On being ... too long

On being … too long

By Ingrid Sapona

Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that I’ve always prided myself on having a long attention span. As a child I could pass hours making things, and I don’t ever remember complaining about being bored. And at work, when a deadline required us to work into the wee hours, I didn’t fade or poop out the way my colleagues did. So, based on all these things, I’ve always felt I have a better-than-average attention span.

But lately there have been so many things that just seem too long, I’ve begun to think my attention span isn’t what it used to be. The movie The Iron Lady is a perfect example. Though Meryl Streep’s performance as Margaret Thatcher was truly remarkable, I couldn’t unequivocally recommend the film because I thought it was too long. I think they could have easily edited out half the scenes where she’s talking to her dead husband without realizing that he’s dead. I couldn’t help feel that the director must have thought that the audience would be slow to catch on to the fact that Thatcher was losing her marbles.

My attention span (and patience) was similarly challenged at a recent documentary that was screened as part of a documentary series a friend and I subscribe to. Going into it we only knew that the Chinese-born documentarian had filmed it over two years while living on this one street in Sichuan, China. The first few minutes of the documentary focused on the daily routines of some seniors that lived on that street. At the beginning the slow pace was tolerable; I figured it was meant to reflect the lives of the seniors.

Twenty or so minutes into the film, the focus shifted to one old woman who had become bed ridden after a stroke. Then, for the next hour or so we basically watched her lying in bed suffering for days until one night she finally died. I tell you, by the end I felt more than frustrated at having sat through the 90+ minute documentary.

Afterward I read a review that said the documentary was about conflicts within the family emerging as a result of the elderly woman’s illness and the family’s struggle to avoid collapse. Well, all I can say is that certainly didn’t describe the film I felt subjected to. Obviously, the fact that the subject matter was pretty depressing didn’t help, but I left feeling resentful that we had been made to sit there and watch that poor woman die.

When I’m sitting in a film or documentary and feeling restless because it seems too long, the writer/editor in me seems to go into overdrive. I start thinking about changes I’d make -- things I’d cut (without harming the story, of course) to keep it moving along. Unfortunately, I suspect such thoughts only make the films seem even longer…

But it isn’t just films and documentaries that I’ve been feeling this way about. I’ve found dance performance and concerts are often too long too. The big difference with these kinds of performances is that when I find myself squirming in my seat, I can’t even pinpoint what pushes me over the edge. With an abstract performance (like dance or music), I have no analytical framework to apply to justify concluding that it’s too long -- all I have is a feeling that my patience and graciousness as an audience member have been tested, and I’ve had enough.

I know finding more and more things too long isn’t that big a deal, but I can’t help wonder whether other people feel the same. I sure hope so, otherwise I might have to admit to myself that my attention span has actually slipped -- dare I say it -- below average.

© 2012 Ingrid Sapona


On being … on the path

By Ingrid Sapona

I’m mid-way through a course called “Joy in Everyday Life”. It’s one of a series of courses taught at a nearby Shambhala Meditation Centre. One premise of the course is that we miss much of the joy that’s inherent in the present moment because so often our mind has raced ahead to our next task, argument, or goal. Another premise we’re exploring is the idea that you find joy by shifting your focus from yourself to others.

The homework for the first week was to notice some of the barriers we put up to close ourselves off from others and from the present. The idea is that when you put up barriers, you’re obstructing your chance to experience joy that might be available in the moment and you lessen your ability to focus on others.

I wasn’t surprised to note that sometimes the wall I put up takes the form of being defensive or argumentative. (At the risk of being defensive, I figure being argumentative is to be expected after three years of law school and practicing law. I know, not particularly helpful behaviours.) But, I was surprised at how often the barrier I put up takes the form of clamming up and becoming mum.

When we discussed the homework in class, it was interesting to hear all the different behaviours people have that take them out of the moment. One person told about a situation he encountered at work in which he “observed” his anger rising as he listened to a co-worker ranting about something. He also noticed that at some point, he simply switched off. Then he said that he realized that because he did that, he was agitated the rest of the day and then he was angry with himself for not being able to let the irritation go. Of course we could all relate to that.

Now, as you might imagine, this is a pretty touchy-feely course with more than enough compassionate acceptance to go around. So, most of us smiled and ruefully nodded when the instructor assured him he was just being human. But then she added one other comment that really stood out to me. She said that the episode shows that he’s on the path to change, which is really what the process of observing our own behaviour is about.

I love the idea of change being a process -- I had never really looked at it that way. In this culture of instant gratification, I think it’s very easy to think of change as something that happens simply by willing it. We feel like: “Hey, I’ve realized something should be different, so now I’m ready to collect my prize for having come to the realization.” But that outlook (I was going to say it’s an approach, but it’s really not -- it’s an attitude) is pretty much a recipe for frustration.

How often has this happened to you: you figure out something about yourself that you don’t like and then you “resolve” to change. But, if you don’t immediately change -- or if you slide back into the old behaviour -- you get angry with yourself. Then you waste a whole lot of energy chiding yourself for reverting back to that bad behaviour. Instead, just accept your frailty (your humanness) and remember that you’re on the path to change and then try to come back to the present moment as quickly as possible.

The next week we examined another behaviour that can prevent us from experiencing joy: doubt. Not only did we have to think about situations when we felt doubt, we had to analyze how we behaved when we felt it. The rationale for trying to become more aware of your doubt is because if you don’t acknowledge it, you end up putting energy into resisting it.

The many ways doubt manifests itself in my behaviour is a whole other On being…, but the important thing I came away with is that when I’m coping with doubt, my attention is definitely not in the moment. And yes, doubt definitely gets in the way of my ability to experience joy. Of course, realizing this is just the first step -- but at least it’s a step that puts me on the path to change.

I’ve been thinking about why I like the path metaphor so much and I think it has to do with the fact that if you see yourself on a path, you feel less lost. And, soon you realize that obstacles you come across are just part of the path.

I’m sure that over the remaining weeks of the course there’ll be a few more stark self-realizations for me to face. But, I’m beginning to see there’s lots more joy in everyday life that’s just waiting to be experienced. And, I think I’m on the path to changes that can help me experience it.

How about you? What path are you on?

© 2012 Ingrid Sapona