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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Double book recommendation: local people autobiographies

This time I review two book at once, namely “Ick bin een Berliner, da kieckste, wa?” by Ronald Potzies and “El Zélese” by Antonio Carlizzi.

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Both books are the account of the lives of two people I know personally, and this makes me consider these books differently from others: they are the written version of facts and emotions that happened first in real life, while in most other cases either the book is my only connection with those lives, or it is a work of fiction. I enjoyed the direct language of both of these accounts, and the many references to common and sometimes hard conditions of life (both authors experienced world wars) that would otherwise be considered unsuitable for a fiction work, or would be mentioned sparingly, as background information, instead of a daily struggle. I find much to learn not in the abstract model that could be extracted from the lives of these two men, but in the details: the way they took a decision without knowing enough to be sure to make the right choice; their inner strength; their simplicity in being human without becoming heroes or book characters.

These are two books dear to me. I’m curious to know about similar books you read, please mention them in the comment section!

Find the differences #2: the meaning of my actions vs. their effect

I was wondering today about the difference between what my actions represent for me (their meaning), in comparison to the effect they generated on others. I thought of two sentences that illustrate these perspectives:

  1. I have done an action that I find meaningful and good
  2. I have done an action that produced a particular response from the other person

I started thinking at what kind of messages were given to me by my parents and my teachers. I got a lot of instructions on how to do things as everyone does in my culture/environment; I was raised to be a good citizen and a person of pleasant company. I find it quite natural that the ultimate goal was to make me well integrated in a society that is composed by many other people, so that I would go along well. Early education tends to make these (arbitrary) rules so deeply rooted within oneself, that one’s choices feel personal instead of coming from a superior authority.

Anyway, none of these rules were clearly oriented on their effect on other people; they were more oriented on how I should feel when doing something, and how others should react (that sounds very similar, but the goals are different). More insidiously, they tended to say that others should all react the same way to my good deeds.

I have rarely experienced the conflict of doing something that I felt right, while noticing a negative response from the other side; I hope it’s not because I removed these cases from my memory, but more because I was able to stop as soon as I felt the other person’s uneasiness. To find other examples of this, I think of the kind of parenting that puts children’s obedience and submission before their well-being. As if it doesn’t matter how the child learns – the focus is on respecting the rule. I have always shivered when seeing it in action, and I am glad that other people feel the same. Of course there are degrees both in the feeling of being right, and on the impact of the action, but I find it important for me that I keep my mind open to any reaction, and therefore to re-examine my actions.

Another conflict is when I do something that makes me feel uneasy, and others respond positively to it. Let’s take the example of smalltalk. In my education and in my corner of the world, smalltalk is customary when in company of others. I spend a lot of time getting used to chat like that (probably with more effort than average) and I have been usually considered pleasant company. However, that meant that I wasn’t feeling “myself” when being that sociable. Now, I have found enough friends that are fine with my silences and my way of talking, so that we all feel sincerely good when we are together.

I came to the conclusion that it’s possible to have all combinations of the two sentences above and their opposites, but the one I want to pursue is the one that makes both me and others feel good. I also think that this applies to animals (like in these stories about cats). I want to keep examining what I do and spot all remaining “I do something I don’t like, but others like it” and “I do something I feel right, but others don’t feel OK” – especially by discussing with my friends about their reactions.

I’m curious of your thoughts about this, please share them in the comments!

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Sunset over Sacro Monte (Varese, Italy) – own work

Book recommendation – “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau

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Walden is a such a famous book, whose reviews and analyses sum up to many times the length of the manuscript itself. My review is mostly about the waves it generated on the lake of my mind. I finished reading the book a couple weeks ago, and initially felt sorry not to have read it before; but I am glad I had read it now, because I enjoyed many more aspects, that the younger me would not have taken into consideration.

Thoreau narrates two years of his life in the woods near Walden Pond, in Massachussets, in 1845. He built a minimalist cabin with his own hands (with an accurate description of the process, and a precise account of costs and time), practiced a little agriculture, fished and hunted, interacted with the few people who lived or worked there. He recalls many moments of contemplation of the surrounding nature, that he describes in his lyrical prose, that sounds now maybe oldish and pompous, but immensely reverent.

His survival experiment is both simple and extreme. Simple in its practical steps, extreme in the meaning it can convey to the society as a whole. He returned to civilisation after two years, not because the life in the woods ended up as a failure or a delusion, but because he realised that he had learned the lessons he needed. Through his experience, I feel more easy on my own decisions, especially the ones that sound drastic, because they show a true need for changement, even if for a given time of my life, and as such should be heard and handled.

From Chapter 18 – Conclusions:

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct. It is true, I fear, that others may have fallen into it, and so helped to keep it open. The surface of the earth is soft and impressible by the feet of men; and so with the paths which the mind travels. How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity! I did not wish to take a cabin passage, but rather to go before the mast and on the deck of the world, for there I could best see the moonlight amid the mountains. I do not wish to go below now.

Thoreau’s experiment made me immediately think of the more permanent one (so far) of Simone Perotti, who left a promising career to dedicate himself to seafaring and art. His book Adesso basta [Enough of it – own translation] is definitely an angrier and irrevocable refusal of civilised modern society, but I feel that he and Thoreau had something in common when they realised that society (and career in particular) could not give everything they needed. You can follow Simone’s blog, regularly updated, and savour his terse and shiny Italian prose. I remember reading his book in a time where I was angry and disappointed myself, and it only made me angrier to hear relatives and friends that such a definitive refusal of society was not possible. I think I got to that point anyway, but slower and with unneeded waste of energies.

A more similar meditation parenthesis is the diary of Sylvain Tesson, Dans les forêts de Sibérie. The author settles for a few months in a small cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal, with even less human presence than Walden Pond, and a less forgiving climate. I enjoyed Sylvain’s reflections, blooming from unbroken hours of silence, of stillness. They look so similar to Thoreau’s , despite the 250 years and half of the world’s distance between them. I’ll make a more detailed review when I get back the book from my mum 🙂

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Baikal lake, by Aleksandr Zykov

These experiences made me think about how societal occupations changed in time (jobs, pastimes, duties), while the reflections of the mind, when it is given an appropriate amount of time off, converge in so many countries and ages. Is that the common ground of our humanity? I hope so, and even if there is no solid fact behind it, I like to see it as a fil rouge that is suitable to connect us all.