am I asking the right question?

Life is about asking questions.

Not to find the answer, necessarily.

But to inquire.

To be curious.

To learn; not by possessing some new knowledge, but by expressing an intention of openness to life’s experiences.

As a young student of the behavioural sciences I recall being taught that questions drive science forward, that seeking the answers to those questions lays the path for discovery. I also recall a distinct moment of intrigue when I realised that finding a definitive answer is not always the most desirable or helpful outcome. Sometimes the more interesting and useful discovery is in learning that the question being asked is not the best one to be asking.

Hence, am I asking the right question?

Whatever the situation, experience or challenge being analysed, finding the right question to ask can be more powerful and more freeing than having a definitive answer.

the freedom of focus

Thanks for your patience during my June break from blogging.  I was surprised to learn that I missed the regularity of connecting with the outside world through the written word. And I missed the focus that comes from being accountable to others. It’s good to be back!

And before I move on with this week’s article…  Today Canada celebrates its 147th birthday. Happy Canada Day to all my Canadian readers.

Having returned to working in an office environment, I’m adjusting to having less control over the flow and focus of my working day than I had become accustomed to in recent years. Here’s what I’m discovering about how to retain internal control within the landscape of interludes and diversions. I trust it’s useful to you in whatever working environment you find yourself.

dealing with distractions

It’s easy to be distracted. During the work hours of the day, I especially find my attention dispersed in different directions. Often I find myself flitting back and forth between several tasks and as a result, accomplishing very little, very slowly. My solution is to first notice this habit; secondly, recognise it as inefficient; and thirdly, accept that I can accomplish more, in less time when I decisively prioritise.

For an egalitarian who regards everyone as having equal importance, prioritising tasks is not always easy. And since I know that what I do at work has a direct impact on people’s lives and health, prioritising one person over another sometimes presents a dilemma. Prioritising requires postponement.  For every task or person I decide to prioritise, the needs of others are inevitably postponed. However, what I also know to be equally true is that people prefer to wait for my undivided attention than feel I am distracted and inattentive.  It is a more satisfying experience for both myself and the other person (or people) when I choose to be fully present with them. This includes choosing to be fully present when attending to tasks and decisions that affect their life and health. My focus solely on them and their needs at that time, demonstrates respect for them as a fellow human being.

So, how do I prioritise? Given that this is the trickiest part of the process for me (and one which I’m still refining), this is often where dealing with distractions can fall apart. However, here’s what I’m working on.  (1) I measure urgency by assessing potential for harmful impact, i.e. is it possible to eliminate or reduce additional suffering by attending to this person or completing this task immediately? (2) I estimate the dispersion affect, i.e. the number of people who will be affected by my decision to delay or attend to a task. (3) I consider for how long this task or person may already have waited i.e. all else being equal it may be a simple decision based on ‘first come, first served’.

Once I’ve made my decision on which priority to attend to, I focus solely on that task or person by reminding myself that my clients and colleagues deserve my undivided attention and that those who are waiting will have exactly that at a later time.

The advantage of this process is that I’m more attentive, efficient and respectful, simply by being completely focussed and entirely present.

uninvited interruptions

Of course, interruptions happen. And the process of prioritsing needs to be reapplied, often several times in the day. For me, accepting the inevitability of interruptions is ninety percent of the solution in managing their potential impact on my working day.  Graciousness and the ability to immediately re-focus are the additional ten percent of the solution.

the myth of multi-tasking

There’s a subculture whose members have adopted great pride in their perceived ability to multi-task. It is a false economy. Attempting to attend to several tasks simultaneously is actually not attending to any task at all. Something will be missed. Someone will feel neglected, unheard or misunderstood. Decisions will be reached that are ineffective or lacking in insight. Inevitably, re-doing becomes necessary or the task is not completed to the highest of standards. At the very least, it’s a less than satisfying experience to be dividing one’s attention between tasks. As much as we humans like to admire the intricate, complex workings of our minds and consciousness, we can truly attend to only one thing at one time. The sooner we accept this and embrace it as a reason to develop attentiveness and focus, the sooner our lives will become more centred, grounded and satisfying.

focus brings freedom

Cultivating concentrated focus is the best way to remain efficient and centred. We can call it one-pointedness, being singularly attentive, developing good concentration; it doesn’t matter how we label it. What matters is practicing it. Activating this principle in our every-day working lives brings a sense of freedom. Freedom that comes from giving ourselves permission to be attentive, present and focussed to only the task at hand. Freedom that comes from giving ourselves permission to return later to whatever we have decided is not currently a priority for our attention.

My departing words to you are borrowed from one of my favourite teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh, as written in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness:

“Whatever the tasks, do them slowly and with ease, in mindfulness. Don’t do any task in order to get it over with. Resolve to do each job in a relaxed way, with all your attention.”

the human cost of unnecessary noise

The noise we experience in today’s world encompasses more than that which penetrates our ears. In today’s vernacular the word noise is often used as a synonym for busyness or excessive stimulation beyond the auditory. In this sense, noise is our prolonged use of screen technology through the visual senses; it’s the bombardment of advertising that we’re exposed to; it’s someone else’s choice of music as we walk through the city streets; it’s the emotional drama of someone else’s argument because we happen to be in earshot of their telephone call; it’s the rushing from one appointment or task to the next without stopping to notice that we’re alive and breathing.

As soon as we step out into the world beyond the sanctuary of our home, we are exposed to an overwhelming plethora of other people’s noise.

Our surroundings can also be a source of noise or excessive stimulation. The places in which we spend our time, particularly indoors, can be unnecessarily busy. We gather objects around us believing they will enhance our life in some way. And often the result is questionable.  The more we own, the more time and effort we expend taking care of possessions and belongings.

Instead we could be taking care of each other.

When was the last time you looked someone in the eye and said Good Morning or How are you with sincerity and intention? Not to be polite or to comply with social etiquette, but to really listen for the response. Are you ready to hear the answer, are you truly interested in hearing how someone is feeling today?

A few years ago I was sitting in a café, observing the people around me and noticed two young women sitting at a nearby table. After an initial hello and a momentary head lift to acknowledge one another, they sat for the next fifteen or twenty minutes texting other friends and browsing the web on their respective mobile devices. This was interspersed with occasional three or four word sentences to update one another on someone else’s goings on. I was astounded at their lack of ability to connect with one another. In close vicinity was a real person, a living being, sitting at the table with them, but there was no eye contact, no exchange of meaningful conversation, no sharing of stories about one another’s lives. There was no real connection. Since that time, I’ve witnessed similar incidents again and again.

I find myself intensely saddened by such scenes. The human cost of the noisy world that we live in is not insignificant. We pay with our deteriorating mental capacity that no longer engages in stimulating conversation. We pay with our receding hearts and depleted souls because we’re reluctant to establish contact with another living being. The art of conversation is rapidly dying. The art of connecting to another human is dying. Death and depletion of our sense of humanity is the cost of excessive unnecessary noise.

Are we willing to lower the volume of noise, busyness and distraction in our lives? Are we willing to simplify our lives and truly pay attention to our neighbours, to our friends, to our colleagues? Are we ready to pause between tasks and choose to notice one another? Or will we continue to blindly pay the insurmountable cost of unnecessary noise in our lives?

boundaries, connection and hearing “no”

Recently, I have had cause to revisit my response to not being heard. Sometimes I believe I’m giving a direct and clear message and yet my conveyance is unheard and unheeded. What is taken from me is more than I have freely offered. Despite any polite and courageous insistence and persistence with my message, it is disregarded. I’m left with a sense of having been disrespected and violated.

The experience has been a catalyst for me to contemplate my own capacity to truly hear the message no. Whether it is spoken aloud with words or spoken quietly with gestures, heeding the message no, is the one of the most respectful ways we can honour our relationships with one another.

There are times when we take more than what is offered. There are also times when what is taken from us is more than we have freely given. Both are, without doubt, forms of theft. And as a result, boundaries are violated, trust is torn asunder and hope for a meaningful connection is lost.

We can only feel a true sense of community and connection with our fellow humans when we are safe in the knowledge that our sense of self will not be violated in any way. Connection with others is only truly meaningful when it is mutually respectful. And if one party is unable or unwilling to demonstrate sincerity of heart in recognizing and heeding this unwritten, unspoken etiquette, then there is no hope for a worthwhile connection.

When my interactions with someone continually steal my quiet internal peace, I bear the burden of an irritated psyche. I then wonder what part I have played in permitting that to happen. Typically, I have failed in some way to give myself full respect. I have denied my worth as a human entity, that is equal to all and above or beneath no-one in my standing in society.

It is our right to be heard and it is our responsibility to hear. It is our duty of kindness to others, to listen. It is equally our duty of kindness to ourselves, to listen. To listen for when we are not being heard by others, and to hear for ourselves. If we are able to be present with ourselves and attentive to our own message, then perhaps that’s all we need, perhaps we don’t require others to hear us. Perhaps by fully hearing our own message and respecting it, we are able to behave in a way that demonstrates self-respect, so that others will follow suit and show us the respect we need.

Our Judea-Christian culture exhorts us to show others the respect that we desire to be shown. However, I have often found that in spite my respect for others, this deference is not reciprocated. I believe that a useful prologue to that adage is to show ourselves the respect that we desire from others.


image (2)

Space between breaths

Space between words

Space between thoughts

Space to expand into awareness

There is no need to fill the space

Allow the space to be spacious

Photograph courtesy of G.Cwiklewich

be present

We do not know when we will next have the opportunity to be with this person in whose company we now find ourselves. We do not know when we will next be in the presence of those we love.

We do not know. We may plan. We may anticipate. We may desire and prepare.

But we do not know.

Decide now, to be attentively and intentionally present. For this person, with this person. With your whole self. With every fibre in your being. With your heart and body. Be physically present, be spiritually present.

Resist the distractions that tempt your attention outside of the present situation. Whatever it is that would distract you, can wait. If it can’t, then graciously leave and go attend to this other matter and be fully present with that.

But since we do not know the future and the opportunities that will be proffered or denied, I urge you to be attentive and fully present now. If you are alone, then be fully present with yourself.

We do ourselves and our fellow humans a disservice by not giving our full attention. Respect and honour yourself, respect and honour others with your complete presence.

breathe deeply, breathe fully

As students of Yoga, one of the first lessons we learn is to breathe deeply and fully. For Yoga practitioners, the breath yokes consciousness with sub-consciousness; the material with the ethereal; and the mundane with the divine. Breath reminds us of the mind that exists within the body, the intelligence that resides within our physiology. Breath is our internal barometer, indicating the nature and level of emotional and psychological pressure we are experiencing. When we are distressed, overwhelmed, anxious or angry, our breathing reflects this. When we are forlorn, despondent, feeling isolated or lost, our breathing expresses this.

When you next feel intense emotion, pause and observe your breath. Notice its rhythm, its effort, its capacity, its rate, its depth. What words, images or metaphors describe your breath?

One of the best gifts we can give ourselves is the gift of breathing deeply and fully, every day, every moment of every day. Our capacity for life will expand with the expansion of our breath. Being intimately knowledgeable about our own breathing habits supports our understanding of ourselves. When we recognise our breathing responses to life’s external situations and internal processes, we begin to appreciate the importance of being attentive to the breath and to nurturing its force for good within us.

Since most of us have forgotten how to breathe fully and deeply, I have taken the liberty of offering some guidance. Yoga practitioners refer to this as the deep yogic breath:

  1. Place the hands on the belly, observe the belly rising as you inhale and soften as you exhale. Stay with this abdominal breathing for 10-15 breaths.
  2. Place the hands on the rib cage, feeling the lungs and ribs expand in all directions as you breathe in and breathe out. Stay with this thoracic breathing for 5-10 breaths.
  3. Place the hands on the upper chest by the collarbones and notice the short, shallow breath. Stay with this clavicular breathing for only 5 breaths.
  4. Combine all three stages, inviting the in breath to deepen and the out breath to lengthen.  As you inhale, observe the belly rise, the ribs expand and the chest lift. As you exhale, observe the softening and the dissolving of the breath.

Practice deep yogic breath regularly, either in a supine or seated position and experience a greater lung capacity, a stronger heart, a more nourished body, a more focused mind, a calmer nervous system and a renewed vitality.