How well do you pay attention? Remember the grade school report cards? When I was in elementary school, we were graded on whether or not we made good use of our time, or how well we pay attention in class? It's not just kids who have problems paying attention. Adults struggle, too.
Our amazing brains process sensory inputs automatically. Most of these inputs are processed without conscious awareness. The human depends on the nervous system to react automatically to the environment, especially a threat. If the human consciously processed all sensory inputs before it acted, our species would be extinct. This is the human condition. It’s more than just having awareness.
Some clergy can get themselves into serious trouble. When clergy behave inappropriately it’s a problem for supervisors, and it can have a lasting impact on a congregation. I used to believe that clergy (who got into trouble) lacked awareness. Awareness is what boards of ordained ministry look for in candidates. Some people are oblivious to the impact they are having on others, and the impact others are having on them. But, it is not simply an issue of having awareness.
It is possible to “watch” (aka: have an awareness of) what is happening around oneself and still do what is automatic. In a congregational meeting, one can be clear about what one wants to say but struggle to bring themselves to say it. It can also be the case that one struggles not to say something that will be counterproductive to the meeting. They say it anyway. It's as if they cant help themselves. Paying attention and acting in a way that is consistent with one’s awareness is a challenge.
Paying attention includes activities like observing, researching and thinking. There is a process of observing. It includes intentionality, motivation and curiosity. It’s not in our nature to walk around every moment of every day observing the universe around us. But when one is intentional, motivated and curious it can lead to agency and action.
The greatest obstacle to the process of paying attention is the fear response. I’m sitting in a coffee shop trying to pay attention as I write this blog. Around me are sounds of children laughing, music playing, people talking on their cell phones, and bursts of sounds from the espresso machine. On some days, I can tune all of it out and focus on writing. On other days, it’s almost impossible to . . . to . . . to . . . focus. Then there are days when my attention is somewhere in the middle. What makes the difference? The activation and chronic level of the fear response, the levels of cortisol and other stress hormones released in the body and the bodies ability to down-regulate this process.
What triggers the fear response, how sensitive the response is, how quickly the response is engaged, how intense the response is, how quickly the response returns to baseline (if at all) and how chronic the response remains are all variables that are influenced by one’s family of origin. What we pay attention to and don’t pay attention to is a family systems process. Not from the past but in the present! It is happening now, in real time.
Attention is on a continuum of human functioning. At one end of the continuum are those who pay little to no attention to the universe around them. They are wrapped up in their own little world. At the other end are people who can get overly fixated on just about anything. I lead a drum circle with children and youth in my congregation. The key to playing in a drum circle is the ability to focus on playing a unique rhythm while at the same time playing in sync with the other drummers who are playing a different rhythm. If one listens too much to everyone else, they lose track of their rhythm. If one listens only to oneself, they will be out of sync with the group. It’s a balance.
Chronic anxiety can shift attention either away from others or towards others. As anxiety goes up in the relationship system, some people automatically move their attention away from others. Their level of discomfort moves them to disconnect and to shift their focus away to other things. For some, an increase in anxiety moves their attention towards others to control the behavior of others. In the former, we say “I’m out of here. Get away from me.” In the latter, we say, “Stop doing that. Do this.”
Differentiation of self makes a difference for those who struggle with paying attention. Differentiation of self is not about disengaging nor is it about becoming consumed with the behavior (irritating as it may seem) of others. It is about being aware of the impulse to do either and then to catch oneself. It’s a disruption of the automatic response in self. At one level, it is watching one’s behavior knowing that it is the result of synaptic signaling in the brain. At another level, it is watching the anxious "charge" that is passed between people in a relationship system and observing how it influences behavior. It is separating feelings from thinking and knowing where one stops and others begin.
Learning to pay attention is about slowing down one’s internal reactivity to others and being more thoughtful in the interactions with others. To this end, it may be useful to create a timeline of a specific interaction with someone important in the family. The timeline consists of mapping out who says what, when, where and to whom while at the same time tracking behavior. This exercise can be useful in understanding shifts in attention. When one says “X,” the spouse does “Y.” When the spouse does “Y,” one of the kids does “Z.” And so on. By slowing down the interactions and mapping them out, it is possible to observe how attention shifts away from and towards others. It is a system, so X, Y and Z are influencing each other at the same time.
For anyone willing to pay attention to how the family works, there is a treasure trove of understanding and opportunities available to even the most novice of voyagers. The adventure awaits!