In 1993 Bill Moyers presented a five-part series on Public Broadcasting entitled “Healing and the Mind.” It was an exploration into holistic healing which took the viewers outside the traditional western approach to medicine. The final episode of the series took place in a retreat house in Bolinas, California where terminal cancer patients could spend a week receiving physical therapies, walk along the shore and enter into group discussions with the other participants. At the beginning of the group session the facilitator, Dr. Rachel N. Remen explained that each person in the circle would have a chance to tell their story and the others would listen uninterruptedly until each speaker concluded. She said, “we will not interrupt or ask questions, we will simply listen – because the most generous gift we can give another person is our undivided attention.”
Undivided attention. What a beautiful phrase. And what a luxury. It feels akin to gazing into a jewelry store window at a breathtakingly unattainable object! I could commence here with a screed about technology and how it has splintered our ability to concentrate however, that might be a smidge disingenuous coming from a man whose beloved iPhone never leaves his side for an instant. Rather, let me say that when I am in conversation with someone who gives me the lavish gift of their absorption, I feel blessed. I feel heard. I feel that I am being respected and appreciated. On the other hand, when the person with whom I am in conversation is staring determinedly at a gadget or looking over and around me to see who just entered the room, I feel diminishment. It requires a certain discipline in this modern world to sharpen our attention upon the human beings surrounding us. It means training the wandering mind to focus on one single thing.
What “out there” is more important than the person right in front of us?. So many people make excuses (including the writer of Journal of a Country Priest) for being distracted: multiple responsibilities, weariness, the absolute vital nature of everything surrounding me, however, how can we expect others to listen to us when we ourselves exhibit supreme unwillingness to stop all the activity, take a deep breath and attend to the here and now? I have a deeply held suspicion that whatever we are looking for on the phone, in the tablet or around the next corner is actually right in front of us, just waiting for us to finally see the light.“To often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Leo F. Buscaglia