All Over the Map | August 2016

The Art of Paying Attention

By Liz Massey, August 2016 Issue.

Attention has a contradictory reputation in our culture – we condemn those who seek the spotlight, at the same time that we give them the focus that they crave. This paradox obscures the power that attention has to shape our own thoughts, our actions and our achievements.

Attention is one of the few things we have control over in all circumstances, no matter how dire.

Not that it’s easy to manage attention. Our contemporary digital culture has amplified our natural human tendency to scan for and worry about potential threats. As a result, it’s easy (especially at work) to fall into a distracted, reactive mode by default. The Internet picture meme that that sums up this line of thought best features an image of Cookie Monster, paired with the text: “Me pay attention to this moment, unless me no like this moment. If me no like this moment, ME EAT COOKIE!”

If we want to intentionally pay attention to the moment, we are practicing mindfulness. Meditation expert Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, without judgement.”

Each of those three hallmarks can be challenging for everybody, but LGBTQ folks sometimes have additional challenges to getting or staying in a mindful state, including:

• Untreated trauma or PTSD

• Body shame issues

• Stigma that causes us to over- or under-identify with our sexual orientation or gender identity

• Literally being under attack from a rejecting family, community or society

I have had an interest in practicing mindfulness meditation for a long time – nearly three decades, in fact. But something always got in the way. So I was surprised as anyone when last summer, amidst the chaos of a big move and its aftermath, I finally established a meditation practice.

Most of my mindful progress has come courtesy of my addiction to my smartphone apps. I downloaded a program called Stop, Think & Breathe and managed to build a habit of meditating every day. I may only spend five minutes a day in this mindful space, but it’s consistent.

I’ve learned from my daily meditation sessions that I – like most people – push away most of the feelings and bodily sensations I experience. Sometimes this is necessary, but often it’s done simply out of habit, because the assumption is made (consciously or unconsciously) that those impulses don’t carry valuable information.

Meditating has made it slightly easier to sit with and pay attention to anger, sorrow and fear, three feelings that I’m sure that the Cookie Monster meditation master would resolve with treats. I’m slowly learning to embrace each session as valuable in its own right, even the ones where I’m sleepy or scattered and drift off into a daydream or a rant.

Research has validated a number of health benefits from practicing mindfulness, including a stronger immune system response, decreased emotional reactivity, boosts to working memory and focus, and decreases in the production of stress hormones in our bodies. Which is great, but the really nice thing about practicing mindfulness and pursuing inner peace is that it can improve our work in the outside world as social justice advocates, too.

If one keeps at a mindfulness practice, they can:

• Stop operating on autopilot, which can help a person think through the consequences of their actions.

• Reduce pain and stress, which can help avoid burnout and improve one’s health.

• Provide a clearer sense of personal values, which is essential for making progress on equality goals when negotiating strategic alliances with non-queer-focused organizations.

• Release attachment to societally implanted “dominator thinking,” which can help identify new ways to frame old debates and attacks against our community.

• Connect us to an inner “freedom spot,” a place untouched by stigma and bias, where a person can truly relax and be themselves.

We’ll never be able to meditate our way to equality – LGBTQ people will always need in-the-street activism, aided by structural analysis to expose what about the system is broken. But mindfulness can help our movement respond to new threats and opportunities in the present moment – and not re-fight old battles, or imagine (and react to) monsters who aren’t there.

Tashy Endres, who worked as mediator and conflict trainer for the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, explained the confluence of activism and meditation this way: “For me, when (social justice-related) struggle and mindfulness are combined, both can flourish.”


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