Pay Attention and Engage — That’s Life Going By

By Gina Barreca
The Hartford Courant.

I’m pretty much done with mindfulness. I’m just going to start paying attention.

Detachment is now as overrated as quinoa and just about as inspiring. Mindfulness has become, at least for the non-practicing Buddhists among us, an often-convenient excuse for shirking the hard work of making decisions and shrugging off life’s emotional bill.

As I understand it, mindfulness is the cultivation of an evenly hovering experience of present awareness, which means being open and receptive to everything without passing judgment or reacting reflexively.

Personally, I stopped paying attention to that definition after the ninth word.

And yet I’m somebody who’s pretty good at paying attention.

I cut my teeth on the phrase “Pay attention, kid, and you just might learn something” because the person saying it was usually right: I learned something by watching or listening and was then able to imitate or avoid whatever they were doing.

You paid attention to your grandmother in the kitchen and learned to make spittini so perfect you still never order them even in a five-star restaurant because the ones you make at home are better.

You paid attention when the cousin who wore too much eye-liner and thought girls should let boys win got married in a tent-dress, then had a baby seven months later. You decided to put your hand up in class and shout out the right answers even if the teacher, who also thought girls should let boys win, wouldn’t call on you.

You learned to make decisions, judgments and choices. You joined the world’s conversation, which meant being informed and speaking out.

You learned to take sides, even when you could see the valid points made by the opposition. You developed opinions and embraced beliefs because you discovered that news, history and institutions, formed by those in power, shaped both culture and environment and did not merely reflect them.

You want more than to be “in” the moment because being “in” it isn’t enough. You want to throw your arms around it and hold onto it, wringing every bit of intensity, significance and pleasure from the moment the way you’d wring water out of a wet cloth.

It’s impossible, of course: Every moment, like water, evades, slips away, turns into something else.

As Heraclitus (a friend from the old neighborhood) used to say, no one can ever step in the same river twice.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t want to make a splash, or immerse yourself entirely, or soak it all up.

It’s true that mindfulness keeps the surface tension unbroken and calm; in its unwillingness to choose and its inability to commit, it certainly does keep its options open.

But this tidy sense of disengagement comes at a great cost: One forgoes passion, fascination and an urgent sense of purposefulness in order to preserve inwardly focused self-regulation.

Paying attention is hard work. It’s like putting pressure on a wound, you can’t let up or it starts bleeding again, but you know there’s blood in your veins. Not only will it keep you alive; it will help you deal with others who have been wounded.

In many ways, mindfulness and detachment have taken the place of multi-tasking, or perhaps they’re multi-tasking’s offspring. If you do everything simultaneously and without pausing, trying always to see the big picture without focusing on any one thing, the likelihood of creating something, grasping a new idea or initiating something of consequence thins out, like pastry rolled too fine, to the point where its integrity is diminished.

Multi-tasking was whole-grain; mindfulness is a smoothie.

Do you really want to make all of life’s experiences into a smoothie?

Do you really want to blend it all into a cleansing mixture that you can have alone, without the mess of human interaction? By throwing everything in together, even if it’s healthy, don’t you remove the texture and flatten the taste? There’s no crispness or crunch, no warm center or surprising sudden spice. You might as well take time by injection, removing the piquancy of fun, loyalty and intensity altogether.

Surely we were given our brief lives for more than a walk through the world with a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging from our necks?
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant

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