One of the quickest ways to stop paying attention to the world around me is to think that I know what is happening–know it so well that I confuse my inner certainty and boundedness with my sense of observation and listening. When I think I know what is being said, what is being done, who people are, or what the nature of a situation is, I allow my mind to rely on my brain’s ability to speed up my perceptual experience. I’m much less likely to actually pay attention. When I think I know something, I can rely on my mental categories and rules, society’s structures that I have learned, and my habitual emotional responses as the indicators of what is going on. I can agree or disagree with something simply by noting quickly if it appears to be in line with who I’ve decided I am, who I wish to become, or who I wish to impress. But that is not paying attention.
Paying attention is a lot of work. If I ask my students to engage in a one-minute deep listening exercise with a partner, reflecting back everything they’ve heard, and increase the time to two minutes, then five…in less than ten minutes of listening time, they readily admit that it is a lot of work. Our memories are not accustomed to being used to recall everything we hear or experience; we rely intensely on using categorical and symbolic thinking, so we can use our precious energy for something other than attention. This is one reason it’s so much easier to take on a sort of “your team–my team” attitude to the world and our opinions. If I can simply know to what, to whom, and how to align my responses, then I can be ‘right,’ ‘cool,’ ‘someone to watch,’ or simply self-deluded about my own brilliance.
We learn that individuals who are paying attention, and who, through their responses to the world around us, call attention to our misperceptions, miscategorizations, and faulty judgment and actions based on our habitual modes of seeing the world–well, we learn that we should pressure them to conform, or forget about them altogether. We can simply categorize them as wrong and discredit them immediately, or apply social pressure by making apparent our conditons: “You’re either with us, or against us.” “Are you in or out?” “Team player or not?” “Part of the family?” Even being a rebel or critic takes on a typical and scripted way of being performed, so that in time those considered activists are doing and saying fairly little that actually impacts the social orthodoxies of our world. It hurts when we’re rejected, teased, ridiculed, or otherwise shown that we are not in agreement with those with whom we wish to be associated. And in most instances, this works to keep us acting in alignment with the secular orthodoxies that surround us, as well as in some instances, more formal orthodoxies of behavior on which membership to a part of humanity is determined. Or we may choose to harbor the wounds in isolation, rather than engaging in difficult interaction. Misery is actually easier than paying attention.
When we pay attention, it’s harder to go along with the automatic interpretations and reactions to the signified realities around us. When we pay attention, it’s harder to be considered ‘right,’ not only by others, but by the inner monitor of our categorical system of thought and response. We have to adjust and stay awake during the experience of our everyday life, spend less time in the subjective experience of our own habituated reactions, and processing the data of everyday life at all times. Being mindful isn’t just another category for feeling good about having made correct perceptual choices; it’s about being present and aware of what we’re actually living, what we’re hearing, what we have said and done, and where we are–what is happening. And being a heretic isn’t just some cool term for aligning ourselves with a notion of ourselves as rule-breakers, activists or renegades and mavericks. No, it’s the willingness to make our decisions based on the mindful experience of what is actually happening around us. The mindful heretic pays attention, and when it’s necessary to change course on the basis of what is happening, the mindful heretic doesn’t simply scream foul or come up with a trendy internet meme; the mindful heretic shifts direction in attitude, action, or posture. And not everyone is comfortable with that.
But if you’re paying attention, you’ve already figured out that when everyone is pleased with you all the time, your mind is probably not heavily engaged, even when you think you’re thinking. In fact, when I have become too comfortable with myself, that is probably a sign of functioning with a sort of habitual, couch-potato sort of mind. When it comes time to speak out about real injustice or unfairness, unethical practices or behaviors, it’s going to be a lot easier (to do what is not so easy to do), if we’ve cultivated the difficult art of paying attention, even when we get no social or ego reward for it.