I could not believe my eyes or my ears! As I drove down the highway and switched to radio station 100.9 Jack FM (variety hits), I realized the format had changed. The name of the new format….wait for it….is Short Attention Span Radio. Nope, I’m not joking. A format change is one thing, but do we, in our distracted and distractable world, need a radio station that plays constantly changing mere seconds-long snippets of songs? To me this phenomenon promotes our world’s already growing inability to attend.
Awhile back I read Amy Cuddy’s book Presence: Bringing Your BOLDEST SELF to Your BIGGEST CHALLENGES. After suffering traumatic brain injury in a very serious car accident, Amy was different. She had to withdraw from college and was told by her doctors it was doubtful she could ever return. They said, “Don’t expect to finish college. You will be fine…but you should consider doing something else.” Subsequent intensive therapy and much hard work, Amy proved the doctors wrong when she graduated from college only four years after her classmates did. Ultimately, Amy earned a doctorate and now teaches at Harvard Business School!
Amy’s experiences recovering from brain injury led her to research the science of presence. She dug deep to understand the concept and how its practice impacts our lives. In one study, entrepreneurs made pitches to potential investors. Results of the study indicate the applicants who got financial assistance were the ones who evidenced these traits: confidence, comfort level, and passionate enthusiasm — traits Cuddy says cannot be faked. Stated differently, these characteristics communicated the entrepreneurs were fully present! When you are present, people respond favorably!
It was Amy’s TED talk in 2012 that helped her realize how universal the yearning for presence is, not just in the U.S. but around the world. According to Cuddy,
“presence…is the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values, and potential.”
The concept of presence grew in spiritual soil—rooted in the Eastern notion of mindfulness which Maria Popova says is…
“the ability to go through life with crystalline awareness
and fully inhabit our experiences.”
Philosopher Alan Watts asserts, “the root of our human frustration and daily anxiety is our tendency to live in the future.” He suggests we usually keep our focus on what is next. By doing so, we leave the body and what is happening in the here and now and retreat into the mind.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s mindfulness training intrigues me and relates well. One of his mindfulness practices offers wisdom about “dwelling happily in the present moment”:
Aware that life is available only in the present moment, we are committed to training ourselves to live deeply each moment of daily life. We will try not to lose ourselves in dispersion or be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future, or cravings, anger, or jealousy in the present. We will practice mindful breathing to be aware of what is happening in the here and now. We are determined to learn the art of mindful living by touching the wondrous, refreshing, and healing elements that are inside and around us, in all situations. In this way, we will be able to cultivate seeds of joy, peace, love, and understanding in ourselves, thus facilitating the work of transformation and healing in our consciousness. We are aware that happiness depends primarily on our mental attitude and not on external conditions, and that we can live happily in the present moment simply by remembering that we already have more than enough conditions to be happy.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s conviction is our happiness is an inside job (read my previous blog). We can’t get to contentment if our focus is on outside forces or placing blame for our hurt feelings or discomfort on someone or something else.
True confession time: Being and staying present is difficult for me. As a future-oriented person, I naturally focus on what’s next. If I’m not careful, I can miss out on the good stuff happening NOW because my mind is predisposed to musing about the next project and how to move forward. I aspire and try hard to be more like the football coach who is interviewed at the end of a game and says when the reporter asks about the next opponent, “Give us a few moments to enjoy this win before we start preparing for the next challenge.”
Key to staying present is learning to listen. We human beings have a hard time attending and suspending judgment, i.e. letting go of what we think we know. Our tendency is to stop listening in order to formulate our next response. William Ury, author of Getting to Yes, says, “When you listen to someone, it’s the most profound act of human respect.” Amy Cuddy observes, “The paradox of listening is that by relinquishing power—the temporary power of speaking, asserting, knowing—we become more powerful.” When we listen attentively, people start trusting us, we acquire useful information, we begin to see other people as individuals (maybe even allies), and we develop solutions other people are willing to accept, even adopt. Our ability to listen deeply inspires others to listen to us.
Some blame social media for our short attention spans. Everything comes to us in sound bites. This truth was reinforced for me recently when the CBFVA staff participated in a class on the effective use of social media. The facilitator caught my attention with this statement, “You have fewer than two seconds to grab someone’s attention.” What!? That’s less time than is allotted for each song on Short Attention Span Radio!
Is there any aspect of life in which we don’t need to cultivate presence? Ask yourselves….
- How frequently is family meal time interrupted by cell phones or other electronic devices?
- How many times do you observe this pattern in a restaurant: every person at the table stares at a cell phone screen instead of talking to the folks in front of them?
- How often do you see people texting while driving?
- Even at church (when we used to meet face-to-face) paying attention is a challenge. Do you actually “see” the people you pass in the halls? How intentional are you about greeting others and registering their responses?
- During turbulent and divisive times of political wrangling during an election cycle, are we willing to be in proper, present frames of mind?
Truth be told, even God struggles to get our attention! Our highly scheduled and distracted lives make it difficult to be quiet and listen for God’s voice. Too often our prayer lives are one-sided (we talk, God listens). The Hebrews knew the necessity of listening intently to God. In fact, it’s right there in the Shema which starts with “hear, O Israel” or “listen.” This is the language of being present to God. Contemplative prayer practices help us stay attentive to our Creator, quiet our minds, and release our personal agendas. A key moral imperative is that we pay attention to what’s happening in the world God created and loves. That imperative keeps us from getting stuck in our own, limited thought processes.
What we focus on is what we value. Responsibility for what we pay attention and attend to is on us. We can’t blame our mental fragmentation on advertising, the internet, or anything else. Our capacity to pay attention, remain present, and listen more deeply is spiritual discipline well worth our efforts. We need presence, and the world needs it, too.