudices about another person. For instance: “All older women are fuzzy thinkers, so she can’t possibly be as sharp as she is pretending to be.” Mindfulness works by showing us that conclusions like these are simply thoughts in our own mind. Mindfulness enables us to cultivate a different quality of attention, one where we relate to what we see before us not just as an echo of the past, or a foreshadowing of the future, but more as it is right now.

Making the effort to truly see someone doesn’t mean we never respond or react or take very strong action to try to settle the matter of dinner. We can and do attempt to restore a failing marriage, protest loud cell phones in public places, or try, with everything in us, to rectify injustice. But we can do it from a place that allows people to be as textured as they are, and that admits our feelings to be as varied and flowing as they are. A place open to surprises. A place that listens, that lets the world come alive.

One essential step in learning to more genuinely see each other is to bother to look. If someone yells at us, or annoys us, or dazzles us with a gift, we do pay attention to them. Our challenge then is to see them as they are, not as we project or assume them to be. But if they don’t make much of an impression on us, we have a different challenge; it is all too easy to look right through them.

In particular, the meditation exercise of offering lovingkindness to a neutral person confronts this tendency. We choose a person whom we don’t strongly like or dislike—we feel, indeed, rather neutral or indifferent toward them. Very often it helps to select a near stranger, or someone who plays a certain role or function in our lives—the grocery store checkout person, for example, or the UPS delivery person.

When we send a neutral person lovingkindness, we are consciously changing a pattern of overlooking them, or talking around them, to one of paying attention to them. We are experimenting with the notion of “loving thy neighbor as thyself ” when we don’t know the facts about their dependent elderly parent or at-risk teenager.

When we think of our neutral person, we haven’t learned the story of their suspicious mole or empty evenings. We have no knowledge of their inspiring triumphs or their admirable philanthropy. We aren’t seeing their tension after a disappointing job interview, or their sadness after their lover leaves. But we practice wishing them well anyway, simply because they exist, and because we do know the beauty, the sorrow, the poignancy, and the sheer, unalterable insecurity of existence, which we all share.

On trains, in the street, in our homes and communities, we practice paying attention—through developing mindfulness and lovingkindness and through letting go of projections—partly because a more complete attention proffers many special gifts. These gifts can penetrate through the exigencies of social roles, the seeming hollowness of chance encounters, and even through terrible hurt.

Paying attention provides the gift of noticing, and the gift of connecting. It provides the gift of seeing a little bit of ourselves in others, and of realizing that we’re not so awfully alone. It allows us to let go of the burden of so much of what we habitually carry with us, and receive the gift of the present moment.

Sharon Salzberg is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, in Barre, Massachusetts. This article has been excerpted from her latest book, “The Kindness Handbook.” Reprinted with permission of Sounds True. To participate in a multimedia course on the Four Immeasurables led by Salzberg, visit community.tricycle.com.

Image 1: "Examining Every Interaction," 2002, oil paint on postage-stamp paper, 9.25 x 11.8 inches. © Kim Lieberman, www.kimlieberman.com.

Images 2&3: "Every Interaction Interrupts the Future," 2003, oil paint and silk thread on postage-stamp paper, 24.8 x 71.7 inches. © Kim Lieberman, www.kimlieberman.com.

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robbenwainer@verizon.net's picture

Growing up on The Upper West Side of Manhattan there was a lot of Chaos in my life. It seemed my Brother and my Mother just permeated to bringing home an argumentative life style. I was studying Karate with Zenko Heshiki when I found the fruits of Zazen to be all I needed and just what I was looking for. As my Brother moved out of the house my Zazen practice helped my Mother and I to enjoy the stillness, and peace of mind. She is in a nursing home, and really I have no idea how well she is able to adjust herself to enter a meditative state of mind. There is truth in the saying that when one sits the whole family sits. As my family has changed since then, I think to my Mother in a home for the elderly who had some difficulty with her environment, as did I when trying to quiet the voices on our own mind. Yet in the stillness in her great power of understanding I believe both she and I have a great respect for the power of the spirit and the spiritual. As I have been sitting Zazen now for twenty five years.

koppitz's picture

I have found parenting to be a spiritual journey and excellent mindfulness training.
Traveling with my 3 yr old daughter in SF on the BART, we encountered a young woman who was wildly psychotic and intensely agitated. It was quite frightening. When my daughter asked about her, I found myself forced to choose my words very carefully. I explained that the woman's brain was sick and that the sickness made her feel badly. That she would feel much better when she is able to take her medicine. My daughter's response: can we go home to get the car so we can help her get her medicine?

The article is wonderful. Thank you.

crummyverses's picture

"Paying attention provides the gift of noticing, and the gift of connecting. It provides the gift of seeing a little bit of ourselves in others, and of realizing that we’re not so awfully alone."

May it be so.

Great article.


boiester's picture

I like the part of practicing even on trains. Often when I rode to and from Boston for my long commute, I would see someone and imagine what they did. What a surprise to find out the woman I thought was an advertising executive was a surgeon! I have had the most marvelous conversations with folks who have amazingly complicated lives and ware dealing with it with grace and determination. Thank you.

julie27's picture

I hope to see mindfulness incorporated into the school day in small amounts as early as possible. For children to learn to embrace their wholeness and inherent worth and to learn to treat others with kindness and compassion is a much more important life lesson than academics. (Not that academics aren't important.) We may know as a young child what is right and fair but we are slowly conditioned to believe that we must compete and achieve, hide our true feelings, look outside ourselves for gratification, obtain wealth, power, and status in order to be happy, and to deny the inevitability of aging and death. Adolescents are now faced with an abundance of "doing" to secure their place in a reputable college. The quest for knowledge in order to "succeed" replaces inner work and value and creates a society that is based on scarcity,fear, and competition.

William Stanhope's picture

Having been in education for many years at all levels I am often struck by the wisdom that comes from children, especially when compared with older students in say High School. So often young children seem to know what is right and how to behave in ways that bring joy, inclusion, well-being to themselves and the group. Invariably when they are asked to make a list of guidelines or rules of the road for the classroom, they come up with such beautiful ideas. They know on some deep level what it takes to be happy, feel safe. Alas, often as they grow older some become hardened by the tough world around them and begin to adopt a more defensive posture of self-protection, losing touch with those fundamental rules of the road we all have buried somewhere in our collective concience. This then I believe to be the primary goal of education; to not only impart knowledge, but to support and develop our innate wisdom throughout the entire time we are in school. The results, though unmeasurable by any end of year test, would have a profound and desirable impact. 

mirci's picture

Thanks s much for this great article, it really inspires me :)