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 importantenough. 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 Paying Attention
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.