Cultivating Attention Pt. 3

Starting and Ending your Day Intentionally

By:Deborah Brenna

This semester we have been discussing cultivating attention. So far we have grappled with our need to cultivate attention, and what that might look like, but we have yet to fully discuss practical ways to build up our attention muscles. In this post I will discuss two ideas for starting and ending your day in an intentional, focused way. In the next post, I will discuss a few activities that we can use to help train our attention.

As I consider the things that rob us of our ability to pay attention, the thing at the forefront would have to be our large to-do lists and a sense of overwhelm. Heaven knows mothers are over taxed constantly. As we’ve discussed before, we are pulled in a million different directions, at any given moment of the day, and this doesn’t in any way help us pay attention to the moment we’re living in.

So how can we avoid the pull, and focus on now? The answer is what I like to call, “keeping your life.” A few semesters ago we were talking about the art of keeping, specifically keeping notebooks. I’m a planner, some of you are also planners, and some of you are not. Those of you who are not, might not like this idea, but I encourage you to try it anyway. Keeping your life is taking 5 or 10 minutes every day to look at your day. Keep a notebook and a calendar where you can quickly write out the most important things that need to happen in a day, is the easiest way to do this. Having a simple list can help you to focus and pay attention to one task at a time, and live in that moment without worrying about what you have to do in the next.

I’ve lived flying by the seat of my pants. I was stressed out a lot. Now, I keep a planner where I have our school week planned out, meals planned out, chores, a master list of things I need to get done in any given season, and a calendar that I can reference for all the things we have going on. This sounds like a lot of work, and yes setting it up the first time took a little while, but now it is invaluable to me. I can take a look at my week on Sunday afternoon and see what I need to get done that week. I can look at it daily and know that there is time for what I need to do each day, and not worry about the rest. I can start my day focused, and attend to what is needful. My planner honestly gives me rest.

And speaking of rest, when we’re looking at our day, at our week, we all need to look at what we can cut. I don’t know a single woman who isn’t doing too much. And that too much leads to burn out. It robs us of our ability to live in the moment and pay attention to the important things. Schedule your life for peace and not overwhelm. Focus on the priorities, and remember the rest will get done when it’s supposed to.

The next thing that you can do to help focus your attention and build all those wonderful things, like intimacy, joy, and rest, is to take a few minutes each day to intentionally pay attention to where you and your loved ones are at. Take 10 minutes (or more if you have it) to focus and reflect. You can call this what you like, prayer, meditation, an examination, journaling time or whatever works for you.

I personally like to spend time in prayer before my day starts and when it ends. I take my triumphs, worries, needs and the people I love before God and trust that he will take care of the rest. This gives me a good deal of peace, but it also helps me to see what’s going on in my life and my family. I pray over the people that I love, and it serves a dual purpose of helping me pay attention to what’s going on with them. It’s an opportunity to pay attention to the places that need my attention most. I also practice the art of examine. I look at the things I did really well during the day, what I did poorly, and what I can do better tomorrow.

Here’s a general example of what a reflection might look like that you can adapt to your needs, whether you are religious, secular or somewhere in between:

At the beginning of the day:

Think about where you are personally. What are your needs, desires, goals, fears, concerns, struggles? How can you address these today?

What are you thankful for in your life right now?

What things are you struggling with? What things are you doing really well?

Think about those around you. What are their needs? What do you need to do to support them?

What do you need right now to have a good day?

At the end of the day:

What happened today? Where did you do really well today? What things do you need to work on?

What are you thankful for?

Were there any ugly moments? Do you need to apologize to anyone?

Are you worried about anything? What can you or someone near you do to help ease that worry?

The main point here is that a few minutes each morning and evening spent intentionally paying attention to your life can really make a big impact on your ability to live in the moment. How do you intentionally focus your attention?


Cultivating Attention Part 2

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.

Where is Your Attention?

Attention is focusing on something with your whole self. Do you attend to things with your whole self?    

As we ring in the New Year, and head toward meeting up for the spring semester, I have been thinking a lot about cultivating attention. As a homeschool mama, it’s a topic I often contemplate for my children, especially when I find myself saying over and over throughout the day, “Pay attention!” But what about my attention?

Before I can answer that, I must ask what attention is. For the purposes of our discussions, attention is the turning of yourself toward another person or toward an object or task, and taking notice of it. Attention is focusing on something with your whole self. That’s sort of a weighty definition of something that seems so every day.

Do you attend to things with your whole self?

I’m sad to confess that I don’t. In fact, most of the time my attention is both everywhere and no-where all at once. I’m too busy multitasking to focus on just one thing.  And I would bet most, if not all of my Scholé Sisters struggle with this too.

Maybe we should create an AA type group for multitaskers. “Hi. My name is Deborah. I am a multitasking addict. The last time I fully paid attention to something was sometime in 2005.”

I wake up in the morning asking myself, “How much can I get done today?” Can I run a load of laundry, while I cook the pasta for supper, and if there’s time sweep the kitchen too? Can I load the dishwasher in between flipping the chicken on the grill, and not forget to switch the hose to the next garden bed? Can I teach a child to read, while I teach the other one how to do a math equation, and maybe answer a few emails, or make a meal plan? If I lay it all out perfectly I can see where tasks overlap, and maybe if I run through it fast enough I might get it all done.

Then, when I finally sit down at the end of the day, and I look back at the time that seemed to fly by, faster and faster of its own accord, I ask, “What did I really accomplish today?”

Does it really matter that I got all the dishes, laundry, sweeping, gardening, cooking, math, reading, meal planning, etc. done? Did it mean anything? Did I make a difference? Or was it just life passing by, checking thing after thing off of my to-do list?

I don’t know about you, but I feel a sense of panic at how quickly life is ebbing away in my multitasking haze of running from one thing to the next. Weeks pass by like that, and they don’t mean anything. There is nothing enjoyable or memorable about multitasking through a day. It’s all just one big mundane to-do list. This idea depresses me. It makes me wonder, “Am I wasting my life, by not paying attention?”

Someone great said, “Pay attention, everything else follows.” I’m not sure who first said it, but boy were they on to something.

If I set out to teach my child how to read, and I focus my whole attention on her, as we sit snuggled up on the couch, learning to put the words together, not only am I making a beautiful memory, but I am pouring a part of myself into my child. I am building a relationship with her that will last a lifetime. And by taking that time, forming that relationship, I am creating time. I am creating time in the form of a memory that will last, perhaps my whole life, perhaps her whole life. I am slowing down the ebb and flow of time and being present to my life.

If I set out to water my garden, and I take the time to stand there and notice how the water flows along the soil, bringing essential moisture to the roots of a beautiful plant, that grows every single minute of the day, from seedling to mature adult, I form a relationship with that plant. I can truly appreciate its intricacies; its form and shape; what it has been through to provide me with the fruits of its labor. I can cultivate a love for this plant, this garden that sustains me. I can cultivate a thankfulness for its beauty, and its harvest. And I can be full of joy because of this labor of love.

If I set out to do the dishes, and I take the time to focus on the plates, cups, and silverware; on the magic that is a soap bubble; on the people whom these dishes served, I can form a relationship with this task that I lovingly do in service of my family. I can cultivate an attitude of thankfulness for the food eaten on those plates; the conversations had over a meal together; the beauty of an iridescent soap bubble. I can cultivate a relationship with the hard work of caring for my family. I can feel the goodness of that work, as it does more for my soul, my mind, and my body than it does to clean the dishes.

“Pay attention, and everything else follows.”

Let me ask you: Did you taste that sandwich you just woofed down? Did you really listen to the question your child just asked? Do you remember your drive home? What did the sky look like today? What does your clean laundry smell like?

There really is something to stopping to smell the flowers. The more we can learn to pay attention and build relationships with the people around us, the tasks at hand, and the things we love, the more meaning our life will have. If your cup is empty from all of the running around like crazy, multitasking the day away, it’s time to stop and cultivate some attention. I hope you will join us this spring as we delve deeper into the cultivation of attention.

Some of my thoughts about attention have come from hearing Andrew Kern of the Circe Institute speak. For further reading Andrew Kern has two great articles to consider:

Attention Therapy

On Cultivating the Faculty of attention and the Art of Prayer

The Beautiful Work of Keeping

This will be the first of many posts on the how and why of Scholé. In today’s post I will discuss some of the ideas we came up with at our first meeting of Scholé Sisters of New Mexico, and a few that have been rattling around inside my brain since then. For those of you who missed the meeting, we spent a bit of time talking over the idea of Scholé, which we are all learning, and then went over some ideas from chapter 1 of “The Living Page,” by: Laurie Bestvater. Though I discussed some of the ideas on why we are often drawn to keeping, or notebooking in my last post, here I will begin to flesh out some of the reasons why you should incorporate the practice into your life. These are the ways that keeping will help you to Scholé.

Let’s start with a quote from Laurie Bestvater on the impact a simple notebook, kept together with a favorite aunt during a visit, had on her, “I trundled my treasure home. I kept it for years. It was a simple, mostly graphic memory, but though it had only a few pictures and even fewer words, through it I could recall all the feelings, sights, and smells of those ten days. But mostly what I carried away was the sense that I was important. I had been taken seriously. In giving me a way to keep the ordinary days of the trip, I am sure no great academic progress was made; no great thoughts were captured; no wonderful manuscript produced, but I was encouraged to notice and somehow newly awake to the preciousness of time and the import of each daily incarnational encounter with Glory.” She goes on to explain that the notebooking habit that came out of her experience turned her not only into a writer but a “student of Divinity.”

I was really struck by these words. I think that they capture the gravity of what keeping can do for those who choose to engage it. And I feel that it all starts with attention. In our world, so driven by a whirling chaos of things to do, people to keep up with, and ever changing ideas flashing across our computer screens, we are all attention deficient. We tend to fly through life, flinging from one thing to the next without really taking the time to give one thing our full attention.

I have been learning lately that attention has no on and off switch. No, attention has to be cultivated. And so far, the most effective way I have come across to cultivate attention is to keep. When I am sitting with my nature journal sketching a plant; counting its parts; detailing its attributes for later categorization, that plant has my full and undivided attention. To draw something, you first have to see it. I mean really see it. To identify a plant species you have never named before takes the utmost attention to detail.

It wasn’t until I started drawing and painting that I began to fully noticing my surroundings. Just to illustrate this, a few months ago I noticed an entire mountain range, that has been there for my viewing all my life, that I had somehow skimmed over and never truly noticed. And when I pointed it out to a few others, I got a lot of, “Hmmm, I never really noticed those. I wonder which mountains those are.” Now I am always looking around for the thing I have failed to notice. And the beauty I have experienced in doing so has been life altering. I am witnessing the glory of God on a daily basis, in areas where I never would have expected to experience it.

This is what paying attention does for us, it makes us students of the Divine. It shows us Glory in our every-day lives. When we have sufficient time to reflect, we can start to see things clearly. For example, the keeping of a thankfulness list, which I have learned gives me time to actually reflect of my seemingly hum-drum life. While reading Ann Voskamp’s amazing book, “1000 Gifts,” I started to keep a list of all the little things I was thankful for each day. This could be as simple as the smell of clean clothes, or as complex as the answer to a long prayed over prayer. Attention begot more and more thankfulness, and suddenly I was seeing all of the little and not so little miracles that were happening around me every single day. The change it brought to my outlook was profound. I can’t even begin to quantify the outpouring of joy, and rest in God’s providence that came from this practice of keeping a simple list.

Another beautiful gift that springs from the cultivation of attention, through keeping, is memory. When I write down a quote from something I am reading it creates an indelible mark on my memory. That quote, lovingly and painstakingly taken down, will stick with me much longer than if I were to simply graze over it. Then, when I later go back and read it in my commonplace book, I will remember how it made me feel the first time. And any of the thoughts that I had will likely be there too. This is how the word of God can impact a soul. This is how a poem can fill you with beauty. This is how you find deep and meaningful companions in the stories you read. By keeping, we build strong relationships with the kept, and a profound love grows out of the words and sketches.

RM, my partner in founding this group, brought up a great point about keeping a book of centuries. She pointed to a little sketch of a spinning wheel, and noted how it was a simple object from the past. But when the time was taken to draw it, a relationship was formed with the object, and love grew out of that. When we are studying history it can seem like a far off thing, but when we write down the facts, in order, and maybe even draw a simple sketch, we develop a relationship with those events, details and objects. If I sketch a spinning wheel, I will have a connection to it. I will better be able to imagine sitting at one, perhaps surrounded by those connected to it, and in the time period where it was used. Through that I will have a better understanding of the past, and even a love for the people that lived there.

I’ve never liked history, mostly because it just seemed like a big jumble of disconnected facts that didn’t seem to affect me. But sitting down with my children, and putting together a book of centuries has really changed that. When history comes alive for you several things happen. Connecting to the past, and gaining an understanding of humanity through the events that have occurred, really broadens your understanding of the human condition, human nature, and beyond that it sheds light on current happenings. It also gives you a better view of the way God works; what the devastating effects of sin can be; and how redemption really finds us right where we are.

To bring it in a little closer, let’s examine the joy in keeping in regards to the goings on in your own household. In the novel “Little Men,” Jo keeps a book about the boys living at her school. Every night, she quickly jots down a little of the good or bad doings of each boy. Then at the end of the week she has a little meeting with each boy to see how they did. In this way, she sees how each one is progressing; what areas they need to work on; and learns just what little gems exist in each one of them. By sharing the records with her boys, they too learn these things. Think what a great blessing it would be to mothers if they were to take just a few minutes each night to record some little thing about each of their children. How much joy would her heart receive at seeing all the beautiful little things her children have done. And how much peace would she receive when she was able to view the little failings more clearly, and help that child to correct those things before they become a lifelong habit.

In all, keeping is about growing as a human being, made for a purpose, and cultivating that purpose within yourself. It’s about slowing life down enough to take a long deep drink of the beauty that surrounds you, and let it refresh your soul. It’s about seeing God in all his glory. It’s about cultivating love; finding truth; knowing rest. Keeping deepens our lives in countless ways. And after reading just the first chapter of “The Living Page,” I am inspired to add to my growing collection of notebooks. Some may not see my hand for weeks at a time, but when they do there I meet real life, joy, truth, renewal, beauty, glory and above all, love.

I hope these ideas inspire you as much as they have inspired me. Please join in the conversation and let us know how the art of keeping, and living Scholé is enriching your life.

Reflecting on “The Living Page” Ch. 1

As I prepare for our first ever Scholé Sisters of New Mexico meeting, I have been pondering chapter 1 of “The Living Page,” by: Laurie Bestvater. I hope you have found it just as inspiring as I have. Here were some of my first thoughts.

When I sit down in front of a new notebook, filled with excitement over the empty pages, I am also apprehensive, not wanting to spoil the beautifully blank space with something meaningless; but with a deep desire to make a lasting, meaningful mark. Reading “The Living Page” I am drawn in by the idea that keeping a notebook is in so many ways deeply human. It encompasses our desire to remember, and to marvel over the mysteries, sorrows, and glories of life. “Keeping” not only deepens our own understanding of the things we keep, but also leaves a lasting mark on the world. How many countless notebooks have been kept by our great thinkers, which are still being used to pass on their knowledge to us today?

This leaves me wondering about our current “paperless,” digital age. Whenever my husband prods me to use my smart phone calendar instead of the pretty day planner I keep; or talks of replacing my wall calendar with a screen, something deep inside of me resists. When I am prompted to make digital notes or lists, I later miss holding the book or paper in my hands. I almost never re-read journal entries that I have not taken the time to write out by hand. And I love my photo albums. The things that are stored in my computer and on my phone always seem to get lost in the heap of data.

Is it just me? Am I strange for wanting to keep these antiquated notebooks and papers and albums? “The Living Page” gives me hope.

There really is something about holding a book in your hands, or writing with a pen. You can see it in the older generation. My father, who is in his 70’s, recently wrote a very personal letter to someone he has known a long time. And he said to me, while he was thinking about what to put in that letter, “I am going to write the letter by hand, on paper, and send it in the mail.” There was something intrinsically more meaningful for him in doing that. He knew that the person receiving the letter would find more meaning in its contents if it came in the mail, hand written, and as a tangible item, instead of a digital email.

While discussing this with my husband, he brought up a good point. With digital media we have the ability to store an infinite amount of information. We can keep absolutely everything; and in doing so, much of it becomes meaningless.

Take photographs for instance. When we had cameras that took film, we were careful about the pictures we took. But with digital cameras we can take as many pictures as we want. We document everything and rarely look back. How often do we sift through those thousands of pictures we have taken? It’s quite the job to do so. Space is limited in a physical album, so only the best and most meaningful photos make the cut. There’s nothing like pulling out a photo album of your childhood and reliving all those memories in the frame of one beautifully put together book.

The same is true for the notebooks we keep. When we sit down to write out an entry by hand, chances are what we are keeping is in some way precious. As Bestvater points out, our forefathers kept records of the sacred. Following in their footsteps we are beckoned to do the same. It’s not the blathering, every day come and go of our random thoughts on Facebook, but the deeper, more meaningful thoughts, studies and works that get hand written in a journal that takes up physical space in our homes. If we are taking the time to write it down by hand and then keeping it somewhere in our house, it is worth keeping. Because we don’t pour over and retain the meaningless, but the meaningful.

What do you think? Is there something to this whole idea of Keeping? What did you think of Charlotte Mason’s perspective in all this?

It makes me want to continue my common place and nature study books, and to write out all the family stories I have, for my children and future grandchildren. It makes me want to print pictures and keep painting, scrapbooking; and do it all with my children.