Regarding Attention ~ The First of 5 A’s in Mindful Parenting
In the Mindful Parenting Nashville group that Karen Moran and I are leading, we’re incorporating – among other resources – the work of David Richo on the “Five A’s” of mindful loving. (The Five A’s are Attention, Acceptance, Appreciation, Affection and Allowing. I’ll pass on the temptation to define them all right now.) On the weeks in between group sessions, we want to do some deep dives into each of these “A’s” as a group. For this week…Attention.
Many of the ideas we encounter in groups like this may not feel new to us. We’ve undertaken a parenting group and/or a mindfulness group, because we know we have a need for support in doing the things we already know help us feel better, if only we could get ourselves to do them consistently. We know being present keeps us out of mindlessly and painfully rehashing the past or fearing the future. We know our kids need attention the way they need air and food.
So when I first encountered the first of the 5 A’s – attention – in the development of a mindfulness practice, it didn’t seem to be anything new. And it makes sense that attention would be the first – though not the last – aspect of loving. Knowing about it was not the issue - there was the need to practice it.
The problem for many of us is some cultural baggage we have around the word “attention.” There are some painful, even abusive, associations with that word. At best, there can be stress associated with trying to force ourselves to “pay” attention, as if attention were something solid that we were hoarding willfully, instead of something that feels scattered and ephemeral. We may have the practice of training attention confused with that old injunction to “Pay attention!” and we may be doing that to ourselves in our parenting.
But as I began receiving instruction in mindfulness circles, I found something that truly changed my experience of life for the better. I learned that it is the quality of attention that helps me feel more alienated or more connected. It is the quality of my attention that takes me closer or further away from my intention.
Mindfulness is not only about being in the present moment – it’s about the ability to bear in mind our intentions. It is the difference between anxious, judgmental attention and the kind of attention we offer a really good friend, the one we can fully relax with, as we sit down with them - phones off - hungry to hear everything that’s going on with them these days.
When meditating, and when stopping to check in briefly with ourselves in the midst of a full day, we notice the sensations of the body, heart and mind - open to what is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral - the way we remain open to noticing the subtle facial expressions or vocal inflections of our friend. Our attitude is one of query, of openness to more, and of remaining with our chosen friend when something else tugs at our attention. For example, we continually return mind and heart to receiving our talking friend while keeping an eye out for the waiter when something is needed.
Sometimes what tugs at our attention is a genuine priority – maybe a fire alarm goes off mid-conversation. Often, any old thing can tug at our attention if we don’t happen to want the experience we’re having. It’s helpful for that reason to set a meditation timer – 5 minutes, even, if that’s all you’ve got – so that you can notice the mind’s reactivity to inner and outer experience. That reactivity will always come in the form of clutching at the pleasant, avoiding the unpleasant, and overlooking the neutral.
So what does all this have to do with parenting…other than noticing the quality of attention we habitually bring to family life? And how different it is from the quality we offer a friend? It’s typical to find ourselves grasping for positive interactions and teaching moments (ugh), dreading the moments that are just not that much fun or outright difficult, and overlooking the bulk of our experience, lost in fantasies of life being better “when…”
Feeling bad about these habits doesn’t help, and scolding ourselves is not fair, because the truth is we’ve largely been powerless over these patterns. They are a result of hard-wiring, cultural, and family programming. What does help is the recognition that we have some rewiring to do. What does help is bringing to our own minds and hearts the loving-friendly-kind attention we bring to a friend. Training our attention is what gives us back our power, specifically the power to choose.
This kind of attention – open, caring, curious, prioritizing – is what we want to bring to our own experience when we formally train the mind/heart in timed mindfulness practice. We can also make a practice of checking in with ourselves as a good friend would at certain points throughout the day – right before a meal, say, or whenever we use the restroom. As we make a habit of collecting our scattered attention by making ourselves welcome in whatever state we find ourselves, we more often embody those qualities, more responsive, less reactive, whether dealing with ourselves, our kids or anyone else.
I want to close with an image for working with training attention that I heard from Delores Watson, who founded Flowering Lotus Meditation and Retreat Center near New Orleans. She described the difficult route – the one I referred to above as “paying attention” – as being like trying to balance a steel ball bearing on top of a bowl turned upside down. This is stressful, frustrating, bound to create a sense of failure. But turn the bowl right side up, allow it to be still, and the ball bearing of our attention eventually settles still. This is what we can offer ourselves, this stillness and rest in the center of all our activity.