The ethics of paying attention: part 3

At its core, mindfulness is about attention. And as we’ve seen in the previous two posts, attention has ethical consequences. In the first post I thought about the way we listen to each other, or fail to, and reflected on its effect on our relationships. In the next post I told the story of Robert M. Sanchez, the train engineer who in 2008 crashed a commuter train causing the deaths of himself and twenty-four others—all because he was distracted by his cell phone. “Failing to pay attention,” I wrote in the first post, “is the royal road to chaos.” 

In mindfulness meditation, you are instructed to begin by settling your attention on your breath. At first it is a single point of focus. Gradually you expand this attention like a widening circle to include the sensations of your body, sights in your visual field, sounds in the room, and the thoughts that come and go through your mind. But it doesn’t stop there. What I’m suggesting in this segment on mindfulness and ethics is that we expand our careful attention even further—to the people we love, the strangers on the train, and all conscious inhabitants of this planet. 

It’s a tall order, to be sure. But what I argue is that mindfulness is incomplete without this broader sphere of attention—even if it requires that we wander into politics or social activism of various kinds. Or if we must become aware of the way our individual choices effect future generations of life. Or if we must share the wealth we have knowing that others have so little. 

Those of us living in the developed world are not mere passengers in this locomotive of human civilization. Like Robert M. Sanchez, we are all at the helm, driving us toward our destiny. We cannot drive this train with our heads down. We must set down the phone, breathe, and look up.