The Challenges and Pleasures of Paying Attention

10:00 AM Thawing! Yes, the end of winter is in sight. And sounds! Can you hear the birds’ new songs?

I have tried to avoid chiming in on winter complaints and not just because whining about the snow and cold has become such tedious conversation but because, I have been trying to embrace winter, to seize even the snowiest, most frigid day rather than hurry the passage of time. Is this a challenge for you? It is for me, no matter the season.

Today is Sunday and I already anticipate Monday with a falling heart. Back to work. Although I enjoy my job, I bemoan the end of time to myself – whole blissful days to make choices based more on desire than need, time to be at home. Similarly, by Wednesday, I think, “almost there – another weekend!” And thus goes the days, the weeks, the months… you get the idea.

This is not how I want my life to pass. I like my work, full of creativity, interactions with people who I feel kin spirit with, focusing mostly around books, books, books! Still, I can’t resist looking forward. I look forward to time to myself, I look forward to warm days, to spending time with those I love, to sitting on the porch, getting my hands dirty in the garden – yes, like all of us here in the Northeast: I look forward to Spring!

Yet I love to be really in the present, to live in the moment, relishing the time I have, keenly aware, we cannot know how much we get.

window

I am looking out at the old Oak tree twisting, craggy branches almost touching the house. My window covered in clear plastic sheeting holds back the winds but allows the light to shimmer through onto the grey wall beside the writing desk I rescued from the street on a summer’s night many years ago.

desk

Sweet, isn’t it? Sometimes the radiator under the window bangs with the promise of a warmth that is never delivered. Luckily, this room is little more than a closet in size so I’m easily warmed by an electric heater and blankets around my shoulders and knees. Tetley sleeps on the futon folded beside me. Why would I hurry this moment?

Tet

Hunger distracts me. I begin to think about eating, and that becomes what I might cook and that may lead to what I need to buy. And there I am, drawn away from the ‘now’ by my growling stomach.

2:00 PM I’m back to this spot again after doing laundry, drinking coffee and eating a clementine. Consciously, I focus on bringing myself back from distractions back to this NOW. The light’s changed a little since I left the room, clouds are greying the day. It’s warm  today – almost 40 – a veritable heat wave! My friend and I have plans to walk. A demand I admit feels mostly tedious to me: exercise! I wonder what time we will do this or even if we really will push ourselves to leave our cozy homes to tromp besides the melting snow banks lining the streets, blocking the sidewalks. See? Again, I am away from ‘now’ wondering about the future.

Why is being present so difficult? As long as I’m not in the dentist chair or enduring some other misery, it feels good. It gives me joy to pay attention to the moment’s light, sound, taste, breath. Breathing is the anchor in meditation – to focus, pay attention to each breath – I try to remember this throughout my day.

Attention. “Pay attention” teachers tell their students. As if that is easy for any of us. And yet, for me it’s one of the most beautiful things to observe in others. To watch someone really, really, paying attention gives me an almost peculiar pleasure. I first realized this at my desk in Second Grade when one of my classmates stood on a chair next to the gigantic windows of Saint Gabriel’s Elementary school, watering the plants lined up along the sill. I can’t remember who, whether a boy or a girl, only the palpable, dreamy pleasure I felt as I watched them do this task with care and concentration. I remember shivers starting from the back of my head and spreading over my shoulders to my spine.

Apparently, this is a thing  called Autonomous Sensory Meridian response. There are even YouTube videos created to trigger these tingles, mostly of whispering women with Eastern European accents touching their hair. They don’t work for me. The whispering thing is weird. Now if you wanted to come sweep my floor or dust my house, I’d probably get tingly watching you. (and boy does my house need cleaning) Sounds kinky, doesn’t it? It’s really pretty benign almost primitive, the pleasure compared in the Wikipedia description to being like that of primates grooming each other. ASMR effect is “…related to the perception of non-threat and altruistic attention.” I didn’t realize until describing this to some friends, that not everyone experiences this. Do you or do you think it’s weird?

Woefully, I can’t remember the last time I felt these tingles because I rarely observe anyone paying complete, devoted “altruistic” attention to anything. We have become such chronic multi-taskers. Even driving doesn’t get our full attention. If we’re not talking on a telephone, or worse – texting, chances are we’re listening to music or the news. I’ve become acutely aware of how distracting the radio is and must turn it off when the weather makes driving dicey or maneuvering through a crowded parking lot.

4:00 PM  The earlier grey has lifted and the sky is blue. I did the laundry and walked around the neighborhood with my dear friend. We talked and walked and turned our faces to the much-missed sun and now I’m back in my spot by the window, trying to look neither back nor forward. But I think about dinner and the evening. I’ll likely end up in my usual spot at the end of the couch with a book. My phone will be beside me in case my daughter calls or texts me. Now that Downton Abby is over, I may not bother to turn the television on. Good. More time to make my way through the tower of books waiting to be read. I’ll do that until my eyelids droop impossibly.

Tomorrow morning will come and this day, (a good one) will be in the past. But now, now the sun is on the other side of the house from my East facing window. Instead of dancing light, there are encroaching shadows on the gray walls. Sunday afternoon is becoming evening and despite all my efforts, I think about Monday and what needs to be done at work.

But stop!  I again reel my monkey-mind in by paying attention to the shifting light of this late winter day, the squirrel scampering through the branches now gently swaying with a warmer wind than we’re used to. Doing this, paying attention to the light, my breath, even to my back – achey from sitting in this damn chair too long today – all feels good. And now, that is enough.

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9 Responses to The Challenges and Pleasures of Paying Attention

  1. Jennifer says:

    A day strung together by full, beautiful moments. Thank you for putting it all into such very present words.

  2. Lea Sylvestro says:

    Mmmm…your wonderful desk, a radiator (love them), and dear Tetley….such cozy images. Corralling (sp?) the moment and one’s thoughts is such a challenge. Yesterday, after trudging to the feeder and loading it up, I realized I had focused on my feet and not slipping the whole time. I wound up sitting on the porch, listening to the birds chirp, watching them swoop in, and smiling. It was chilly, but peaceful. This winter has been extraordinary in its power and beauty, and like you, I’ve had to remind myself to pause in my complaints about the cold and ice to pay attention and appreciate the snowscape. XO

  3. The complaints I hear every day about the difficult winter are indeed tedious — in fact, one of the things I will enjoy most about the end of winter is not having to listen to the constant griping. I’m no Pollyanna, but I’ve loved this winter, mostly because I enjoy hibernating. I love what you have to say about paying attention. It’s something I have to remind myself to do, but when I do, it’s so rewarding.

  4. I heard an NPR story on the whispering thing and then went to YouTube to see what these videos were all about…the whispering drove me nuts. Your blog piece, on the other hand, was lovely.

  5. Tricia says:

    Creepy, right? For me it’s still mostly watching people be nice to plants – also a little weird I guess.

  6. dianeprokop says:

    I love that you combine photos with your beautiful words.

  7. Tricia says:

    Shabby photos though, unlike your gorgeous river shots – visual poetry.

  8. Thank you for this, for showing how our mind pulls away from being present and how we have to draw it back again. Love your desk and pictures. Tetley is adorable.

  9. cynthia says:

    Sometimes it’s so hard to be in this one moment. When I had children at home and could get really scattered, I used to put on a song I knew the words to. I would start it over until I could sing it all the way through to the end without spacing out. But I love winter so you won’t find me wishing for spring. Nice writing desk.

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