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One-inch wide focus

“For just one second, the entire universe is one inch wide.” So read a line of shirts depicting the paper targets used by precision shooters, capturing a point (conjecture, not bull’s-eye) that most of us miss: we lose sight of ourselves and therefore can jump to blame. The art of mindfulness centers on the same relaxation and attention necessary in good shooting. It also promotes grace derived from self-awareness that helps us mitigate groundless blame which so easily dominates us.

For those not familiar with competitive precision shooting as a meditative practice, a few words: you must relax practically every muscle in the body and carefully control breathing and heart beat (like most meditation). You must focus solely on the task, here, lining up circular sights so that they are perfectly concentric (like Zen active meditations). You cannot be distracted by outside sounds, spectator conversation, or those spectacular neon orange shoes in visual periphery. You cannot get excited at doing well (it increases heart rate) or get mad at mistakes (also increases heart rate). Every moment, every mental union of yourself and your action, every miniscule twinge of each muscle works together in balanced harmony (Thoreau’s “deliberate” lifestyle).

Unlike most cases in life, seeing your own shortcomings on a target is immediate and inescapably visible. But in conversation, there’s no scoreboard or way to measure another’s reactions. We expect any attempt at communication to work perfectly, as if every statement will strike just the spot we intend with mechanical reliability. Instead life is more like aligning sights on a black target on black paper. You can only guess what another person is feeling or how your statements impact him. Does a quiet response mean your listener is pensive or peeved? Not paying attention proves risky.

People keep trying harder and harder to “multitask.” If ads about the dangers of texting and driving
do not faze you, what will? In the couple minutes between class, were you so caught up in complaints about the Sayles rush hour, you didn’t stop to listen to a friend’s concerns about her family? Maybe while tutoring you were so worried about teaching fractions you accidentally snubbed the kid’s clever joke. Complaining distracts us with past experience; worries distract us with potential futures. And when these distractions make
us unhappy or produce undesired results, we too often turn to blaming the subjects of these negative thoughts and not the thoughts themselves. This is just like how many people blame a glass for falling and do not blame the carelessness that set it on the table’s edge.

Mindfulness means doing one thing at a time. Focus on driving safely. Pay attention to your friend
or pupil. Do one thing and do it well so you do not need blame. Put aside petty complaints and needless worries. They only make going through life (just like the next shot) even harder. A slight misalignment in your shooting position sends any projectile far off its mark, just as a bitter demeanor puts off everyone you pass. So relax. See what really is there and make peace with it. You cannot change how others think and experience the world, but you can change how you interact with them. Take time to center yourself and know where you are, and then you can focus on other people and tasks one at a time. Restrain the instinct to jump to conclusions and act defensively until after you have breathed, focused, and looked again. Work is easier and communication more rewarding when your universe is just one inch wide.

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