A reflection on mutual attention, regard, inner space

Long post ahead! Enjoy this giraffe picture first 🙂

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A few days ago I read Regardez Moi, an intriguing post from TeresaA about a horse clinic she attended. She reports how Nikki, the clinician, explained how she doesn’t use the term “respect” anymore when it comes to horses, in favour of “regard”. The latter term involves more the tuning of the horse’s attention to the person (and vice versa), rather than recognising some form of authority or leadership, or demanding compliance – “regard” can be seen as a communication agreement, before anything else can happen.

My own understanding of what she describes in the post is summarised in this schema, where an individual is surrounded by a circle, that includes and protects the individual’s personal space, time, resources and choices. Outside of it there is the external world, where many things happen, from which some of them try to reach the individual. The inputs are accepted when they pass through the circle’s doors:

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Stimuli, inputs and requests from the outer world bounce off the circle walls, or come to the doors of an individual’s space and try to enter. The individual can use various strategies:

  • letting all inputs through the doors, and decide how to deal with them once they’re in (maybe thanks to abundant time/resources? or for fear of being mean when turning them away? or because the circle itself is incomplete or broken, so that inputs come inside as they wish?)
  • let some inputs in, keep others out, according to time/energy availability (preserves the individual when needed/wanted)
  • keep all inputs out a very strong circle and locked doors; pick very carefully what can pass the doors (the individual would feel overwhelmed, or unsafe, or is unable to properly process the inputs once they’re in)

“Regard” seems to me the label for “accepting inputs”, “be ready for communication”, “keep doors ready to be opened”. I find that this term applies well to the middle situation of the previous list, where the individual feels able to accept and process inputs, and is therefore willing to listen. Denying this regard means ignoring, refusing the communication right away, being focused on something else, being unreachable.

I wondered what can make one unwilling to accept inputs, for example because of fear or habit, and I found that the initial model was too simple. It doesn’t deal with what happens after the input has passed the doors. I have extended it and added a second circle inside:

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The inputs can now pass a first door, get into a middle space that is managed by the individual, but that is not the core space, so it’s more like a waiting area. The individual decides then which of these inputs can pass the doors to the inner core, the truly personal space. From the outside perspective, the inputs passed the visible doors, so they have been accepted by the individual, and they are confident they will get some dedicated attention and feedback.

I am aware that this involves the maintenance of two attention gates, and it seems easier to use only one: that is, ignore everything (keep doors locked) until it’s the right moment to pay full attention to them. It is very safe, especially if one is not so good at managing the doors, so that everything that passes the first door is likely to run free in the inner space and feast on precious personal resources. But what would a single gate mean for the external world? That it  would need to repeat its requests until the “attention lottery” grants the prize – which can be never. The external inputs/requests have only a vague idea of how to increase their chances of being heard, because it all happens inside oneself, and the data they get are “no answer at all” or “full answer”, with no apparent pattern. It means that they will multiply their attempts and make the pressure even worse. (Job applications anyone? People or companies who don’t answer to mails or the phone?)

I find that both schemes rely on the ability to say no to inputs. The “no” in the schema is represented by an input going inside through the door, then back outside. If saying no is not possible, the only way to limit the input overflow is not to let them in at all, no matter how urgent they think they are. The two-circles scheme makes it possible to say: “I have noticed this input from outside. I have given some attention to it and I’m deciding what to do” while the input is not yet in the inner personal space. Then one can say either yes (and the input comes through the second set of doors) or no (and the input leaves the waiting area and comes back outside).

The two-gate model allows external inputs to get an answer quite fast, that is either a no, a yes-now, or a yes-in-the-future. I would like to work in that direction, because I feel that (at least some) external requests need an answer soon, at least a short one, out of politeness and regard. Some close friends provide me this kind of feedback, and I feel at ease with them, because I know I don’t have to ask more than once, and they are confident they can say no anytime. There this a sort of elastic connection and mutual consideration that I cherish a lot.

Enough for today… I’m still reflecting on this topic and will likely write more about it, thanks for reading so far!

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Pictures post: tour to Müggelsee, Berlin-Köpenick

Yesterday I went for a walk around lake Müggelsee in the south-east corner of Berlin. It was a wonderfully sunny day and I snapped a few pictures:

The highlight was the ferry trip, for all passengers 🙂 The walk around the lake was nice thanks to the tall trees which provided shade, even if they were also masking the view. It was a long walk, but also refreshing and very quiet. I plan to go to Müggelsee again and maybe rent a kayak to paddle around 🙂 Will keep you posted for sure!

Book review: “L’Annonce” by Marie-Hélène Lafon

As usual, I picked this book from my meighborhood’s public library and I have read it in a couple days. I sank in the fluent French prose like in a calm lake, and I let myself be carried slowly around. It’s the story of several people in French countryside, I felt the cautious approach of the newcomers, the many wordless statements and the silences among the characters. There was no obvious outcome and not even a clear progress, no heroes, no leaders, no big programs. Things happen, thoughts get deep and feelings transform with time. Little things matter. Nature, animals and weather dictate how and when people can move and work, merciless but full of force and life.

I don’t think I can say more, this is my heartfelt recommendation 🙂 I’ll be looking for more books by Marie-Hélène Lafon and will definitely review them, stay tuned!

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Book recommendation: “The Capital” by Thomas Piketty

It took many months, but today I finally finished reading this book:

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I read it in Italian, as I borrowed it from a friend. The first pages sounded very French in the structure of sentences and maybe even the way in which the topics were presented to the reader. After this initial moment of curious disorientation, I settled in and continued reading, sometimes only a few pages per session, sometimes longer bouts. I took care to pay attention to every component of the discussion, as the topic is extremely broad and unfamiliar to me. Thanks to a simple prose, however, I didn’t have notable difficulties in following Piketty’s explanations, and I’m going to recommend this book to who has interest in the topic, regardless of their previous knowledge. I’m sure that who is new to economics would do like me, that is reading the text and assuming it’s correct, while who has more knowledge would be able to spot unclear conclusions or omissions. What Piketty did while writing the book was to publish the data behind the graphs and welcome others to replicate his results, and potentially correct mistakes. I find it a healthy scientific approach and a great chance to work together on such a vast field of research.

The copilot syndrome

I recently thought about my habit of being ready to take over responsibility from others. The classical situation is when I’m with one or more people in a car and I am in the passenger seat. I call it the “copilot syndrome”.

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In this situation I feel I have to be alert and ready to help: I check the road signs, the directions, the weather ahead, I ask the driver if they’re tired or thirsty. The funny thing is that I would not be able to take the wheel: I stopped driving in 2010 and am too scared to try again, especially without preparation. So I am in the funny position to feel a lot of responsibility but be unable to actually do much. At the same time I can’t relax and for example simply look outside of the window, or sleep. I have the fear that I would not notice something important and that it would be my fault, that I should have paid attention; as if there were a responsibility chain and I am always the next in line, and all others (except the first in line) come after me, and even worse: none of them would step up if I don’t act.

Source: lupineandruby‘s pinterest

The other, maybe more important, funny thing I finally noticed is that it’s rarely necessary that I pay so much attention, or that I feel this copilot burden at all. It doesn’t mean not caring about how the car trip is going, or be passive if doubts or problems arise – it’s more about feeling a more reasonable amount of responsibility and not waste energy and attention being fully alert while the situation is well under control.

I can understand how my readiness to step up has often been seen as great resource and a cool fallback for the group of people I was part of, because others were reassured that I would take care of glitches before/instead of anyone else. But it’s a disaster for me, when this means that I have to constantly feel in charge: this indeed happened on a couple jobs, that I luckily managed to leave before they drained all my energies.

I have a few hunches on how I learned to feel this obligation to pick up responsibilities. The important thing now is that I have a plan to get rid of this habit. My current strategy is to pick situations where actually nothing serious can happen if I don’t pick up the lead, and see what indeed happens. The experiment is ongoing and it’s early to tell if this approach would work in more critical situations; but I can already say that I feel more relaxed, and even reassured that I’m making progress.

Yoga update: the practice of perception and the avoidance of strain

The yoga class I have been attending since January is becoming really interesting for me. I have been a very sport-averse person until recently, and I have been using my body with the bare minimum of awareness possible. Through this yoga lessons I have finally started to notice that: 1- my body is actually able to do more than sit and walk; 2- practicing a physical activity like yoga requires more than simple strength, flexibility and endurance, and this means: concentration, balance, awareness of posture and alignment, memory (for longer sequences, and the details of each posture), coordination, perception of effort so that it doesn’t harm any part of the body.

BKS Iyengar Sirsasana – from Svenja Karsten’s artwork on svejar.com

At first it was a new activity for me and I was trying to follow the teacher’s instructions, but was often distracted by tension in some part of the body, or had to focus on keeping balance and could not think of anything else. Now I start to notice how I can guide my attention to each part of the body and check if it’s in the right position, if there is the right amount of tension in the muscles and ligaments of that part, then go on to the next one. Sometimes it happens that I feel the overall tension of the body as a whole, that there is a good amount of strength in every part of it, nowhere too much, and I take it as the sign that I’m doing the posture correctly. And it’s so rewarding!

This kind of experience is quite far from my initial learning process with music (and a bunch of other things in life), where usually the opposite worked fine: especially with the drums, I have previously been able to make (temporary) progress by producing a lot of tension on the arm(s) or wrist(s) or finger(s) and therefore produce the sounds at the desired speed and intensity. However, it’s a dead end, because tension is both damaging to the body on the long term, and it is a sign that some technical challenge is being forced through instead of properly processed – and that means that progress actually stops there. Jared Falk mentioned something along these lines in the beginning of a longer video on Drumeo, and I’m glad that there is a convergence among the various disciplines I am practising, so I can reuse the mindset everywhere 🙂

Dog-sitting: on responsibility and needs

My dog-sitting is getting more and more interesting, as I am getting better in understanding what is happening in the communication and interaction with the little dog I’m taking care of.

(Warning! Long post ahead. Have a funny dog picture!)

Daisy flieg!

One thing I read in Karin Actun’s book is that we can map dogs’ roles as “higher status” and “lower status”. She doesn’t identify a pyramid hierarchy because she observed that dogs interact only in pairs (themselves and another dog), so there is no “boss” of the whole pack, but rather a dog who shows its higher status to any other dog in one-on-one encounters. Her explanation is more complete but I hope this summary is good enough.

The important thing that she underlines is that “high status” doesn’t mean “I can use my force against you, I can make you comply to what I want”. It’s more about “I can use space and resources as I need, and if you are in the way you will make room for me”.  But not only that: the crucial part for me comes now. So far I thought of authority just like this: someone who can decide something I can’t contradict. But her observations on dogs brought another important point: who has a high status has also the responsibility to make sure the ones with lower status have their needs met. A good example is parenting: parents and other individuals who take care of younger ones should make sure that these have food, water, rest, protection, play, challenges and so on. If they don’t, their authority is hollow and dangerous for the younger ones, and it’s better that they start to take care of themselves on their own – most likely against the will of the authority.

In my case, as dog-sitter I am responsible for the dog if I make sure he gets food, fresh water, movement, interesting activities, interaction with other dogs, cleaning and brushing, and that I notice when something is wrong and he could be ill. I could not claim respect or obedience if I forget about one or more of these things. That would be the reason for the dog to think: “She is not noticing that I have this need! I must take care of that myself. I will not listen to what she tells me about it, because my needs could not be met and it would be the worst thing ever.” and… he would be right!

I notice quite clearly when he needs movement and fun, as he prompts me to throw his favourite ball by pushing it towards me with his nose and barking at me. I almost see him saying: “I really need to move! I really need to play with you because I was so bored this morning all alone at home!” and I can’t tell him to be quiet in that precise moment, because I see that the need is strong and that he wants to make sure I get it. I’m almost sad that he is telling it so strongly, as if I could not understand. I could work on making myself respected by starting with making clear that it’s my decision when he can run and jump, but it implies that I know when he has played enough, and I have no experience of that. What I’m doing is to give him many chances to satisfy his needs, so that he knows I am actually taking care of them, and in some occasions I decide otherwise – and he will likely be fine with that. I am new to dog-sitting so I need to learn to take responsibility in steps.

I started practising this when we go out for a walk and he needs/wants to sniff and mark at almost every tree. What he used to do is to run as far ahead as the leash allowed, then stop square at some interesting scent and refuse to move on until he was done. I was first pulled by him, then I was pulling him and forcing him to go on – and it was becoming unpleasant for both. What I do now is to be the first to walk towards a nice tree or bush, and stop there for a bit. I make sure to stop in a lot of places, because I am not so good in picking the ones with nice scents! I now see him following me, come to the tree, sniff around intently, marking, and then look at me as to say “Where do you want to go next?”. Sometimes I pick an uninteresting tree and he just looks at me like “We can go on, pick another one” – but he doesn’t rush ahead anymore, he is more relaxed now that he doesn’t have to take care of the sniffing all on his own and even against me.

While focusing on the interest in scents I got the bonus effect that he follows me more often than he walks ahead of me, and he doesn’t pull that much on the leash either. He is even OK when I tell him to go on when he finds a nice scent on his own, he just trots towards me when I call him because he likely trusts that I will give him another occasion soon. I could have got there by using force or punishment, but I would have ignored the need of inspecting scents that is important to him, and I would have given the message that I don’t care about them. I would have become a strong but awful boss!

At this point I am talking of needs as a whole and I don’t know if some are true needs or just habits, whims or anything else. My point now is to show him that I can take care of his basic needs, that I want to listen to him and his requests, and manage them for him. I am learning too! I can’t expect the dramatic changes that an experienced dog owner would obtain in this situation. It’s not even my goal. What I need is to sample as much information as possible and make sure I learn a little bit at every step, while not hurting the dog in the process.