A Habit of Attention
THIRTY THOUSAND DAYSSummer 2002
It is common for our attention to focus on the problems and difficulties we are facing because we have to pay attention to such challenges in order to handle them. Unfortunately we can develop a “habit of attention” in which we fail to notice the many things that are supporting our existence our health, our work, our family, and our efforts to accomplish the things we want to do. The more this “habit of attention” has developed, the less likely we will be able to experience gratitude.
I first made the connection between gratitude and attention when I discovered a Japanese method of self- reflection called Naikan (like the name of the camera). The word Naikan means “inside looking” or “inside observation.” This method of self-reflection is primarily based on three questions:
- What have I received from others?
- What have I given to others?
- What troubles and difficulties have I caused others?
As you can see these questions are very simple. And when I participated in a 14-day retreat in Japan in 1989, these questions became the framework for me to reflect on my entire life. I reflected on each stage of my life and on every person who had playing a meaningful role in my life since my birth (my mom, dad, grandparents, teachers, friends, colleagues, ex-girl- friends, etc. . .).
When I stepped back from my life and began quietly reflecting on everything that had been done for me and given to me (question #1) I was surprised and overwhelmed by how much I had received in my life. The day I left that retreat I felt more cared for, loved and supported than ever before. It was as if I had a blood transfusion and gratitude was now simply flowing through my veins and arteries. I had learned to notice what I had not been noticing. Through self-reflection I had learned about attention and gratitude.
That two-week retreat inspired me to return to Japan many times to investigate, in more depth, the Japanese art and practice of self-reflection. I have yet to discover a more profound method for cultivating gratitude and reshaping our attitude and understanding of our lives.
Let’s consider three of the greatest obstacles to gratitude. They are:
We are so preoccupied with our own thoughts, feelings, needs and bodies that we have little attention left over to notice what is being done to support us. You might think of your attention as flashlight. As long as you shine the light on your problems, difficulties, and aches and pains, there is no light available for seeing what others are doing for you.
When I turn the switch on my bedside lamp I assume the light will go on as it (almost) always does. Once I’ve come to expect something, it doesn’t usually get me attention. My attention isn’t really grabbed until my expectation isn’t met (the light bulb doesn’t work). So my attention tends to gravitate away from what I expect and towards what I don’t expect.
The more I think I’ve earned something or deserve something, the less likely I am to feel grateful for it. As long as I think I’m entitled to something I won’t consider it a gift. But when I am humbled by my own mistakes or limitations, I am more likely to receive what I am given with gratitude and a true sense of appreciation for the giver as well as the gift.
To experience a sense of heartfelt gratitude we most overcome these three obstacles. Self-reflection provides a path for doing so. It allows us to pause to appreciate what is being given to us rather than focus on what we don’t have. It allows us to consider the countless objects and human beings that made it possible for me to get to work or turn on my computer. Through self-reflection, we can come to see everything we have, and are, as gifts. And through self-reflection we begin to train our attention to notice what we haven’t noticed.
It is rare to meet a person whose life is full of gratitude. Many people don’t truly appreciate what they have until it is gone. And having lost the opportunity to be grateful, they simply find another reason to be disappointed.
If you wish to cultivate gratitude you must develop a practice. Without practice, there is no development of skill—only an idea. You cannot become a grateful person just by thinking that you want to be grateful. Sometimes we are engaged in a practice, but we don’t think of it as a practice. For example complaining. Complaining is a wonderful practice if you wish to cultivate disappointment, resentment, and self-pity. Have you ever tried this practice? It is quite effective. Each time you complain you get better at complaining. It is like learning to play an instrument.
Most of us are better at the practice of complaining than at the practice of self-reflection. We have developed a habit of attention to notice the troubles others cause us. And we have developed a habit of speech—to complain to others about these troubles. But to cultivate gratitude, we need to develop a new habit of attention to notice the concrete ways in which the world supports us each day. And we can then develop a new habit of speech expressing our gratitude to others. So start your practice today. Notice. Reflect. Express. Hey, what’s that sound? Oh, it’s the alarm on my watch reminding me I have an appointment.What a nice feature. It frees up my mind to attend to other things. Thanks, watch. And thanks to my wife Linda who gave it to me. And thanks to all the people who made it. And thank goodness my finger works well enough to shut it off. Time to move on.