Why Cultivating Attention is so Important
By: Deborah Brenna
As we prepare for our second Scholé Sister’s meeting, I want to dive a little deeper into some of the ideas I touched on last time, namely the benefits that cultivating attention has in our lives. While attention can have benefits in many areas of our lives, there are four main areas I would like to touch on: meaning, rest, intimacy, and self-knowledge.
Cultivating attention cultivates a sense of meaning in our everyday lives. The first way it does this is by helping us to create memory. When we notice, we are more likely to remember. If we are paying attention, we are likely creating memories. So our life is not just blowing by in a blur, but it is being recorded on our brains.
Next, attention helps us to slow things down a bit, and provides an opportunity to adjust our attitudes, increase our sense of gratitude, and become more content. When we rush and get wrapped up in the millions of tasks before us, we forget to be thankful for the meals eaten on the dished we are washing, or the little hands and feet that played in the sand we are sweeping off our floors. In the rush, those tasks become meaningless, mundane and not worth remembering. But pay a little attention, adjust the attitude, and they become the beautiful work of keeping a home where love abides.
To further this sense of meaning, when we focus on a task, no matter how menial, we can develop a relationship with it. I love to sweep. I love the way the broom feels in my hands. I love the sound of the bristles on the floor. I love the feeling of accomplishment I get when I make a big pile of dirt, and then throw it away. It was my father who taught me how to sweep, running the bristles of the broom in a rhythmic pattern over every tile, making sure not to miss a section, getting into every nook, and cranny underneath our kitchen cabinets. It took a lot of attention to get it just right, to get that, “good job,” from him. I still think of him every time I sweep. When I’m paying attention, I feel connected to him, and content in my job well done.
What chore do you enjoy? Why? How can paying attention help you create meaning in your every-day activities? You may not be able to pay attention all the time, but what tasks could you pay more attention to?
It’s not hard to see how cultivating attention cultivates intimacy. We all know how important it is to pay attention to those around us. One of my biggest pet peeves is talking to someone who is willfully distracted. When I’m trying to have a meaningful conversation, or say something that weighs heavily on my heart, and the person I’m talking to picks up their phone to scroll through Facebook, it crushes me. I feel cast off, isolated, and very lonely. Intimacy, and trust are broken in those moments. So yes, we all need to work on paying attention to the person talking to us.
There’s something more to this idea of attention creating intimacy though. It’s about more than just stopping what we are doing to look at the person talking to us. It’s about more than listening to their words. To create true intimacy, we must consider the person when they are not in front of us. We must devote conscious thought to our relationship with them, how our interactions go, and to their needs. We need time for reflection. And that seems to be time that gets lost in our every-day hustle and bustle.
Think about it, when was the last time one of your friends told you they were struggling with a problem? You may have stopped to listen to them in that moment, and offered comfort, but did you follow it through? Did you consider them later, wondering how they might be doing? Did you call them, and ask? Did you continue to offer support? When was the last time someone called you to check up on you when they knew you were having a hard time? Did you feel grateful for that person, in that moment? Did you feel more connected?
In the same way that cultivating attention can cultivate intimacy, cultivating attention cultivates self-knowledge. How often do you take the time to think about yourself, and where you’re at? Did you get angry at your children today and yell at them? Why? Do you know? Did it feel like a knee jerk reaction? But was it really? Or where you scared that if they did x, it would mean y? How well do you know yourself, and your motives? To really know yourself you have to take the time to pay attention to what is going on in your own life, and in your own heart.
Cultivating attention also cultivates rest. Who among us doesn’t need rest? I don’t know about you, but I feel exhausted most of the time. My cup is empty far too often. But how do you refill your cup when everything around you demands that you pour yourself out, and right now. We are pulled in a million different directions, by people who need us, tasks that need doing, and lessons that need learning. And it doesn’t end. When we pay attention we have to slow down. When we slow down, we can more easily acknowledge that we are tired, and need a moment to rest. But true rest is not so much about the body, as it is about the mind.
When you stop to pay attention to something you love, you are refilling your cup, and resting your mind, heart, and soul. For me it’s stopping to notice the tiny details of a flower I want to paint, and then taking the time to capture that image in my nature notebook, completely content in its beauty. It’s watching the clouds move, and standing in awe of the magnificence of the sky. It’s watching my children sleep, memorizing their peaceful faces, and being ever so thankful for each little breath. It’s brushing my hand across my husband’s cheek, noticing all the features that make him uniquely him. There are a thousand tiny moments throughout the day, and opportunities for bigger ones just waiting for us to seek them out. If we can just slow down, and pay attention long enough, rest exists in our every-day moments. So pay attention, and refill your cup.
Some of these ideas may seem lofty or idealistic. Or maybe they seem simplistic. You might be tempted to ask, who has time for that? Or you might say, I’m already doing that. And I just want to say, you do have time, and you can do even better! I want to challenge you to take the time this week to pay attention to something, it can be anything; and take note of how it affects you. I’ll want to know what you think, at our next meeting. If you’re not going to be there, we’d love to hear from you on our Facebook page. And if you still think this is impossible stuff, next time we’ll talk about practical ways that we can cultivate and improve our habits of attention.