An experiment of the Theosophical Society in Israel in offering some Theosophical principles to the public in simplified and practical form.
Lesson 4 (out of 5 Lessons)
Practicing Attentiveness, Concentration and Mindful Listening toward Ourselves and Others
In the earlier sessions we learned how to be attentive to a situation we are in, to let go of tension and to release negative thoughts and emotions. We saw that when we are aware of our bodies, emotions and beliefs and observe them empathically, we can bring calm to ourselves and improve the quality of our lives. In the last session we especially concentrated on controlling our thoughts.
We learned how to transform our negative thoughts and habits to positive ones. You were asked to begin such a process during the past week. You are invited to share your experiences. The objective of our session today is to deepen our understanding and experience of being attentive, focused and mindfully listening to ourselves and others.
Is this an everyday experience in our lives?! Yes and no. We are familiar with such situations, of course – to be attentive, to concentrate, to be focused, to mindfully listen; but, do we use these abilities enough and properly to better our lives? Do we make use of these tools? We each have a different answer. Today we will define these situations, understand how they influence the quality of our lives and practice using them.
Let us start with definitions.
Concentration: focusing our attention on one thing while all the rest remains in the background.
Attention/Mindfulness: complete conscious presence in anything we do.
Mindful listening/attentiveness to others: to give another all our attention, without criticism, judgment or distracting thoughts.
Mindful attentiveness/ listening to ourselves: to be completely attentive to the sensations of our body and mind (our emotions and thoughts).
We can see that these four elements are all connected to attention – four headings that articulate one idea TO BE MINDFUL! Why is this important?
HOW DO WE FUNCTION WHEN WE ARE MINDFUL? What happens to us when we "forget ourselves"? It's clear to all of us that our effectiveness decreases when we have difficulty concentrating and our thoughts wander. When we are not focused we make errors and have difficulty in remembering things. As a result our self-confidence is diminished and increases our chances of failing to perform our tasks properly.
When doing something with only partial attention, we are not present in what we do. When we are not present in the here and now experience, we become disconnected from what we are doing and our ability to enjoy the activity decreases. When we don't listen attentively to another, our ability to learn and get to know the other person decreases, hurting the relationship.
When we are not attentive/ mindful to ourselves – to our body, emotions and thoughts, we lose our connection with ourselves. As a result our ability to understand the forces that act upon us is weakened, impairing our ability to change the factors that are detrimental to us.
Let's try now to be fully concentrated, focused, and mindful to our body as we do some exercises that we are already familiar with.
Let's look first at the skill of concentration – or focusing - which is the ability to hold a thought about an object or idea (concrete or abstract) without wandering to other topics (that are in the background). When and if other thoughts enter our minds, not related to the topic we are focusing on, we see them; we don't fight them but just return gently to focus on the primary thought. This is an exercise that we initiate.
This situation is similar to the idea of placing a flashlight on a certain object while the rest of the area around it remains in darkness. Details of the enlightened object stand out and are easier to see. Our attention – awareness – is like the flashlight that pours light on the subject we are focusing on. When our thoughts are concentrated on a particular subject, we discern more meaning in it than when we are only partially attentive. Another illustration is like pouring water on a surface with an object on it. The water will disperse all around it. However, if the object is in an indented channel, the water will flow into the channel in the direction of the object and perhaps even pull it with the force of the flow.
Our energy is concentrated in focused situations and scattered when not focused. When we are focused and channel our thoughts in one direction, we create power and forcefulness.
Exercise – Consciously experiencing situations of focus and dispersion:
Sit comfortably... close your eyes and relax... silently count your breath from one to twenty: inhale – exhale 1, inhale – exhale 2... Follow your breathing. When your thoughts wander (your attention scatters) count again from the beginning.
WHY is it so hard for us to concentrate? Here are a few reasons:
• The very tendency of the human mind of jumping from interest to interest requires us to make an effort to focus our thoughts on one thing.
- If there is an interest, you can elaborate: Concentration on one thing is a foreign thing for our minds because during evolution our thoughts needed to be very connected to our senses for the purpose of survival. At times of danger, staying alive depended upon the quick response to any stimulus and upon the ability to jump quickly from one stimulus to another. Today we are also more focused when in danger, but when there is no danger, we tend to jump from one thing to another (jumping from one thing to another characterizes children and animals today). The objective is to bring the mind to be focused even when there is no danger.
• An inability to ignore external background factors (noise, sights, smells)
• A tendency for chattering thoughts, like chewing one's cud, so that thoughts come and go and take over our attention. We tend to run from what is happening within us. Our cognition faces outward and has difficulty in being aware of what is going on within us, especially when dealing with uncomfortable emotions and negative thoughts. If we focus on what is happening within us, thoughts disappear.
• Internal things disturb our concentration (as opposed to the second reason mentioned above).
In sum: Frequently our mind (emotions and thoughts) is not under our control. We focus spontaneously on what pulls at our attention (a pink elephant, for example) – something interesting, funny, surprising. The objective is to turn our thoughts into a tool that we control by INITIATED FOCUS.
Why is it important to control thoughts? How does the ability to focus contribute to the quality of our lives?
- It's very important to arouse the participants' motivation to practice focusing because: The ability to focus enables more acute discernment, sharpens memory, raises self-confidence and most importantly – promotes our ability to prevent negative thoughts and emotions from taking over, thus enabling us to choose not to be drawn into places of suffering.
The ability to focus enables us to consciously bring forth positive thoughts and emotions to promote calm and tranquility.
Further, concentration is necessary for meditation, which is the primary tool for improving the quality of life.
We can improve our concentration through exercises and practice!
Exercise – let's try another exercise:
Let's enter the quiet... sit comfortably... take a few deep breaths... relax your body...Silently say these words – PEACE...TRANQUILITY... QUIET... Repeat these words several times... with intention...and remain with them for some moments. Additionally, imagine the sky...with a paint brush paint these words in the sky... while concentrating on the meaning of the words...
We very gently return from this exercise.
What did you feel?
These positive words – Peace, tranquility, quiet – positively influence our consciousness and create a positive change in how we feel. It is highly beneficial to use this exercise in our daily lives – to stop and connect to ourselves using positive words.
Let’s go on to the second skill – Paying Attention / mindfulness
To be attentive/ mindful is to be completely present with our awareness in anything we do. It means that we are completely present in the experience, and not just with a part of ourselves . To work attentively is to place your heart – your 'self' – in the work. When we learn to be present in situations we begin to discover things that we had not seen before.
With our ability to be present in situations we change them. For example: There is a function in a company that is not highly estimated or valued. A new person who is mindful/attentive joins and takes over this job/function. He/she discovers new potential in the job that no one saw previously and in so doing changes the nature of the job.
What is the objective of attention/mindfulness?
The goal of mindfulness is to be in the NOW and not filled with mental chattering or judgmental thoughts. It means to meet life from an authentic, real and non imaginary place, to accept that ugliness is a part of life, also. When we are not mindful we miss out on life – we live in the past or in the future – but not in the present. The present can also be unpleasant – but that is part of life. When we allow ourselves to accept the uncomfortable or the painful it ceases to be so horrible. It is possible to lower the intensity of pain by mindfulness. By changing our attitude toward the pain and accepting it, we transform it into a bearable situation. On the other hand, if we habitually run from the uncomfortable, we will always be escaping.
We know that learning and lessons can appear through painful situations (and perhaps mostly through painful situations), and if we run from them we don't learn from the message of our pain. For example: If I'm having difficulty at work, what can I learn about myself from that? When we are mindful, we make fewer mistakes and fail less because we can discover the pitfalls along the way in time, and avoid falling into them. We are able to discover the source of problems, reasons for results in time and change things accordingly. Only if we agree to encounter the good and the bad in life will we be able to see the beauty of the moments that constitute our lives (that we otherwise tend to see as not important).
Time is one moment after the other... minute by minute.
Exercises – Let's experience mindfulness:
Let's eat a raisin mindfully.
-Give each participant a raisin. Ask the participants to hold it in their hand – to look at its appearance, its texture, color, at the shades of light in its folds... bring the raisin close to your mouth, touch your lips with it and feel the sensation of your lips meeting the raisin... take a tiny bite and sense the taste... take another bite and another...see that the raisin can be a whole meal...we are satisfied.
Let's consider the essence of mindful listening to another. What does it mean to mindfully listen to another? How do we listen mindfully? Mindful Listening means giving your complete attention to another person, to be completely present in that encounter – to be in the here and now. To mindfully listen is to be quiet within, to open ourselves without labeling or judging, without formulating our responses in our minds. When we listen – we avoid creating barriers and defenses because that prevents the flow of nonverbal information... and the goal of listening is to absorb more than the words – we want to listen to the meaning and intentions that are beyond the words.
To encounter another truly, cleanly is not simple! The mind (the calculator, the field of thoughts) has a tendency to chatter all the time and to contract when it is uncomfortable. The mind has expectations from encounters (what will I get out of it) and therefore, real listening requires practice over a long period of time.
Exercise – Let's try listening to another according to the qualities we learned:
We'll divide into pairs and each one will tell the other about a difficulty he/she experienced at some time. The partner will listen... without confirming, advising, chattering thoughts and will be empathetic to the speaker. Each person will speak for 5 minutes – The listeners will observe the rules of mindful listening.
- During the exercise observe the couples, their body language, the amount of patience they display to sit quietly and listen to another, etc.
When listening one should express empathy from the outset and radiate "I'm with you." It is important not to shake your head in confirmation. Sit opposite the speaker and look into his/her eyes (unless you feel it is not comfortable for the person).
A number of levels of listening can be discerned:
Listening to the words and getting lost in thoughts; listening to the words and hearing all that is said; listening without trying to formulate responses and without judgment; listening while showing empathy to the other, which encourages the speaker to open up. More than verbal information flows in the last situation enabling the listener to understand the other person better. This understanding means that we truly know what can help the other and what can hurt him/her – which we should avoid. During the process of empathetic listening energy is created that lifts both participants and forms a sense of connection and elation. In true listening our field of thoughts is quiet – so we don't create a separation of "I" – "thou". Our awareness is what is listening from a place deep within us creating the special energy of listening.
How can we mindfully listen to others in everyday life? It's recommended to form habits that help promote entering a listening state in addition to the rules of listening that we spoke of earlier:
• Paying attention to our breathing – for example: When the telephone rings we make a habit of paying attention to our breathing and taking a deep breath before answering. This way we begin the conversation with a connection to ourselves.
• Swallowing saliva – creates a state of transition to something new... to a state of listening.
• Sitting up straight during the conversation, because uprightness facilitates listening.
Lastly, we shall learn to mindfully listen to ourselves.
To listen to ourselves is to be with our complete attention on what is going on within us – in our bodies and in our minds. Generally, our attention faces outwards – external stimuli draw our attention. We don't really listen to ourselves and as a result we don't really understand ourselves – our inner world. When we don't listen to ourselves there is a lot of inner noise inside us. Why?
When we don't stop to give attention to our emotions they will continue to send us messages from our minds. If the messages and their accompanying emotions are negative, we are creating inner pollution. Our inability to listen to ourselves results in our becoming filled with negative thoughts and emotions, which in turn, causes us to fear looking inside. This fear causes us to run from ourselves and thus we distance ourselves further from our inner world.
Where do we escape to? We escape to excessiveness and addictions – to work, reading, television, partying, traveling, excessive eating, drugs, alcohol, etc. This avoidance behavior brings us to a dead end, where we remain stuck with fears and angers.
How do we practice listening to ourselves?
• The beginning may be difficult because pain, anger and negative emotions can emerge after accumulating within us as described above. This process is a part of letting go of the excess baggage and we shouldn't be alarmed or discouraged by it.
• Afterwards, listening will give rise to insights about ourselves – Why do we feel these feelings? What is the source of our anger and pain? We shouldn't press ourselves to get answers, nor should we intellectually analyze them – we just let things be and come forth.
• The next step is to bring empathetic thought for OURSELVES in the process. We bring more heart quality to our mind; give more value to our soul and warmth to ourselves. Listening with this quality dissipates negative emotions and thoughts.
• A little by little Inner observation develops. We look inwards from the place of the empathetic investigator – not the rigid, judgmental investigator. At this stage we pay attention to the hurt places within us, as if a deeper layer of our consciousness brings empathy to another, more superficial part of ourselves –Looking from the Soul to the ego. The deeper place within us observes the other place with compassion (not self-pity). We accept ourselves the way we are – the beautiful and the less beautiful. This situation creates peace.
Exercise – Now we'll experience mindfulness/ attentiveness during meditation.
Meditation focused on mindfulness. (About 15 minutes)
Enter quiet. Let's place empathetic attention on our body...Observe your body in a friendly way... accept its sensations... breathe blessings into places where there is tension, contractions, and allow them to open up at their own rhythm...continue to observe your body... relax it...release tension without resisting any discomfort, if there is any...
Create a place... a space for emotions... identify them... contain them... accept them... become friends with them... listen to your feelings...are they good for you? Is there any disturbance in the space created for your emotions? Identify it... accept it... do not struggle with it..let it dissolve of itself.
By empathetically observing the thoughts and emotions that come forth, by letting them be. They become less painful; the noise within us decreases. We begin to feel peace... Be attentive and enjoy this inner peace...
Money perishes in the using, but knowledge and love multiply as you give them away and share them with your fellow men; if you have knowledge and give it, you are none the poorer. You yourself know the better, because you have tried to teach.