Saturday, January 30, 2010

Real Life Tao - Mindfulness

Both my wife and I love to watch real life murder mysteries. You can find such programs on several different networks under a variety of names (e.g., 48 Hours, American Justice, etc.). Of the various programs of this type, I think we would both agree that cold cases are the most interesting. A cold case involves a crime that was not solved around the time it occurred. Years -- or decades -- later, it is reopened and, because of better detective work or advances in science, it finally is solved.

I'm certain that one of the reasons I am so intrigued by these types of television programs is that I used to be an investigator! During much of the 1980s, I was a Child Abuse Investigator for state social service agencies in Arkansas and Missouri. In the early 1990s, I worked with my dad's law firm as a Mitigation Investigator on death penalty cases.

When I first started out as a Child Abuse Investigator, I took reams of notes. I might fill up a steno notebook or two for a long interview with an alleged victim, perpetrator or third party. I would try to write down almost everything they said. Yet, for all the copious notes I took, my investigative documentation was mediocre, at best. The reports didn't flow and I constantly omitted or mangled key bits of information.

I soon realized that the problem had to do with mindfulness. I poured so much attention into what I was writing that I was only half-listening. As soon as the interviewee said something, my attention switched away from them to what and how I would record it. Whatever they stated next was usually lost until I finished formulating what I was getting down on paper.

I gradually began to alter the way I conducted interviews and took notes. I started writing much less and trained more attention on what each person had to say. In fact, within a year, I had gone from filling up one or two steno notebooks for a long interview to as little as two pages or so.

Now, instead of trying to capture on paper every word uttered, I used my notes more for facts and figures: names, addresses, birth dates, time, place, etc. I also tried to write down key quotes that captured the essence of the information shared.

Once I finished an interview, I would return to my vehicle or office and, using a hand-held dictophone, I would record the basic gist of the information gleaned. Between my written and verbal notes, I could often recollect the vast majority of the interview weeks later when it came time to write my determination reports.

The thing that had changed as I moved from a novice to a more seasoned investigator was that I was more mindful. By giving the interviewee my undivided attention, their words made a deeper impression on me. Therefore, when I would return later to the interview in my mind, my brief notes helped me to reconstruct it AND to remember what was said.

This has been a lesson I have tried to carry forth in all aspects of my life. When we pay keen attention to what is going on in the here and now, it makes it so much easier to remember later on. Conversely, when we allow ourselves to be distracted during the present moment, we realize only later on that we don't really remember all the specifics of what transpired.

This post is part of a series. For an introduction, go here.


  1. Mindfulness - One of my ongoing efforts, learning to winnow the chaff from the grain of life. I have a tendency to focus on one project, detail, or priority to the detriment of all other things.

  2. If truth be know, that often bites me on the butt too!!

  3. At least I'm in good company :-D


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