Provision #328: Listen Attentively

Laser Provision

Listen attentively. How many different things are you doing and thinking about right now? Is your mind clear, centered, and focused? Or is it cloudy, scattered, and distracted? If we want to listen well then we need to listen to just one thing. We need to pay attention to what’s happening now rather than to what happened in the past or what might happen in the future. This Provision will get you in the mood to just listen.

LifeTrek Provision

There is an older retired military officer in my Kiwanis club who likes to come to the microphone and bark in a loud voice, before he says anything else, “Listen up!” His brusque tone gets people to stop talking, eating, reading, daydreaming, and whatever else they may be doing and to start paying attention.

That is the first key to better listening. We have to stop whatever else is going on, including the internal chatter, and just listen. In other words, we have to pay attention. And if we want to listen well, we have to pay attention with both ears. If we try to listen with one ear, while doing something else, we will fail to hear, experience, respond to, and grow from all that the other person or situation has to share.

As anyone who’s dealt with computers quickly learns, multitasking works only tolerably well in the virtual world. Running too many programs slows down and can eventually crash even the best operating system.

Multitasking works even less well in the real world. We may think we can do many things at once, but it comes with a price. Relationships and productivity are both compromised. If we fail to catch on soon enough, we end up suffering the inevitable crash and burn of separation, divorce, termination, and even death. The stakes are that high, as research into Type A Behavior • the classic multitask personality profile • has repeatedly demonstrated.

This makes its way into the plot line of many a romantic comedy, including the recently released movie, “Bringing Down The House,” starring Steve Martin and Queen Latifah. Martin’s character is separated from his wife and children not because he hates them but because he fails to pay attention to who they are and what they want. So, whenever he’s together with them the cell phone rings and he takes the call • much to their annoyance.

Martin’s disrespect and his family’s hurt feelings are minimized or go entirely unnoticed by him until Charlene, played by Queen Latifah, shows him a better way. In one of the final scenes, Martin is reconciling with his wife only to again have the cell phone ring. You can tell that he’s tempted to answer, but on second thought he picks up the phone and throws it out the second floor window. Martin has decided to be in the present moment, to pay attention, and to listen to just one thing.

This is certainly the subplot of another comedy from 1991, City Slickers, starring Billy Crystal and Jack Palance. Crystal plays a 39-year-old advertising executive in the midst of a full blown mid-life crisis. Together with two friends, he embarks upon a two-week adventure, at the urging of his wife, in order “to find his smile.” The adventure turns out be a cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado, overseen by a wizened and leathery cowboy played by Palance.

Palance’s character has little respect for these city slickers, who all show up hoping that a two-week adventure will untangle the knots tied during the other 50 weeks of the year. In a now famous scene, Crystal and Palance are riding alone together when Palance asks, “Do you know what the secret of life is?” Crystal doesn’t know and is all ears. Palance sticks his finger in the air and says, “One thing, just one thing, stick to that and nothing else matters.”

Crystal, of course, wants to know what that one thing is. Palance, with a crooked, tobacco-stained smile, responds, “that’s what you’ve got to figure out.” Crystal spends the rest of the movie on that quest, and he finds the answer while risking his life to save that of a drowning calf in a raging river. “When I was in that river,” he remarks to his friends at the end of the movie, “nothing else mattered. I was in the moment, fighting for dear life, and that made all the difference.”

So Crystal decides to make being in the moment his one thing. Instead of changing his job, his wife and family, his friends, or his home he decides to just listen, to pay attention, and to do everything better. After giving his wife a passionate kiss, which causes some blushed smiling on the part of his children, Crystal proclaims happily, “Today is my best day.” Everything is the same and yet everything is different, because Crystal is different.

That’s the power of being in the present moment, of paying attention, and of listening to just one thing. Even the ordinary and familiar become imbued with new energy and radiance. It sounds simple because it is simple, but it’s also quite difficult. Most of us fail to experience this gift most of the time.

  • How often do you do nothing but driving when you drive? If you’re like most people, you probably drive and do myriad other things ranging from the benign • like listening to the radio or talking to the person next to you • to the dangerous like talking on the phone, reading, applying make up, shaving, or even changing clothes. I read in the paper recently about a woman who lost her infant son to a head-on collision because she was nursing while driving. This is not the way to do your best driving! Better to do just one thing than to end up smashed and dead from doing too many.
  • How often do you do nothing but eating when you eat? If you’re like most people, you probably do many other things while you eat such as reading, driving, watching television, working on the computer, or talking on the phone. No wonder there’s a wave of obesity in the developed world. We mindlessly put food in our mouths throughout the day, with neither any real pleasure nor with any real recognition of just how much we’ve consumed. This is not the way to do your best eating! Better to do just one thing than to end up overweight and dead from doing too many.
  • How often do you get to do just one thing? If you’re like most people, you probably suffer from one distraction and one demand after another. Telephone calls, email notifications, and instant messages arrive continually throughout the day. Important tasks get supplanted by the latest urgency. Critical decisions get postponed or made with inadequate information and consideration. Money gets wasted and people get frustrated. The problem is so rampant that Dilbert, a cartoon which parodies these dynamics in the corporate world, quickly became the most popular cartoon in America. This is not the way to do your best working! Better to do just one thing than to end up burned out and dead from doing too many.
  • How often do you get to enjoy just one thing? If you’re like most people, you probably suffer from the “could-a, would-a, should-a” phenomenon. Before one experience is even over we’re already thinking about and planning the next. And, of course, it’s easy to get so busy as to make it impossible to enjoy or pay attention to anything, even on vacation. When we’re not in the present moment, we fail to appreciate and build on the possibilities (as two lovers will most certainly discover if even one person has drifted off to thinking about someone or something else). This is not the way to enjoy life! Better to do just one thing than to end up filled with regret and anxiety from doing too many.

There’s no shortage of illustrations in our busy-busy world. The problem has gotten worse rather than better in the past decade. Our multitasking world is sacrificing both its productivity and its people in the process. Never has it been so difficult to just listen, but it is not impossible to do it at least on occasion. And like any skill, with practice we learn to do it better, each and every time.

The process starts with the decision to listen to just one thing, whether that be a person, project, or possibility. You may never get to where you only drive, each and every time, but you can decide to do it just this once. You can decide to eat with no distractions, just this once. You can decide to work one project, and one project alone, for just the next two hours with no distractions. You can decide to love wholeheartedly the one you’re with, right here and now.

If you’ve been reading Provisions for the past two weeks, then you know that we have been picking up the pieces from the devastation of hurricane Isabel. We were without power for 8 days. We will be without phone, cable, and Internet for as much as a month. Despite the inconvenience, it has turned out to be an unexpected blessing! The phone never rings, the email never arrives, and the television never plays unless we intentionally go somewhere else to plug in to the world. It has made our home an oasis of the present moment and brought us close to what Eckhart Tolle calls “the power of now.”

Would that we might learn to listen to just one thing, on ever more occasions, without the devastation of a hurricane! If we want to listen well then we have to listen up. We have to turn off the distractions and the demands in order to pay attention to one thing, and one thing only. This is not beyond us to do.

Coaching Inquires: What one thing could you pay attention to? Is it possible to try this right now? How could you make mindfulness a regular part of your life?

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.

Your Provision on listening was very timely! I’d just finished chastising myself for needing to be heard before reading your Provision. I’ve been trained to be an extremely good listener (probably for self-preservation!) • so in this listening void I’d decided to listen to myself, regardless of what anyone else might think. Odd part is I felt better quite promptly. Please continue to pound on the lifelong damage that can/will be done by telling people they “shouldn’t” feel as/what they feel even if what they say makes the listener feel uncomfortable. I wish we could teach people on the receiving end of expressed feelings to say something like “I’m sorry you feel that way. Is there anything I can do short of compromising my own integrity or jeopardizing the family finances to help the situation?” That might start a dialog instead of shutting down the relationship.

I live in Stockton, MO. In May we had a tornado with widespread destruction. We survived, but I can relate to needing to share our experiences. Many days were spent relating where we were at the time. Than you for your insights. The East Coast is in our prayers. 

I think you will appreciate the recent remarks of Scott Russell Sanders, an English professor at Indiana University, to the Rhode Island Council for the humanities. He challenged his mostly well-heeled audience to a new vision of the good life. “We need a dream worthy of grownups,” Sanders argued, “one that values simplicity over novelty, conservation over consumption, harmony over competition, and community over ego.”

“Our current view that happiness, freedom, and security are to be found through piling up money and buying things creates a person who is scarcely aware that he lives on a planet along with millions of other species, or that he draws every drop of his existence from the wellspring of nature. He looks no deeper for meaning than his own cravings. While the world decays around him, he tries to buy his way to happiness and security, as if he could withdraw inside a fortress of money.

The current view, Sanders went on to say, compromises not only our planet but also our freedom. Freedom “stems from an Indo-European root word meaning ‘to love.’ The same root gave us friend. I don’t know how scholars interpret this etymology, but what it suggests to me is that freedom is not possible in isolation, but only in relationship • in the give-and-take of affection and responsibility.”

Is a macrobiotic or vegetarian regime good for health and high of cholesterol? (Ed. Note: Very good indeed! Just be sure to minimize your intake of saturated fat from dairy products and to maximize your intake of both soluble and insoluble fiber.)

Our best to you in recovering from Isabel! I hope you’re able to inspire your community in an even more beautiful recovery.

May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.

Bob Tschannen-Moran
LifeTrek Coaching International
121 Will Scarlet Lane
Williamsburg, VA 23185-5043

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