It hurts to be present, though, you know. I ask my students every week to write 10 observations of the actual world. It’s very hard for them. Just tell me what you saw this morning like in two lines. You know I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth. Uh, and the light came through it in three places. No metaphor. And to resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason….We want to — we want to say it was like this. It was like that. We want to look away, and to be, to be with a glass of water or to be with anything. And then they say well there’s nothing important enough. And then it’s whole thing is that point (Marie Howe).
Marilyn Nelson, excerpt from “Crows”
What if to taste and see, to notice things,
to stand each is up against emptiness
for a moment or an eternity—
images collected in consciousness
like a tree alone on the horizon—
is the main reason we’re on the planet….
Be Available to Seeing
I have my students keep a journal in which they must write, very briefly, six things they have seen each day—not beautiful or remarkable things, just things. This seemingly simple task usually is hard for them. At the beginning, they typically “see” things in one of three ways: artistically, deliberately, or not at all. Those who see artistically instantly decorate their descriptions, turning them into something poetic: the winter trees immediately become “old men with snow on their shoulders,” or the lake looks like a “giant eye.” The ones who see deliberately go on and on describing a brass lamp by the bed with painful exactness. And the ones who see only what is forced on their attention: the grandmother in a bikini riding on a skateboard, or a bloody car wreck. But with practice, they begin to see carelessly and learn a kind of active passivity until after a month nearly all of them have learned to be available to seeing—and the physical world pours in (Linda Gregg).
3 Ways of Being Attentive
1. Big Picture
Try to take it all in: the hills, the landmarks, how crooked the trail is, how far it is from the road and from the river, where it’s the trickiest and most dangerous.
Focus on only one thing about the trail, like:
- How many times does the walking path diverge from the bike path?
- When is the path (too) close to the road?
- Where does the shared path narrow? Widen?
- Where do the worst traffic jams between bikers and walkers and runners occur?
- Where are the potholes? The divots? The cracked and cratered asphalt?
- When does the path dip down? Rise up?
- Where does the path swerve slightly?
- Where do the sides of the path drop down steeply?
3. Passive Absorption
Do not try to pay attention to anything. Go out for a run and be present on the path and open to observing. Absorb the details through your feet, your breath, your body.
Be with the bird
But over time, when we relax into a thing and maybe just being with a bird, then your brain kind of relaxes, it loosens, and things soak in. And I think that’s the key with a lot of learning. But not getting the name right immediately does not in any way diminish their ability to appreciate “the pretty,” as Aldo Leopold talks about. And so seeing that bird and saying, “Oh my God, what is that? Look at it,” and you’re looking at it, and you can see all of these hues, and you can watch its behavior, and you may hear it sing — well, in that moment, it’s a beautiful thing, no matter what its name is.
Sometimes, what I try to get people to do is to disconnect for a moment from that absolute need to list and name, and just see the bird. Just see that bird. And you begin to absorb it, in a way, in a part of your brain that I don’t know the name of, but I think it’s a part of your brain that’s also got some heart in it. And then, guess what? The name, when you do learn it, it sticks in a different way.On Being episode with Drew Lanham
Being with the bird (or the tree or the river or whatever else is beside you) is another way of knowing that slowly sinks in and involves “a part of your brain that’s also got some heart in it.” It’s a shift away from the drive to know (to conquer, to possess) and towards a desire to feel and connect. Knowing not as mastering, but becoming acquainted with, getting to know.
Let the bird be
…to caretake with subject matter, to, what is it to say, okay, does this bird want to be in this poem today? Maybe it doesn’t. You know, we always want to turn the animal into something else, right. And sometimes I want to let the animal be. Of course animals are symbols, of course they turn into our metaphors. I mean, that happens. But I also think there are moments when you just think, okay, the birds aren’t going to save me.
They’re not a metaphor for me coming out of this. What I can do with them is to watch them and pay attention and bow down to their quietude, and their exactitude and smallness. But I can’t ask of them everything.VS Podcast Interview with Ada Limón
Notice, admire, find delight in the bird without making them do the heavy work of your writing, without turning them into a metaphor.
a tweet from the poet, Shira Erichman
I don’t pay attention. It’s not money. I share attention, I munch attention, I pet attention, I drip, I unfold, I collapse into, I ride the back of, I map, I left hook, I am sucker punched by, I ride, I park, I amplify, I unhook the bra of, I magnet, I burrow, I quilt attention.
Distraction is not the opposite of Attention
Found this great passage by Roland Barthes from a poetry person on twitter. I want to collect it now, return to it later. It makes me think of passive attention, telling the truth slant, my peripheral vision, and distraction:
To be with the one I love and to think of something else: this is how I have my best ideas, how I best invent what is necessary to my work. Likewise for the test: it produces, in me, the best pleasure if it manages to make itself heard indirectly; if, reading it, I am led to look up often, to listen to something else. I am not necessarily captivated by the text of pleasure; it can be an act that is slight, complex, tenuous, almost scatterbrained: a sudden movement of the head like a bird who understands nothing of what we hear, who hears what we do not understand.The Pleasure of the Text/ Roland Barthes
When I mentioned distraction above, I was partly thinking of an article about poetry and distraction that I posted here a few years ago. I found it again and discovered that this article begins with the quote from Barthes. Nice!
Passive Attention = Distraction = Abandon Vigilance, Relax
Thomas De Quincey recalled an occasion when he and Wordsworth were waiting for the mail coach. At intervals, his friend lay down on the road and pressed his ear to the ground. Once, as he was “rising from this effort,” he caught sight of a something in the sky, stared at it for a minute or so, and then said:
“I have remarked, from my earliest days, that if, under any circumstances, the attention is energetically braced up to an act of steady observation, or of steady expectation, then, if this intense condition of vigilance should suddenly relax, at that moment any beautiful, any impressive visual object, or collection of objects, falling upon the eye, is carried to the heart with a power not known under other circumstances. Just now, my ear was placed upon the stretch, in order to catch any sound of wheels that might come down upon the lake of Wythburn from the Keswick road: at the very instant when I raised my head from the ground, in final abandonment of hope for this night, at the very instant when the organs of attention were all at once relaxing from their tension, the bright star hanging in the air above those outlines of massy blackness, fell suddenly upon my eye, and penetrated my capacity of apprehension with a pathos and a sense of the Infinite, that would not have arrested me under other circumstances.”
Distraction need not simply be another name for attention shifted (“I was looking at this, then I looked at that”). Attention is a form of “tension,” but the relaxation here — both that which creates the condition for the new perception and that which follows from it — is primarily conceived as passive (objects fall “upon the eye, are “carried to the heart”). The sense of one’s capacity of apprehension being “penetrated” is also strange; it’s as though, in a certain state of distractedness, our capacities are not our own. Yet this state isn’t conceived as deficit or disorder; although it arrives as Wordsworth has undertaken “final abandonment of hope,” it signals an advent. And even as he becomes distractedly absorbed by the bright star, the star itself is already luring him into a feeling for something other than itself, igniting “a sense of the Infinite.” The numinous turns nebulous. The unfocused seems to include — or to inspire — a new sense of freedom.In Search of Distraction
Too Much Attention (Focus) = Ignoring, Shutting Out
One of Ashbery’s poems speaks of “diminished strength from paying too close attention,” and such focus can become a slovenly habit of accuracy: “there’s so much work to do,” he writes elsewhere, “so many puzzles to ignore.” Attention is a selection, a suppression, an ignoring, an ignorance.In Search of Distraction
Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our minds?Emily Dickinson (letter to Higginson)