Provision #539: Pay Attention

Laser Provision

Yesterday my lawn mower blew up. I mean I was just going along, mowing, minding my own business, enjoying the fall leaves, when all of a sudden a hole blew out the side of the engine and oil went splattering everywhere. What does that have to do with attention, empathy, and Optimal Wellness? I guess you’ll just have to read on to find out as I connect meditation, mowing, and moving three kids from a Russian orphanage to their new home in Chicago. Hint: it’s very much about Thanksgiving.

LifeTrek Provision

I was pleased with the response to last week’s Provision on Empathy Wiring. Many people were stimulated by the thought that empathy generates physical changes in the brain that can be detected by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines and that can change the function of the brain in enduring ways. The notion of empathy as brain food was apparently a new thought for many readers.

Interestingly, imagined empathy shows up in the same regions and has the same impact on the brain as actual empathy. It makes no difference, functionally, whether we are actually caring and connecting with someone or just imagining such a connection. They both work the same way: they increase the brain waves and circuits associated with perception, problem solving, and consciousness not to mention happiness. No wonder empathy feels so good.

To take advantage of empathy for your well being, whether imagined or actual, it all boils down to how we use and where we direct our attention. Attention is the currency of the empathy. That’s because attention means to notice, to observe, to watch, to concentrate, and to care. Attention lies somewhere in between distraction and derision. When we are distracted, we may fail to notice anything at all, let alone to notice the hidden things such as feelings and needs. There’s no way engage empathy without paying attention.

The other side of the spectrum, derision, may be even more dangerous. In distraction, we don’t even pretend to pay attention. In derision, we exercise selective attention in order to advance our agenda. We care about the other only in so far as it serves our purposes. We notice things in order to defend ourselves and to put people down. In derision, our attention is more about evaluation than observation. We are not curious and concerned about the feelings and needs of others; we are condescending and controlling.

Such dynamics, the exact opposite of empathy, are far too common and far too easy in the human experience. We take a quick look, make assumptions, and react on the basis of the WIIFM principle • What’s In It For Me? If we don’t like what we see, we lower the boom (when we have power) or run away (when we don’t have power). Fight and flight are not just the ways of the jungle; they are on full display in much of what passes for civilized society.

There is, however, another way and it comes down to paying attention. We suspend judgment in order to connect with the beauty of the need. Even when that need is being expressed in the most outrageous of ways, attention enables us to hear the need beneath the rage. That subtle shift, from judging the expression of the need to appreciating the need itself, is what empathy’s all about.

I was struck by how this worked in some of the journal entries that my wife sent back from Russia, while she was assisting our friend Jennifer to bring three young children, who spoke no English, from an orphanage in Stavropol to their new home in Chicago. Although you have read these before, Russian Diary and Russian Diary II, I would highlight the following salient passages when it comes to empathy, attention, and Optimal Wellness:

“Caring for children who do not speak English is not as difficult as I had feared. It is sort of how you communicate with a toddler, with pointing, gestures, and reading body language. Macha gets it that we don’t speak Russian and actively tries to find ways to help us understand. Sergei is kind of oblivious to that fact and rattles on at great length, telling us all about life in his world. Ksusha just seems pretty put out that two grown women can’t understand plain Russian! She rolls her eyes and repeats herself more loudly and emphatically.”

Talk about paying attention! It doesn’t take words to understand the language of empathy. All it takes is the intention to be supportive and the attention to make it so.

“A touching thing happened while we were in the lobby waiting to check in, which took a while. Figuring that the kids were probably getting hungry because it was after 8 PM, I pulled out a packet of cookies I’d saved from the plane. There were exactly three cookies, so I gave each of the kids one. But there was a smaller boy nearby who seemed to live at the hotel, maybe about two, who the kids had been playing with. Macha went over and gave him her cookie! She was able to find some other snacks that we’d brought, but I thought that it was very sweet that she waited to make sure that all of the younger kids were fed before she ate.”

Talk about a universal language! It doesn’t take 200 hours of communication training to get with another person. Even kids can do it. Perhaps that’s what Jesus meant when he said that we have to become like little children to be in heaven.

“This evening at the restaurant, after reprimanding the kids for playing with their soda pops, I turned and accidently knocked mine to the floor, making a big mess. Sergei laughed and then shook his finger at me, scolding “Nyet ma-ro-zih-na!” (No ice cream for you!). I did my best Sergei pout, which was apparently very funny because we played that game for a WHILE. But then the first thing he did when his ice cream arrived was to take a spoon and offer me a bite.”

Talk about a healing balm! Empathy is not a one-way street. The more we extend empathy to others, not to mention a little humor and playfulness, the more they extend empathy to us. What goes around comes around, especially when it comes to paying attention.

“Then Macha’s Little Mermaid balloon sailed into balloon heaven. Oh dear! Such weeping and gnashing of teeth! Such pitiful begging for another balloon! And, the injustice of being refused! Thus began a tremendous performance. All to no great effect. The audience just kept right on strolling and chatting as if this terrible tragedy had not befallen the heroine of our drama! Insult added to injury!

After a while the strolling led us to a restaurant, and Macha had the good sense to turn off the waterworks, and tried out her best pout to see if that might work better. She pouted through the hot towels on the little dishes and missed that experience. She pouted through the ordering of Coca Cola, and missed out on that. But then the other kids discovered that the table had come equipped with little sticks inside a paper wrapping. It got harder to maintain a good pout through that, but at least she managed to play sullenly with the little sticks. But even the most ardent of pouts has its breaking point, and when the food arrived and it turned out those little sticks were for eating …Well, this just had to be tried!” 

Talk about hearing the needs! Empathy is not about being nice, giving in, and getting run over. Empathy is about discerning what will make life more wonderful for people. In this case, Megan and Jennifer set boundaries without reacting to Macha’s behavior or denying her need for fun. Eventually, she came around, connection was reestablished, and the good times returned.

“The kids all tend to look out for each other. Jennifer has been taking the kids out, one by one, on little excursions to the grocery store. This afternoon, when the excursions began, Macha figured that, according to her calculations, she ought to be first. Unfortunately, her means of expressing that desire dropped her into second place. When Ksusha returned and Macha discovered that getting ice cream was part of the deal, she was all the more incensed that she•d missed out on her opportunity to be first. Even more unfortunately, her means of expressing her dismay dropped her out of the running for a trip to the store all together. Sergei trotted off happily in her stead. When he got to the ice cream freezer, however, he dug in his heels and absolutely refused to leave the store without an ice cream bar for Macha.”

Talk about the end game! To everything there is a season, a time to learn and a time to laugh. It appears Jennifer understands this rhythm, and so do children. In the face of competing needs, it’s easy for behavior to swing wildly from one expression to another. In the end, however, solidarity rules the roost. Love is life’s greatest lesson.

“There are few sights in life as precious as that of a child’s face transfixed in wonder. We got our money’s worth on that score tonight at the Moscow Circus. It was a great show and the kids loved it. Macha howled with laughter at the antics of the clowns, Ksusha watched with her mouth agape at the high-wire act, and when the tigers came out, Sergei was not only on the edge of his seat, he slipped right off the edge to squat in the aisle with his chin on the seat in front of him (which fortunately had a very small occupant)! The biggest grins of the evening were saved, however, for after the show, when we got to sit on a real camel and have our pictures taken!”

Talk about simple pleasures! Needs are not that complicated. We all have the same ones, and there is no hierarchy. Survival, transcendence, protection, well-being, interdependence, autonomy, empathy, honesty, meaning, and regeneration (to mention only a few). These are things that make life worth living, and people reach out for them in all times and places. When they get satisfied, life is good, smiles come, and all is well with our soul. Can’t you just feel that in Megan’s final description of the great homecoming?

“When our last plane touched down for the last time, Macha’s eyes popped open and she looked up at me with a happy grin. ‘Amereeca?’ she asked. ‘Cheecago in Amereeca?’ When I nodded yes, she clapped her hands in delight!”

“When we finally got to Jennifer’s house, the kids excitedly looked around the house, checked out the front yard, and then the backyard. That all seemed wonderful enough. But when they got to their rooms, Oh, that was magical! Their eyes were wide with the shelves of toys, the canopy loft beds for the girls, the jungle theme bedroom for Sergei, the closets and drawers full of new clothes! They happily explored their new world for the rest of the afternoon. At the end of the day, when I went upstairs to kiss them Good Night and Good Bye, on each of their faces there was a calm, happy glow of contentment. They were finally home.”

Now I don’t know about you, but that moves me to tears. Empathy will do that. It wires our brains for love. And that is an essential part of Optimal Wellness. Far too many health and fitness programs stop with nutrition, exercise, and stress management. Those are important, to be sure, and the LifeTrek Optimal Wellness Prototype covers those bases. But all the nutrition, exercise, and stress management in the world will not make life more wonderful if they are not set against a backdrop of benevolence.

Benevolence • the intention and action to help others • is empathy both real and imagined. The intention comes from the heart, as we seek to pay attention to what others are feeling and needing without judgment, impatience, or demand. The action comes from will, as we exercise the discipline and make the effort to put our intentions to work.

So what does all this have to do with my lawn mower, that blew up yesterday as I was mowing the lawn? It was blowing wisps of white smoke, a sign of burning oil, from the time I started it up. I noticed the smoke, but I did not dig any deeper. I did not stop to see if the mower had any needs • like oil • that I could respond to with empathy and action. Instead, I just kept on mowing until the mower blew up.

Now it may have blown up anyway. It was an older mower and it clearly had some oil, judging from what blew out from the side of the engine. But it may be that my failure to “pay” attention, to take the time and energy to figure out what was going on, led to my little calamity (which took about four hours and a significant amount of money to diagnose and recover from • I bought a new mower — far more time, energy, and money than the initial “paying” of attention would have required).

That’s the way it is with empathy. We think we don’t have time to pay attention to feelings and needs. We think we’re too busy, too important, too competent, too fragile, too upset, or too something to go down that road. And so we take the shortcut, which usually turns out to be longer, in the end.

So don’t do that. Pay attention. Take the time. Consider what others may be feeling and needing. Do it in the moment. Do it before the moment. Do it at the start and end of each day. Meditate with loving kindness in mind. Pick someone, contemplate their feelings and needs, imagine what would make life more wonderful for them, visualize a smile on their face, then settle upon an affirmation of their being.

The Buddhist’s call that “loving kindness meditation.” Americans, on Thursday, will call it Thanksgiving. Macha, Ksusha, and Sergei just call it home.

Coaching Inquiries: To what extent do you pay attention to the feelings and needs of the people you live and work with? How could you pay more attention? Is there a specific person you’d like to start with? How could empathy meditation enhance your life? Who could assist you to establish a regular practice?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.

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 Form or Email Bob.

I loved your last Provision on Empathy Wiring. It inspired me to start meditating again, with a new framework. The thought that meditation could rewire the brain, making it more vital and alive as we age, was stunning. Thanks for that! (Ed. Note: You may enjoy the Insight Meditation materials by Salzberg & Goldstein Amazon).

Thank you for providing such enlightening and enheartening content. The idea that we can actually change our brains is awesome and empowering. Even though this information is out in the world, you sharing it in with us in this context gives me even more motivation to wholeheartedly commit to focusing on meditation. Before I just thought it would be good for me, but now I know it can change all aspects of my being; physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Thanks for the brain food!

I just finished reading today’s Provision on Empathy Wiring. I have also been following Megan’s adventures over the past while. I know I haven’t been in touch for such a long, long time and I apologize. The reason for this note is to say thank you for your gift of words. I know few people who are as prolific in their writing and produce on such a consistent basis. Your writings remind me so much of Thomas Leonard. The difference is that you go much deeper and tap into the feelings of life. Each week I know I can count on you to deliver thoughtful, insightful, and delightful writings. Thanks.

Have you heard about The Shift Movie? I can’t wait to see it. It sounds like it will be in the genre/format of “What the Bleep Do We Know?” I could use the encouragement this movie promises to offer. 

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

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School
Immediate Past President, International Association of
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a TimeOnline Retailers

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