Paying close attention to another is one of the most profound skills available to us on a spiritual path. For example, in memorable teachings The Buddha proclaimed how few reliable sources of wisdom there are in this life:
“There are two causes that allow right view to develop: the voice of the wise and the practice of appropriate attention. These are the two sources of wisdom.” (Mahavedalla Sutta)
And yet paying close attention is a state that’s continually sabotaged by habitually ingrained conversational practices: while others speak we might find our minds occupied in planning our responses; we have tight busy schedules, and so we sit through dialogues with building impatience; we fixate on facts and details, overlooking an array of subtle information that’s being imparted to us; we may armor our empathetic faculties, guarding ourselves from connecting and opening to the feelings being articulated us via verbal and nonverbal communication (see examples below).
Paying close attention is a practice that requires us to open our hearts and senses, to become empathetically vulnerable, allowing us to receive, intimately, the depth of what is being communicated to us in each moment of an interaction. As we put aside impatience and planning for our next words, we yield to the presence of the other, observing and attending to their words—noting when the emotions expressed are being emphasized and glossed over or contradicted—and pauses, facial expressions, body gestures, every facet of their presence. We begin to receive multiple messages, sometimes one negating another: words might express conviction, while the eyes, shoulders or arms betray a clear lack of confidence. And we open to the possibility of unexpected developments; dialogue is a flow that is often unpredictable.
On occasion, when words reach our ears, an idea or memory might be immediately and forcefully triggered, seeming so important that we want to focus on to this exciting development, and nourish it with even more attention, losing track of what is being shared with us. In these cases sacrifice is called for. Close attention requires us to let go of even the most compelling ideas, for interrupted and disconnected attention is not giving one’s time to another.
When developed, paying close attention results in a perceptive, rewarding faculty that opens to all that is being conveyed by the other, not settling on single messages when many are being expressed. It is a demanding practice, but when does so it provides to the other that which we all seek in life: visibility. connection. attention.