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It’s funny how we can be next to someone, but not be with them. It makes me sad to see couples in restaurants sharing a meal, but in silence, not even sharing eye contact. However, we’ve all had the experience of having our attention wander when we’re interacting with someone else or trying to focus on something. We suddenly realize we aren’t focused on what we had intended and bring ourselves back to the moment – or we don’t.

We also notice immediately when someone else isn’t really present with us. They’re in their heads thinking about something else, perhaps looking at their email or cell phone, or looking off at something other than us. My wife calls me in those moments, saying, “Where’d you go?” This usually this calls me back to the moment, to be with her, although sometimes I find it hard to come back, to let go of what had dragged my attention from the moment. It’s as though the reality of my thoughts and concerns, taking me to the past, the future, and places other than where I am, sometimes have more weight than the actual moment of my life that I’m living – or at least existing in.

Where are you? The answer is simple: You are where your attention is. Not where your body is.

The consequences of where our attention goes are immense. Our attention is the foundation of whether communication, trust, coordination, and even love are possible, and the quality with which they are available. These are all based on the quality of our presence and our capacity for connection, which are outcomes of our attention.

Attention shapes our presence – whether we are “in attendance” or not.  Presence is acknowledged to be part of
leadership with the phrase “leadership presence,” but is fundamental to any interaction or relationship we have with others as well. We show up with presence – or absence. We are either “attending,” or we are “elsewhere,” not present.

Another huge impact of our attention is our capacity for connection or disconnection. We must bring our attention and be present in order to enable a connection. We all hunger for connection. Human beings are wired for connection, we are social creatures. Communication is based on “communing,” on connecting. Love, friendship, effective communication, teamwork, belonging, loyalty, trust, and having a sense of dwelling – being at home – all require a connection. In the world of action, disconnection shows up as distrust, lack of commitment or ownership, lack of listening, lack of care, value, respect, and satisfaction, as well as miscoordination.

In one of his stories, the novelist James Joyce wrote, “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.”

This disconnection provokes the question: Is this really living? What is it to engage in full living, full aliveness? And to share this with others?

One thing I am sure of, we cannot be fully connected to someone else if we are not connected to ourselves, to our own body, and to the present moment. Without connection, relationships turn into the pain of loneliness, communication turns into a ping-pong of information and assessments, and coordination turns into pushing and manipulating.

Yet with all these astounding consequences to our attention, we live in a culture where we are not trained to pay attention to our attention. Our attention wanders, and in the current age, we are assaulted with opportunities to have our attention captured with novelty, media, cell phones, and computers, as well as drugs and stimulants, reality tv, and an industry of gossip. We live in an era of constant stimulation to take our attention from us.

We also live in a culture that has elevated cognitive skill as the dominant mode of knowing and way of being. Yet when we go fully to our mind and into thought, or more often when thoughts take our attention, we enter a form of disconnection – we disconnect from others, from the moment, from our bodies and emotions, even from ourselves. We can become the hostages of our thought, enter a world of abstractions, and someone else is driving the bus of our attention.

Sharing life, sharing the future, is in our culture an exercise in what we sometimes call “leadership.” In exploring leadership, my colleagues and I have found that the greatest challenge of leadership is not understanding what it is, but in embodying it. And the greatest challenge of leadership, as well as relationship, if not life, is to be fully awake, aware, and attending to the present moment. Awareness creates choice, and a choice is an exercise of attention and connection. We connect to what we attend to. It is always an exercise of the current moment, the human moment, the leadership moment.

What is it that we must learn to connect to if we are to have a choice and share a world with others? To connect to the current moment, and in that moment, to connect to another, as well as to our own care, bodies, and emotions. This is a skill, a capacity, that grows with practice in paying attention to our attention, to our presence and connection, and to the quality of what we produce in our connections. This is where life happens, leadership happens, relationship happens, action and taking care happens, and where we create the future we share with others.

Where are you? Where your attention and connection – or disconnection – have taken you, with or without your choice.