Some people will celebrate today with flowers, chocolates, red and pink candies, heart shaped cakes, cards, gifts and/or romantic dinners. Festivity is fun, yet if one were to strip away the veneer of romance one would discover that to love another is, simply, to give one’s attention to them.
Yet, offering our attention and being present with another human being is not simple at all, particularly in the age of digital distraction. Imagine buying a bouquet of flowers, writing a card and preparing a beautiful meal for your date or partner, only to have them gaze lovingly at their social media feed as the two of you eat. It wouldn’t matter if you’d created a gorgeous dinner. Unless you’ve agreed in advance to include gadgets as guests, you might feel not-so-loved if their attention is divided or diluted. Technology can be seductive, but what has the potential to truly attract another, in an enduring way, is the capacity to give that person attention.
It might sound strange, but there is something about focusing attention that elicits feeling of, if not hot romantic love, then fondness and care. The choice or decision to give our attention comes first, the feelings flow from there. The world keeps telling us otherwise, that something or someone outside of us will make us feel a certain way, and only then will we decide to give our attention to it or them. But that is a bit like asking the world to audition for your attention rather than consciously choosing where to place your attention. Continuing to focus your attention, like watering a seed, will cause the affection to grow. And, as my Zen teacher likes to say, if we are struggling emotionally and can’t summon loving feelings for other human beings, we can start with what comes more easily: we can practice giving our attention to a pet, a plant, or the sunset, something that will allow us to connect with love in a non-threatening way.
I’ve discovered that sometimes it takes a camera lens to help me focus my attention. Last year I wrote about what I learned from photographing fire hydrants, a habit that started by accident but which grew into a micro-hobby and fun adventure. The more I began to notice them, the more I sought them out. That infatuation naturally faded. Yet, the other day I went to an urban neighborhood I hadn’t visited in a long time. Spotting a snow covered hydrant filled me with as much affection and delight as if I had just run into an old friend. That small yet surprising moment reminded me of the positive power of directing my attention. Until last year, the majority of fire hydrants would have failed my audition for not being exciting, sexy or exotic enough. They wouldn’t have moved my emotional needle at all. The moment also made me painfully aware of how, since the inauguration, I’ve relinquished my power by allowing my attention to be kidnapped by news and social media, completely forgetting my Zen teacher’s oft-repeated mantra that “one process does not lead to another”. Fixating on political developments will not, by some magical process, lead to less fixation, inner peace, emotional freedom or external change.
This Valentine’s Day, I am going to show myself some love by focusing my attention on what brings me joy. To look away from the headlines isn’t to deny what is happening but offers a chance to deliberately cultivate good feelings. What we focus our attention on grows; we can fertilize love or fear, joy or despair. The choice is ours, no matter where we are, whether or not it’s a Hallmark holiday.
Where will you place your attention today?
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