On attention

June 26, 2023   |   1 Comment

Hello Open Heart Project,

Seth Godin, the marketing genius, writer, teacher, and all-around awesome person is one of my idols. I receive his blog posts every day and, although our topics are different, in many ways I model my work on his for its clarity, usefulness, and soulfulness.

He wrote a wonderful post about how empathy is the most important component of strategic marketing. If we can’t see the world through our customer’s eyes, understand what motivates them to act, have insight into why they make the decisions they do, our efforts to connect with them may be clumsy and dense.

What he writes about easily applies to the world of relationships altogether, whether they take place on the sales floor or around your kitchen table.

In both cases, the ability to connect genuinely is paramount.

The way to connect genuinely is to let your preconceptions and judgments about a person go, open your mind and heart to them, and see them.

Meditation teaches us how to let go of concept and open again and again to the present moment.

By the way, his most recent book, Song of Significance, is truly wonderful.

It’s as if we are all walking around with a movie playing inside our heads—an endless repeating loop that runs the story of who we are and what life is like, what we expect and what we fear. Imagine a lens stuck right in the middle of your forehead and everywhere you turn, your movie is projected onto the environment. Whoever walks through your set is cast in a role. Some people are extras, some are supporting characters, others may take on leading roles. Occasionally we fire the director or hire a new screenwriter, but basically there is this sense of narrative, based on—what? Well, who knows. Probably some combination of personal history, cultural bias, soap operas and eons of karma.

People can tell when they’ve lost dimension in your eyes and are seen mainly as characters in your drama, no matter how beautifully cast. I tell you, they do not care for it. And we all know exactly what it feels like to be in their shoes—to be seen as a label or category. Awful.

It might even be said that this—the inability to open our eyes to see others without an overlay of concept—is not only at the heart of inelegant marketing but also of everything from bad first dates to failed peace negotiations. I am totally not exaggerating.

It is certainly at the heart of our difficulties in love. If we can only see our ideas about a person rather than the person himself, what do we mean when we say, “I love you?”

There are two tools that have helped me in a very profound way to open my eyes and heart to others.

The first, of course, is meditation. It’s amazing that this very, very simple technique of placing attention on breath, noticing thought, and letting it go has revolutionized my relationships.

When we practice letting thoughts go to return to breath, we are practicing letting go of concept to come back to the present moment. After all, our breath can only be in the present. There is no such thing as connecting with a breath in the past or future. This comes in so handy with other people, when we can let go of our ideas, hopes, and fears about them to instead place our attention on them. (People tend to love this, btw.)

The Zen priest and poet John Tarrant Roshi said, “Attention is the most basic form of love. Through it we bless and are blessed.” I try to work this into every conversation because it is just that meaningful and true. If attention is the basic form of love and meditation practice is working with attention, well, there you have it. When we practice meditation, we practice love.

The second tool is called the Enneagram. Anyone who has known me for longer than, say, 10 seconds, knows that after Tarrant Roshi’s quote on attention, this is the topic I am next most likely to work into conversation. It’s for your own good, people!! The Enneagram is called a system of personality typing, but saying so is like saying that John Coltrane was a sax player. It just goes way beyond that.

The Enneagram describes nine personality types and, yes, you are one of them. So am I. But it is not about ghettoizing people and being all, “oh you’re a two, you hate your own needs,” or “you’re an eight, you’re going to try to boss me around,” it’s about being able to see the world from another’s point of view.

The Enneagram describes 9 patterns of placement of attention. When the 9 types walk into a room, 9 different things will get their attention. In conversation, 9 different things will matter to them. This is very useful information to know. In fact, it is beyond useful because when you know your own type, you can see how you are different than others and stop faulting them (and yourself) for seeing the world in a different way. When you know another’s type, you can stop holding them to your particular standards.

So, for me, meditation practice is absolutely the foundation. Without it, I would have no idea how to pay attention to anything but my own internal chatter, which, though sometimes amusing, is often quite irrelevant. But the Enneagram has been my primary tool for taking the fruits of meditation—the ability to pay attention—out into my world of relationships, work, creative pursuits, and so on. I use the Enneagram every single day of my life and have for the 15 or so years I’ve studied it. I use it to communicate more clearly by improving my timing, choosing the right words, and then being able to let go of my expectations of what a proper response should look like and actually listen instead. People tend to love this, too. Plus it’s just way more efficacious and cuts out a lot of useless drama. (Which I tend to love.)

How has understanding another person’s point of view changed your relationship with that person? I’d love to hear from you.

Warmly, Susan

PS: To go deeper into practicing with both meditation and the enneagram, I’m teaching an in-person retreat in Austin, Texas from 11-15 October 2023. You’ll find the details here. I’d love to practice with you.

PPS: T0 learn meditation and receive ongoing support, join the Open Heart Project sangha.

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1 Comment

  • Posted by:  Blair Abee

    I love your comment “The way to connect genuinely is to let your preconceptions and judgments about a person go, open your mind and heart to them, and see them.” And that meditation is the path to being able to do this. Enables me to see through my sacred eyes and acknowledge, “The Eternity in me acknowledges the Eternity in you.” And I can see how understanding the enneagram system can sharpen the ability to see the essence in another as well.

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