Before we talk about how being present can affect our relationships with other people in a positive and enduring way, I want to say something about the practice of divided attention. Divided attention is a method that allows us to be present and to continue to function in the world. With divided attention we give one part of our attention to being present and another part of our attention to what we are observing or doing. If you stand in museum and look at a painting, a part of your awareness sees the painting, but another part is continually aware that you are there, in that museum, looking at the painting. In other words, you don’t lose yourself in the picture. You observe yourself seeing the painting and look at the painting at the same time. Of course the same idea can be applied when you are talking to or observing other people. You listen and see the person in front of you, and at the same time keep a part of your attention on the fact that you are there in that moment seeing and listening to them. It sounds simple, but in practice there are some difficulties that need to be overcome.
External consideration is really just divided attention in relation to people. It is opposed to internal (or inner) considering. Inner considering is a particular type of worrying about what people think of us, whether they like or respect us, or whether they give us enough attention. When we are lost in inner considering, our concern is whether or not other people are attentive to us.
I have always thought that it is a great irony that in most social situation the majority of people inner consider. What this means is that nobody—or very few people—are observing and thinking about other people; they are instead thinking about what everybody else is thinking about them. They want to be recognized, or liked, or respected, or promoted.
Don’t worry when you are not recognized, but strive to be worthy of recognition. ~ Abraham Lincoln
For me it was incredibly liberating to discover that nobody was thinking about me; it meant that I could do and say what I wanted. In other words I could live my life the way I wanted to because essentially other people didn’t really care about what I said or did; they were too concerned about what I was thinking about them.
Epictetus was very clear on this point: there are some things that are in our power and some that are not, and reputation, or the opinions of others, falls into the category of things not in our power; that is, things which a philosopher does not bother himself about.
Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions. ~ Epictetus
There is a story about Mulla Nasrudin who was invited to an important dinner during a time in his life when he had the reputation of being a great philosopher. It was supposed to be meeting of all the great minds in the city, and he was going to an honored guest. At the time all the intellectuals dressed in purple robes to distinguish them from the lesser citizens, but Nasrudin, who had been out buying eggs and tea and never wore his purple robe when he shopped because he wanted the vendors to believe he was poor, arrived at the dinner in his ordinary robe. To his surprise he was seated in the back, away from the the other honored guests, and ignored by the people around him. So he walked home and changed into his purple robe. When he returned to dinner, he was seated in an honored place and given the very best food to eat. Everybody made a fuss about him and wanted to sit near him to hear what he had to say. But the Mulla surprised them: instead of eating the food that was served to him, he spooned food into his robe, and said, “Eat, robe, eat!”
Inner considering is a wonderful example of an unnecessary law. It is a law that exists on the level of personality. Generally children are taught from a very early age to concern themselves with what other people think of them. You can even think of inner considering as a mechanism that is taught to children so that they will behave. Essentially what this means is that children are trained to behave in ways that will make other people like them. And, in most cases, inner considering is easily reinforced because it is natural for people to want to be liked. Normal people want to be a part of a family or social group; they like to be liked.
The point is that inner considering is based on a delusion, the delusion that other people spend any amount of their time thinking about us. If inner considering had a physical or essence-based reality, it would be much more difficult to eliminate, but since it is only the norm, only the law, on the level of personality, it can be simply be dropped. All that is required is seeing it and wanting to be free from it.
That said in my experience it is not unusual for people, when they first hear about inner considering, to try to conquer it in a wrong and, really, very childish way. They see inner considering as a desire to be liked, and they see it as an obstacle because it keeps them from getting what they want. So they try to work on it by intentionally being selfish, by taking what they want even if it inconveniences or hurts other people. This is really just another form of inner considering: believing that other people don’t give us enough attention.
To understand inner considering, you need to see it as a kind of blindness in relation to people. Inner considering means that you don’t see other people; you see, instead, the thoughts in your mind about people. What this means is that instead of reacting to the needs of your friends and family, you react to your thoughts about them, and unfortunately the mind is not a very good instrument for understanding and responding to others. External consideration is an attempt to bring conscience or consciousness to how you look at people.
In many traditions this kind of consideration is described as compassion or empathy; that is, as an awareness of the suffering of others coupled with the wish to relieve their distress. But I like the idea of external consideration better because too often compassion and empathy are thought of as something we feel, something that happens to us, not as something that we can do or bring about. External consideration puts you in charge: you observe other people and observe your reaction to them at the same time. You bring presence to your interactions with others.
It’s hard to describe the power of external consideration. You have to try it to see how revealing it is. If you can manage to use this tool for one evening, I guarantee that you’ll find out something interesting about yourself and about other people. Try it at a party or at a social gathering. Go with one purpose: that you’re going to try to divide your attention between yourself and the people that you talk to. If you go with other intentions uppermost and try to add external consideration, you will most likely forget. Just tell yourself that this one evening is about external consideration and nothing else. You will also probably find it easier if you keep the mind as quiet as possible. Just observe yourself and your friends and let any observations and perceptions come as they will. Don’t comment too much, and let people talk if they want to. Don’t impose anything on them; this is your exercise and they don’t need to know about it. Be natural and uninhibited. Just look at your friends, listen to what they say, and be present.