Noticing–An Exercise

As we plunge headlong into the holidays, what better to think about than exercise! Over the course of the next two months we’ll be presented with non-stop opportunities to indulge our feasting fantasies while, at the same time, face the challenge of moving our bodies enough to burn of the added calories. What does this have to do with being intentional about Noticing?  Nothing, really…or everything!

It seems to me that by Noticing more, beginning with acknowledging the obvious opportunities that we have to immerse ourselves in holiday celebration, thanksgiving and reflection, we can enjoy everything about this beautiful season, including the food!  By being more intentional about noticing the sights, sounds, smells and emotions of the holidays, we don’t have to make it a ‘one-trick pony’ of over indulging in any one thing.  So, I’m offering a suggestion–an exercise in noticing–that may help now and in all that you do after you achieve your goal of (fill in the blank) during the holidays.  This isn’t a physical exercise like going to the gym or jogging through the park. In fact, it’s an exercise that begins with stopping.  That’s not so bad, is it?

Recently, Cathy and I have been shopping at antique stores, second-hand shops and vintage/retro outlets.  If you’ve ever been to these places, you know that they are rich in variety and usually packed with lots of stuff.  You also probably know that the sheer magnitude and diversity of choices can be overwhelming.   I am usually just looking for something specific like a new-to-me pair of cufflinks.  Cufflinks are small.  Usually, they are in locked cases that can be just about anywhere in a store.   In my ‘hunter’ mode, I enter, scope out the layout of the place and zero-in on likely destinations for said cufflinks.  In the process, I miss virtually everything else in the store.  I’m practicing the art of reduction, excluding everything around me in order to see one thing.  It’s only by accident that I notice other items that may be of interest and value.

That process of exclusive observation is one that I believe is practiced far too frequently by way too many of us—men and women, alike.  At work, we focus on the complaining employee, the dirty corner, the one wall that has a mark on it to the exclusion of all that is working well and looking good.  At home, we pay attention to the kids playing their video games, the crying child, the dirty dishes, and the unmade bed to the exclusion of the smiles, banter, comfort and love that pervades everything before us.  Here’s an exercise that will help you get out of the ‘reduction’ process and into what Winifred Gallagher in Rapt refers to as Top-Down attention.  As you’d guess by now, the exercise begins with Stopping and it works wherever you want to practice it.  The technique doesn’t require a lot of additional time but promises to change your perspective instantly!

The Three Minute Noticing Exercise:

  1. Stop–1-3 minutes, tops
  2. Observe–Without turning your body, employ all of your senses to take in what is before you.  Do a count:  1, 2, 3, etc and with each number in the sequence, shift your eyes to something different and focus there for 3-5 seconds.  Count  to 11,shifting to a new object with each count.  Continue counting: 12, 13, 14, etc but now notice objects illuminated by natural light or in shadow.  How is the light adding dimension to the object or the people you see?  Remember, you’re staying still, turning your head and adjusting where you’re looking with your eyes.  Continue counting to 19 but now, pay attention to colors and, possibly sounds. When you reach a count of 27, stop.
  3. Notice–What did you see?  This isn’t about memorizing every object or listing the specific things you saw. Rather, it’s about what your expanded vision of the space enabled you to appreciate.
  4. Record what you Noticed–I recommend recording what you saw and noticed in a little notebook or something else permanent.

At first, were you overwhelmed by the thought of noticing so much in one place and from only one perspective?   From a top-down perspective, is what you saw pleasant? Interesting? Alarming? Fun? Encouraging?  Is there action that you might want to take as a result of noticing so much in such a small space and timeframe?  Thank an employee; congratulate the kids for their good behavior; Hug your spouse for making this space so warm and inviting; buy something–other than cufflinks?!

This exercise doesn’t take long and it’s guaranteed to encourage you.  Expand your observations by asking, ‘what will someone else notice if they are viewing the exact same space as you but from a different vantage point?’ When I ask this additional question, I’m reminded that my view, while valid and important, isn’t really complete if I don’t get input from others.  In all cases, Noticing is hugely important and this exercise will help you see into a world filled with opportunities to celebrate, improve, serve, worship and lead more joyously.

Try it right now.  It really doesn’t matter where you are.  I’m in a Starbucks and I just did it. You can be in a conference room, living room, office, mall or forest.  It doesn’t matter. Just stop, count and notice. Make some notes. As the Southwest Airlines ad says, “You are now free to roam the about the planet”, having been enriched just a little by Noticing the space right in front of you.

When the World Says, “Don’t!”

When I describe the concept of Stopping, I say that we live in a world of constant motion and ‘busy-ness.’ Everything is a blur. I show participants photographs that I’ve taken with my camera’s shutter speed set a little slower–but not much. Even if the shutter stays open a tenth of a second longer, the image I capture is not sharp and may even be unrecognizable. That’s perfectly analogous to our lives. Even when we think we’re slowing down, our interactions, communication and attention is not as sharply focused as it could be if we came to a complete stop.

Stopping is intentional. It takes courage. In stopping, we are doing something seemingly counterproductive and certainly counter-cultural. I’m borrowing the following from Dr. David Kuntz, author of Stopping-How To Be Still When You Have to Keep Going.  It’s a list of assumptions that we hear (and say?) about the concept of Stopping:

  • Leisure is a luxury you can’t afford
  • Pleasure-seekers end up in hell (love that one!)
  • To get ahead you must work more hours
  • You have to keep up with the Joneses (oops)
  • Doing nothing is slothful and lazy
  • If it’s faster, it’s better
  • Growth is always good
  • Money is always the bottom line
  • More is always better than less
  • Play is only for children

Everything in the list above contributes to our living a blurry life. If we Stop and think, we know these statements are not true. But that’s the point: We have to STOP and think!  I was able to do that this past weekend while attending a ministry of writing colloquium at Earlham School of Religion in Richmond, IN. I basked in the warmth of stories told and poetry read. I cleared my head and, with the help of some really capable leaders, was able to think and write.  During worship Saturday morning, in a time of stillness, I was given a poem that came so easily that I was caught off guard.

Stopping is good even if only for a moment. Ignore the world’s demand and just say I WILL!

Socrates Would Like the iPhone

The iPhone 5 has been out for about a week now and, according to reports, over 5 million have already been purchased.  That’s good for Apple and for all of us techno-geeks that love new gadgets.  It’s faster, lighter and allows owners to take really cool panoramic photographs!  I won’t be buying the new phone but only because I have the 4S and my contract with AT&T isn’t ‘up’ yet.  Yes, I’m one of those techno-geeks and I love all of my gadgets!!  But I am also more aware than ever that the central reality of having all of this connectedness is that I am more deeply imbedded in the CROWD than ever.  The crowd surrounds me, informs me, distracts me and entertains me.  The crowd includes close friends and family along with people I never physically see.

Why would Socrates love the iPhone?  Because he was a connector.  He cherished his friends and was intensely curious about their lives.  He lived in and was energized by life in the city.  The city in Socrates’ day was where learning happened!  So, when his friend Phaedrus suggested that he join him on a stroll outside the city walls, Socrates was incredulous.  ‘Forgive me, friend,’ says Socrates.  ‘I am devoted to learning; landscapes and trees have nothing to teach me–only people in the city can do that.’  Well, who am I to argue with Socrates?!  But, he’s dead and I’m not so I am going to assert one thing about the importance of separating ourselves–whether by going for a walk outside the city or simply turning off some of our gadgets–from the crowd periodically.  

William Powers, whose work, Hamlet’s Blackberry, I cited in an earlier post, offered this bit of wisdom:

“Everyone needs to create a gap between themselves and the screen–the gap that opens up when you turn it off.  When you do that, something miraculous happens.  You regain the best part of yourself and the best part of life, the human part.”

Enjoy your gadgets.  I certainly do.  But remember to take a little time (Stop) and regain (Discover) the best part of yourself and life…the human part!

My Anchor

I’ve been reading a broad spectrum of writers and philosophy lately.  I like the diversity of thought and am challenged by the new ideas.  However, I realized recently that I’ve allowed myself to be distracted somewhat by these sources.  I’ve strayed from what a Methodist Minister once described to me as the ‘bull’s eye of my faith:  Jesus.  Among my recent readings has been a priceless work entitled Falling Upward by Franciscan Priest, Richard Rohr.   Here’s how he addressed the bulls eye:

If I dared to present all these ideas simply as my ideas, or because they match modern psychology or old mythology, I would be dishonest.  Jesus, for me, always clinches the deal and I sometimes wonder why I did not listen to him in the first place.

So, I just wanted to get that ‘out there’ in case you wonder about my heart.  It’s with Jesus, now and always.  My writing will not always or even frequently reference this in such a direct way but it’s important to me that you know where I’m coming from.  Since Jesus always ‘clinches the deal,’ when it comes to STOPPING (even and especially for ‘the least of these’), NOTICING (even and especially the sick and unlovely) and goes ‘ALL-IN’ (even when that meant going to the Cross), I will listen to Him first and forever!  By the way, he PLAYED, too!


‘Chance’ Meeting

Talk about Noticing!  Only my Wife can go to wash her car (the old fashioned way!) and have a deeply meaningful conversation with someone who until that moment was a total stranger.  Here is her account of yesterday’s ‘chance’ encounter:

I frequently wonder about those daily encounters we have with people and how they might affect our lives in the future.  It seems God is always at work, and it is what we do with what he puts in front of us that makes us who we are.  There was a lady drying her Suburban as I pulled into the bay to dry the VW.  I said “you’ve got that looking really good…I’ve had Suburbans and they are great vehicles” began a chance meeting, and then wondering where (if anywhere) it might lead.  We were discussing the attributes of the Suburban (i.e. hauling various finds) when she explained that she uses her Suburban to haul furniture. She is an artist and through the downturn of the economy, she has had difficulty selling her canvas paintings.  She explain though that she woke up at 3am one morning to realize that she could put her paintings on furniture. Meet Cindi.  She shared with me that she had been a victim of domestic violence and how at 42 she is finally seeing that she is a person with talents and abilities.  Having been married at 18 and her divorce sounding recent, her abusive relationship had left her with very little in the way of self esteem.  Today, I found a woman excited about her life and where it was heading, and by sharing a little of her story she was more empowered and that empowerment is contagious.  She also shared that she was learning as she meets people and tell them what she’s doing, wonderful things happen; like the lady she met at the laundromat who is giving her some furniture to paint.  As she drove off, she waved out her window and wished me well, I did likewise.  People touch our lives, and we touch there’s and sometimes we never realize it.  I had asked for a card and she gave me two.  Her furniture business is call New Life Furniture Art.  Hmmm.  New Life multiple meanings.  Nice to meet you Cindi.  Hope our paths cross again.

Thank you, Cathy. After 32 years, you continue to amaze and inspire me!

None Other Than…

…the venerable Harvard Business Review has lent credibility to my thesis of ‘stopping’. Here’s an excerpt from their blog post on Listening:

Slow Down. There is a reason that, over the years, you have lost your ability to listen. It feels too passive, like the opposite of action. It’s much faster to move to a decision based on the information you already have. But in doing so, you miss important considerations and sacrifice the opportunity to connect. Understand that as you begin to change your listening style to a more empathetic one, you may often feel inefficient. It takes time to truly hear someone and to replay the essence of their thoughts back them so that both parties are clear on what was said. The payback is dramatic, but it comes over the long run.

Here’s how the article concludes:

Truly empathetic listening requires courage—the willingness to let go of the old habits and embrace new ones that may, at first, feel time-consuming and inefficient. But once acquired, these listening habits are the very skills that turn would-be leaders into true ones.


The article references the fact that one of GE’s four key leadership traits is that of being a “humble listener!” I love that!

The link to the entire HBR blog article written by Ram Charan is under my “Blogroll” on the right-hand side of this page ===>

Sense of Wonder

The title of Rachel Carson’s classic work, The Sense of Wonder, made me think, what if we approached our life’s work not with the anticipation of challenges, deadlines, profit, and problems but rather with WONDER?  Perhaps, like Carson, we would begin our day’s journey of service to others as a walk through a vibrant forest full of sights and sounds that evoke awe and a sense of wonder!  It’s not so hard to be inspired by the wonders that surround us in nature.  Visualizing a serene body of water, perhaps a slow moving stream, we don’t think of the volume of water, erosion or floods.  Rather, we hear the musical tones of its flow and delight in the deposits of cool spray on our faces.  In a word, it’s wonder–ful! (Click ‘Tonto Stream’ under Blogroll)

Patients in hospitals are not ‘admissions,’ ‘visits’ or ‘frequent flyers’ but rather ‘souls’ with stories to tell.  And if we, whom they have entrusted their whole self to, approach with wonder, how much more likely is it that healing–their’s and ours–will happen?

There are many lists of things to do to improve the patient’s perception of care (perceived but not necessarily real).  In my vision for the future, we will approach souls with the sense of wonder reserved for the highest form of God’s creation.  And we will step into these precious lives, walk alongside them quietly and create the opportunity of healing!

“The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for the scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea and sky and their amazing life.”

–Rachel Carson

The Sense of Wonder

Is that a mountain stream that I hear in the distance?


Listening for the Silence

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about listening these days. With all the sounds competing for my attention, listening is more difficult than ever today.  You know what these sounds are—constant “breaking” news on cable, Facebook, Tweet and ‘new’ news alerts and a cacophony of just plain noise!

In the midst of this maelstrom of audio interruption are the voices that are important—those of our children, spouses, colleagues and friends’ who merely want us to hear their hearts.     Stopping to really listen is vital not only to them but also to our own sense of wellbeing and peace.  I speak to leaders about being fully present for those with whom they work.  It resonates for them but, like me, they find it hard to prioritize this essential practice.  My friends and former employers, the Sisters of Mercy explained to me that ‘presence’ was, for them, a charism—literally, GRACE.

I remember this lesson from years ago in all that I do and on good days practice it reasonably well.  When I sit with someone in my office or visit with them in the hall, I work hard to tune out distractions like the ringing phone(s), the clock and e-mail in order to really be with—be present for—this most important person at this moment.

I am reading Anam Cara (“Soul friend”) by the late poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue right now and the following words about listening surprised and inspired me:

“With the sense of hearing, we listen to creation…Sometimes we listen to things, but we never hear them.  True listening brings us in touch even with that which is unsaid and unsayable.  Sometimes the most important thresholds of mystery are places of silence.”

That’s setting the bar even higher, isn’t it?  To listen not only to the spoken but to the unspoken:  The joy, hope, fear, or anticipation that is so often contained in the ‘between the lines’ stuff.  This week, as a husband, Dad, leader and friend, I am going to be intentional about listening for the silence.


This blog will speak to things personal and professional.  My hope is that it will resonate with you.  Stopping will be central to everything I discuss here.  Stopping for a moment to notice.  Stopping for a moment to care.  Stopping for a moment to take a breath.  I hope you find encouragement, insight and perhaps relief here.  Thanks for stopping by…