A few months ago I attended the 13th annual conference on Happiness and Its Causes in Sydney. (The taxi driver laughed all the way from the airport to the convention centre at the idea that people needed a conference on how to be happy.)
The preconference workshop was led by Matthieu Ricard, a gifted philosopher, scientist and author, and the conference itself was opened by a video interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Both men had a similar wise and timely theme: they spoke of how our attention is easily captured by the extraordinary and the out of ordinary. They referenced the events in the UK and Paris, for example, as well as international political events, describing how these events and people are extraordinary or out of the ordinary, and how as a consequence they capture our attention. Sometimes our attention is so captured we seek out more and more and more information, reading everything we can about an event or person. We can become so engrossed that we feel outrage at upsetting events, and we’re driven to share information with others and invite them in to our consternation. Some even find themselves ruminating about these events to the point of obsession. Who is suffering then? No longer just the victims of these events, but the ruminators as well.
Ruminating about world events draws us away from the here-and-now of our daily experience, and Ricard and the Dalai Lama pointed out that by far the majority of us will not experience terrorism, or violence, or repulsively rude behaviour – these things are not our “ordinary” experience. Having attention captured by anything at all will disconnect us from the present, and they challenged us to give more attention to the ordinary in our lives: our ordinary walk to work, the ordinary person at the place we buy our morning coffee, a simple conversation with a child about their day at school. These are the events and the people who most deserve our attention.
On the Challenge of Change course we talk about controlled, uncontrolled and captured attention. Everyone recognises these different states of mind, both in themselves and in others. When the course is split into two sessions, we invite participants between sessions to practice controlling their attention, giving it intentionally to ordinary activities. When they return to the second session, there are always interesting conversations about how challenging and also how rewarding this can be.
We can’t ignore these extraordinary events, but instead of captured attention and rumination, what we need is Detached Compassion. This is the ability to feel for the suffering of others, and act where we can to alleviate it, without becoming overly involved, pre-occupied or distracted. Actions can be as simple as expressing disagreement, or making donations, or sending emails. It is from the Detached Compassion position that people can best lobby for social change. When detachment is lost, people become engulfed by the cause and they have little energy to give their attention to the people and events which would otherwise buffer them from exhaustion. Detachment and not ruminating are buffers against this exhaustion.