Expectations

So much of how we experience each other bounces off everything that is left unsaid.

Expectations about how good the movie would be.

Expectations about what was meant when you were told “the meeting will start at 10:00.”

Expectations about how we will dress.

Expectations about what it means to do this job.

Expectations about what it means to work for you.

Expectations about who gets to have good ideas.

Expectations about who gets to say yes, and no.

Expectations about who gets to speak when.

Expectations about how, and how much, to agree and disagree.

Expectations about where we do our best work.

Expectations about whether showing up in person matters.

Expectations about how much care we put into saying “thank you.”

Expectations about what it means to listen, and the relative importance of listening and speaking.

Expectations about how a President is supposed to act.

Expectations about who can and cannot leave the office first.

Expectations about what silence means (in a meeting, when I don’t hear back from you).

Expectations about what you mean when you say “I’ll take it from here.”

 

It turns out that most of how we experience in the world comes from sense-making, and sense-making is a comparison between what happened and the sum total of everyone’s unspoken expectations.

Think for a moment about what this means if you’re working across…anything really: geography, culture, class, religion, age, gender, or even just two groups within the same organization.

More often than not, misunderstandings come from forgetting how different each of our expectations are, and from the mental shortcuts we all take as we fill in blanks (“what did that really mean?”) based all of our unconscious biases.

 

How are you?

Notice how grooved we get in our reply to this question.

Either we respond with an anodyne “Fine thanks. And you?”

Or we use it as a chance to vent about the last three things that went wrong in our day.

Here’s an idea: use this as a moment to consciously, genuinely share the most positive thing that’s happened recently, or one thing you’re looking forward to.

By sharing that emotion and that energy, the person who was kind enough to ask can feel that and pay it forward.

Attention and Intention

I first began practicing yoga regularly in 1999, and for much of my first few years of practice, I took more classes from Rolf Gates than from anyone else.

Rolf doesn’t cut the familiar profile of a yoga teacher: he’s an ex-Army Ranger, marathoner and wrestler who is built like an NFL running back, one for whom physical hardship is something to chuckle at. When I’d be straining 30 minutes into a class and Rolf would smile and bellow, “We have miles to go before we rest!” I’d know that Rolf had been there and done that, and I’d remind myself to toughen up a bit.

But although the physical toughness was what you’d first see when you met Rolf, he taught a deeply reflective and introspective class. The son of six generations of ministers, Rolf followed his time in the Army with a stint as a social worker and a substance abuse counselor. All of this came together in a yoga class that might have seemed to be about sweating like crazy and the serenity that followed, but really was about wisdom and perspective. Regulars at his class used to call it “the church of Rolf.”

Rolf and I both left Boston years ago, and I miss his class, so I’m thankful that I can now take his class virtually, online.

I took one of these classes the other day, and I noticed that, as Rolf has continued to grow and deepen as a teacher, his wisdom has become both simpler and more profound. I experience Rolf as a student of life, someone who is winnowing down what he is learning, finding his way to the essence of his truth.

In the class that I took, the mantra Rolf kept repeating was, “As you breathe, know that you are breathing.”

Indeed.

This phrase stuck with me the next morning as I made my way to the train on my  commute – walking too fast as I quickly checked the weather on my phone, rushing and distracted. And then I looked up, saw the blue sky, the bright white clouds and the swaying trees, and thought, “When I walk, shouldn’t I know that I am walking?” Of course I should.

This is about attention and intention.

Attention is the choice to focus my energies on the action I’m engaged in. If I’m walking to the train, I can bring my attention to that action, and experience the world more fully. This gives the space to allow what I’m doing penetrate my mind and my body.

Intention both precedes and follows attention. I can use my intention as the source of the actions that I take. And intention can follow attention since the act of reflection can give rise to a new set of intentions in a powerful set of connecting loops: I set a purpose in a given moment, and, when I am fully present in that moment, I can let that experience guide my next intention – a loop that is both deliberate and open.

What I’m realizing is that I’ve come to the point in my life where I’ve got no more time to squeeze out of my days. There are no big breakthroughs in efficiency on the horizon. If that’s the case – if I’m not going to uncover any more time – then the only leverage left to me is around how I spend that time. Sure, I may still be able to shift how I spend a few hours here and there, but the big remaining shift, one that I’m sure will take a lifetime to unfold, is around the quality of attention and intention I bring to each and every moment.

The transitions

I had a yoga teacher who loved to rib the class about all the activity that would start after (or before) a really tough pose:

“It’s amazing how thirsty everyone gets, how it becomes time to fix your hair or tuck in a t-shirt or towel off…”

He liked to remind us that yoga was all about the transitions – that anyone could muscle through a pose and hang on for a few seconds or a minute.  Yoga is about what comes in between, what comes before and after, as a reflection of who you are in the pose.

Taking that out of the studio….

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I’ve made the miniscule commitment to stop automatically looking at my iPhone every time I get in an elevator.  What bothered me about it was the “automatically” not the “looking.”  That is, the troubling piece is a reflexive notion that time in an elevator or on a train platform or (much worse) walking down the street is down time with nothing to do, so the only sensible thing is to check your email.

Let’s be real about this: there’s a mountain of work to do.  Furthermore, since you’re doing something worth doing that means you want to put your heart and soul into this work.  So you work hard, you give more, and you want to and should keep up.

But that’s not the same thing as: “every ‘free’ moment I have is best spent chipping away at an unconquerable mountain of email.”  That’s the professional equivalent of muscling through the pose – the notion that you’re going through the world forever struggling to keep up.   Plus, take that to its logical conclusion and at some point you’ve given up on every last moment of quiet, of reflection, of noticing the day and the sun shining and other human beings walking down the street or riding the subway with you.  There’s something real there too.

I struggle with this tremendously and I fall short often.  What I strive for is being intentional and being present.  That’s not never using my iPhone, nor is it mindlessly app-flipping every time I have 30 seconds to spare.

*sigh*

What was I thinking?

At my college reunion (!!) this past weekend, a classmate I’d not seen in years made two seemingly-unrelated comments that I thought might in fact be closely connected.

Comment 1: “I don’t like these events because I’m just terrible at remembering names and faces.”

Comment 2: “It’s great to have my son here…this way I don’t have to talk to too many people!”

I’m not a natural at remembering names or faces, though I’ve gotten a lot better in recent years.  Putting these two comments together, I began to wonder what exactly is going through my head when I meet someone new.  How much of my attention am I giving to that person, to what he says and how he looks and acts, and how much am I being distracted by the ongoing chatter in my head?

I know different people are just wired differently – my wife remembers names the way I remember numbers, with no effort at all.  But for those of us who have to work at this, I wonder if it’s all a version of that great Gary Larson cartoon – the person is talking, I think I’m listening, but what they say is drowned out by my monkey mind, which is going on about what I’m going to say next or thinking about what they said a minute ago that seemed so interesting.

blah blah ginger by Gary Larson (Far Side comic)

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