Do you live your life preoccupied? Are you constantly distracted by a life that’s too busy, too full of activities? Or are you fully present, a participant in each moment of each day?
I was listening to a podcast the other day and Ariana Huffington was talking about the crazy life she once led as a business executive. She was heading up one of the fastest growing media companies in the world and by most societal measures she was wildly successful. All at a steep personal cost.
After one particularly grueling stretch of work, she literally passed out in her office, gashing her head in the process. Any time she spent with her children she spent totally preoccupied, thinking about her next meeting or the “to do” list at work. It was when a daughter called her out for not really listening to her when she talked, that Huffington came to the following realization:
Anything that matters requires your full attention.
We can also stop paying attention when our lives are dulled by routine. For several years, I’ve worked at the same job, traveled the same route to the office, performed similar tasks each day. I can testify to how easy it can be to walk through daily life with blinders on, not paying enough attention to the people and things around you.
What if we woke up each day and saw life for the first time?
It’s an idea that the author Alan Lightman put forward in his book Einstein’s Dreams. In one memorable chapter, a daydreaming Albert Einstein imagines a world where people awake each day with no memory, unaware of who they are or what role they play in life. Each morning, they need to consult notebooks to uncover the details of their lives.
They go to a job that is new and full of promise with co-workers they meet with interest. They return home to spouses they have never seen before and children they have never met. With great curiosity, they reacquaint themselves with each other and tell stories about the day’s events. When the children go to bed, they look in their spouse’s eyes and talk to them as if for the first time.
In this world, everyone’s life is full and rich because as Lightman puts it, “It is only habit and memory that dull the passion for life.” Without habit and memory, we would live each day as if it were a new and exciting adventure. Is it possible that we too could start each day with a similar perspective on life?
Thomas Moore believes we can bring this kind of fresh perspective to our own daily existence. In his book The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, Moore echoes Lightman, explaining how we must let go of what we know in order to uncover the new. Moore believes that:
The first step is to recover a beginner’s mind and a child’s wonder, to forget some of the things we have learned and to which we are attached. As we empty ourselves of disenchanted values, a fresh paradisiacal spirit may pour in…we may discover the nature of the soul and the pleasure of being a participant in the extravagance of life.
Whether we go through life as if we have seen, done and heard it all before—or are so busy that we ignore the people around us, we stop being fully human. We lose the ability to tune in to the small details of life that have the power to surprise and delight us. We miss the nuances that add texture and meaning to our lives.
The good news: solving our attention-deficit problem is easy.
- We need to make a conscientious effort to live at a slower and more thoughtful pace, open to the people and places and experiences we encounter.
- We need to walk through life alive and alert, our eyes wide open, looking a little bit longer, listening a little more intently, digging a little deeper.
- We need to start interacting with life as it interacts with us.
When we teach ourselves to look past the things we know and expect, we may be surprised. We may find that our lives are richer and full of more interesting and rewarding experiences than we ever imagined. We may notice that the happiness and fulfillment we’ve been chasing has been with us all along.