Presents vs Presence: Where's Your Attention?

Apr 18, 2017

By Neil Hedley

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What else are you doing while you read this?

What are you supposed to be doing?

Would it have helped if I’d made the title of the post “Can I Have Your Attention, Please?”

It’s a funny thing, attention.  In some ways, we treat it as currency.  We ask people to pay attention.  When you’re not giving attention to something, you’re experiencing an attention deficit (and that’s serious enough to be considered a disorder).

With the myriad things that compete for our attention at any given moment, it’s not surprising to find there’s such a premium on being able to focus and pay attention – to cut through the clutter and just be able to concentrate on one thing.

I’m convinced it’s the reason we’re seeing traffic nightmares this week on the Gardiner Expressway as drivers find themselves in a jam that everyone knew was coming for at least two months, with the closure of the eastbound ramp to York / Bay / Yonge. But most of us have experienced that scenario where we arrive at our destination unable to recall details of the trip. Why?  Too many other things going on. We’re driving along thinking about what we’re going to do when we arrive at wherever we’re headed. Or we’re thinking about work.  Or family.  Or the ridiculous run the Maple Leafs are on.  Or, Heaven forbid, we’re texting – or, as I actually saw a guy in a minivan doing last weekend on the 401, paying attention to TV coverage of the Blue Jays on an iPad.  Even if you heard the two months we spent talking on the radio about the closure, or saw the signs over the highway for the week leading up to the closure, you probably saw countless motorists in the resulting traffic jams – most notably on Jarvis Street, which at the outset was much busier than Spadina.  Why? Because people were focused on whatever else was going on, forgot the ramp was closed, and wound up taking the ramp at Jarvis and backtracking, instead of jumping off early at Spadina and avoiding at least some of the ensuing bedlam.

But rather than just offer something as useless as, “pay attention, ya lunkheads”, I have what might be a better alternative for you.  Nobody gives me or pays me anything for letting you know about it – in fact, if you so choose, it’s a freebie.  But if you’re a person who sometimes feels overwhelmed by all the stuff that’s lurking about out there and trying to grab your precious attention for a moment, it might be one of the most valuable freebies you’ve seen in a while, but consider it my gift to you.

It’s called Headspace.  Basically, it’s a phone app that teaches you how to meditate. But that’s a real oversimplification.

In terms of helping you start to cut through the clutter, here’s one of the videos that really drives home the point of where Headspace tries to take you:

See, I think it’s less about paying attention, and more about just being present.  Rather than making an effort to focus on something – because paying attention makes it sound like it has cost you in some way – instead, just take a moment to actually experience whatever it is you’re doing.  If you’re reading a book, enjoy the book instead of thinking about what you’re going to do when you get to the end of the chapter. Enjoy your dessert, instead of being consumed with how you’re going to get the server’s attention when it’s time to get the check (after all, they might be overwhelmed, too).  Playing a game with your kids?  Take a second to recall the joy of being a kid playing a game, instead of thinking about the things that have gone to the back burner while you’re doing it.

I tried meditating for years, partly because I heard there were studies indicating that it had similar restorative qualities to REM sleep, but in a fraction of the time. My problem is that being present was so much trouble for me, I failed pretty much every time I tried. Until I bumped into Headspace, and their ten-day freebie. I think I had signed up for the paid portion of their program by the third day of the free version.  Once you get to Day Thirty, as I recall, you can even gift a subscription to somebody else.  The present of presence – the gift that keeps on giving.

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