It’s time for a pause in my teaching, which means that most of the students and I leave the lecture hall for fresh air, coffee or cigarettes. I go to the canteen and buy a coffee. Then I wait outside the lecture hall. A student approaches me and asks something about meditation. As I turn to her, another student bumps into me. I spill the coffee all over my shirt.
“Sorry, sir,” he says. “I didn’t see you. Honestly, I didn’t see you.”
I smile. “Relax, no worries. Let’s find some paper towels to clean this up off the floor.”
Afterward, I continue teaching my seminar on mindfulness for bachelor students at a business school.
The coffee accident is funny—perhaps comic in a tragic sense—because the student didn’t see me after having just received his first two-hour introduction to mindfulness. He hadn’t been paying attention to what or who was around him. I didn’t see you, he’d said. I guess I should simply accept that without judging his lack of vision.
On my way home from class, a man steps on my foot while we’re in the metro. “Sorry, I didn’t see you,” he says. I think about saying, “I know, I’m invisible.” But I don’t.
It’s not that I’m superior. I, too, miss things and people who I pass, even though I try to cultivate my attention and awareness daily. Still, the problem is that more and more people don’t see one another. We walk around blind. We think about the past or the future, look at a television screen or computer monitor, and daydream.
For example, when I ask my students after their initial individual presentation whether they can recall the student who presented after them, most of them can’t. They were busy evaluating their own performance, just as they weren’t paying attention to the student presenting before them because they were preparing. This is not shocking news, perhaps. But during the past few years since I started a meditation practice, I’ve noticed this more often. I can’t help thinking that people sometimes miss the wind in their faces, the ground under their feet, the scents hanging in the air and the faces of other people. They miss life.
Yet I don’t wish to moralize because I basically don’t believe in a fixed moral system. However, I wonder what the consequences would be if we all one day stopped noticing one another.
We have to take care of ourselves before we can take care of others. That is obvious. Still the problem is that we don’t notice one another because we’re distracting ourselves both from ourselves and from each other. So, now when I write these few words, I’m actually glad that the student and the man in the metro didn’t see me, for they made me aware of a more general blindness in society.
Of course, the question that remains is, what happens when ignorance leads not to a coffee-stained shirt and forgiveness, but to domestic violence, racism, hate and many other negatives? Then what? It is time to pay more attention.
Finn Janning, PhD, is a Danish, Barcelona-based writer. He practices and teaches mindfulness at a business school for future managers. His most recent publication is the book, The Happiness of Burnout.