pay attention

What does it mean to really pay attention to another, as opposed to simply being in the same space at the same time? Does it merely involve waiting patiently for our turn to talk, ruminating over what to say, while another speaks? Does giving attention to another mean hearing just enough of their words that we understand the content?

There is a quality of loving presence that is far greater than the ability to simply repeat back what has been said to us. It's a form of being truly available to another. Senses are awake, the chattering mind quiets, and we hear far more than words and observe more than the obvious, easy to narrate events. Attending to another means being fully receptive, wherein the subtleties of another's emotional state are read: we are hearing their tone of voice, observing their facial expressions and body language, feeling empathetically—via the miracle of our mirror neurons—their inner experience and perhaps even reflecting it back through our own looks of concern. In this state we can allow another to express emotions we find difficult to tolerate in ourselves: we give permission to boredom, sadness, anger, frustration, loneliness. In this state we can listen without trying to fix their problems or "make them feel better." In giving attention to another, we learn what it means to give full attention to ourselves.

So attending to another requires sacrifice: we have to relinquish our practice of planning ahead what we want to say, steering a conversation to safe or favorite topics, of seeking attention, and instead sink fully into a mind that observes on many levels. It's a vulnerable and open state. Emotions are contagious to a degree, and empathy requires lowering our emotional immune system, allowing ourselves to feel the mood of those we love. When we open to another, we can choose to repeat back the emotions we hear, rather than trying to solve their situations—“I'm hearing that you feel disappointed/frightened/isolated.” Trying to solve another's life may feel good, but there's little growth in it. Reflecting emotions is a true and deep connection.

This state of attention is foundation of love. We cannot really care for someone if we're trying to change what they're expressing; to care for another requires that we allow them to express even that which is difficult to hear—so long as its not abusive or denigrating, it should be noted—allowing them emerge and change. To create a tolerant space asks that we hold another's suffering; its our greatest statement of love.

So when we really give our attention to another, we're no longer in control. Yet we don't need to control life to get what we need: when we really receive and connect with another, we feed the soul what it yearns for the most. There is no such thing as a contented mind without meaningful relationships: human beings are social beings; the brain is set up to connect in emotionally satisfying ways. There is no liberation in spiritual practice without true support and empathy, as that is what we search for all our lives. When we fail to listen, and are not listened to, we are isolated and separate. The more we drop our guard and trust that together we can create a container for the entire human experience, that is when the spiritual path really unfolds.