Saturday, March 19, 2011

Pay Attention! - A Long Life Isn't Measured In Years

I’ve seen some wonderful sunsets in my life, but my wife Kathleen taught me how to experience them.

Fifteen years ago we lived in Miami Beach. Our condo had a backdoor patio. Beyond the patio was a narrow strip of grass, and beyond that was a dock where we had a west-looking view of the Biscayne Bay that extended about a mile. The play of light on this expanse of water created some dramatic sunsets. Most evenings we would pour a glass of wine, sit next to each other on the patio and wait for the show.

1996 photo by Kathleen Scott, used with permission.
Sunsets affected her emotionally. Once the colors began to illuminate, Kathleen didn’t want to talk. This time was sacred. Her face angled slightly to receive the light, and she took slow, deep breaths, as if she were breathing in the light. After a while, tears would form so suddenly that they seemed to squirt from her eyes. She would sigh audibly.

Later, she might point to a part of the sunset she found particularly beautiful. “See the gold outline of the edge of that cloud? See how it brightens the purple underside? Isn’t that wonderful?”

Yes, it was. But I hadn’t noticed it until she pointed it out to me.

I had a lot to learn.

We would watch every stage of the sunset until the sun was gone and the high clouds overhead turned black. The event usually lasted about thirty or forty minutes, but it seemed like hours.

Not long ago a friend of mine returned from a cruise to Alaska. She talked ecstatically about seeing massive glaciers and a flock of three dozen eagles. One of the eagles flew within twenty feet of her. “The first day seemed like three days,” she said.

I think minutes that seem like hours and hours that seem like days are fairly universal human experiences. Kathleen likes to say that “time is elastic.” An hour isn’t an hour, after all.

Whether a span of time seems like a brief moment or an extended experienced depends on how you pay attention to what happens. During the past 20 years I've read extensively about the human brain, and along the way I learned some interesting facts. One is that our brain lets us focus attention on only one thing at a time. We may focus on what’s happening around us, such as a visual image or a sound. Or we can turn our attention to a memory, a logical thought process, or something imagined. So if I choose to analyze the pros and cons of something that happened earlier, my mind will focus on these thoughts instead of what’s happening around me. My consciousness may shift in and out of the present moment, but while I’m lost in thought, I’ll have remembered only a few brief fragments of what was happening. As a result, that period will seem a lot briefer than it actually was.

On the other hand, if you can block out all thoughts except sensing what’s happening in front of you, you can integrate each and every second of the experience into long-term memory. The result will be a very dense collection of second-by-second memories. Packed with so much rich detail, a few minutes of remembered experience will seem to have lasted a much longer time.

What I’ve learned from Kathleen’s sunsets is that an event can feel like a spiritual experience, so that a lifetime of such events might seem like a thousand years. Or the same event can be perceived as a brief, petty annoyance. It all depends on how I pay attention to it.

I realize now that I’ve lived a lot of my life in a state of distraction. At times this may have been necessary, but I know I missed a lot. I’m not sure how much life I have left, but if I don’t fully experience the important things that are going on around me, in the end my memories won’t add up to much. It could be the worst kind of mistake — the equivalent of wasting the rest of my life. The “life story” I’d be left with at the end would seem all too brief.

And there would be no way to undo the mistake.

A Fortune Cookie...

Slow down, and you’ll notice what you’ve been missing.

The story behind the Fortune Cookies...

Post by Dennis E. Coates, Ph.D., Copyright 2011. Building Personal Strength .

1 comment:

Kathleen Scott said...

True, all of it.

And no matter what you missed before, you have today.