Paying attention: learning to see the world that's really there

paying attention

The Falcon

Last week I saw something pretty amazing. If you follow me on Instagram, you may have already seen the grainy, zoomed-in photo that I posted.

I was taking a walk through the river valley that runs through the middle of our city and is a 10 minute walk from my house. I was walking slowly, breathing in the wooded air and admiring the differently shaped trees when I heard a shrill, wheezing bird song. At first I thought it was a songbird, but then realized that the different notes I was hearing weren't being 'sung' but were just being echoed by different screeching voices. I stopped and looked up, trying to locate the source of the noise. It took some time, but I was patient, and eventually I spotted a large wing being stretched and ruffled. I got excited - was it an owl or some kind of raptor? I moved around the tree, trying to see it from different angles, and saw that the wing was emerging from a nest. Suddenly I spotted two more birds, perching on branches near the nest. Their wings were dark, their bellies light and speckled and their tales were striped. One of them looked down at me as I stared up. They were beautiful.

As a child I was really interested in endangered species and I remembered reading about the Peregrine Falcon and all the efforts that had been made to bring it back from the brink of extinction. Once a very common bird on the Canadian Prairies (and all over the world), by the 1970s the population had been reduced to one breeding pair in the whole province of Alberta. Now here were what I assumed to be 3 young birds, hanging out by their nest, staring at me as though this was a regular occurrence. One of them took off and spurred the other two to flight as well and I watched their powerful wings flap up out of sight beyond the trees.

I'm no bird-watcher but I love learning about and looking for birds. I also love trying to identify wildflowers. On a hike recently I was distracted from the steep climb and amazing views by the tiny flowers popping up along the trail. Smaller than my pinky nail, they contained so much detail in such a tiny space. During both of these experiences, I felt fully present, fully connected, fully alive, and more full of creative energy than usual. They made me want to draw (a rare occurrence), to record what I saw, to do research, to try and understand.

Finding Magic

Paying attention brings magic into everyday life. If you feel like your life is too boring to bear, you're probably not looking hard enough. Last week I also listened to an episode of Elizabeth Gilbert's podcast, Magic Lessons. She was talking with pastor Rob Bell about the power of paying attention in even the most mundane circumstances and how this practice deepens our art and our lives. It was one of those conversations I had to listen to twice to get everything down.

Gilbert recommends an exercise from fellow writer and artist Lynda Barry. She suggests writing down a few things you saw each day and a few things you heard. After awhile you'll start to realize how every day isn't the same old same old that you thought it was. Every day carries its own observations and stories. As Gilbert put it, "When you are attentive you see that every hour is different. It's a new universe every minute."

paying attention

Writers, painters, photographers, musicians, monks - all must work on the art of paying attention. They must learn to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch what's really there. Gilbert says, "It's like having x-ray goggles in a way - you see through the apparent reality to some other underneath part."

Get out of your head

When you're stuck in your head you tend to miss the details of life that make it more interesting. Trust me, I should know. I tend to walk around the world in a stressed-out haze, thinking about what I need to do next, what I should have done, or what might go wrong in the next 15 minutes. Paying attention is a skill I've had to cultivate over the years, as I've worked on deepening my mindfulness practice. The practice that keeps my anxiety at bay is the same thing that inspires me on a daily basis. Being present. Paying attention. If I had been lost in thought in the woods, I wouldn't have noticed the sound of the birds, I wouldn't have stopped, and I wouldn't have been moved by the power and strength of nature.

The day I saw the falcons had started out feeling rushed, squeezed, and tired. Not only did my experience with paying attention create some much needed space, it also gave me energy to keep creating.

Here are some ways that you can start putting your observational skills to good use. Calm your mind and find inspiration at the same time:

  • Pay attention to what is happening in your body. What sensations are you experiencing? Don't ask why. Just notice.
  • Pay attention to the way things look in your house or on your street. How do these things change from day to day?
  • Pay attention to the scent of your soap or shampoo in the shower. To the way the water feels on your back. Every shower can be a spa-like experience if you can get your mind to shut up.
  • Pay attention to the food that you eat, to the textures and tastes. If I'm alone I am always reading a book (often because that's the only time I have to read) but I try to let at least the first few bites in without distraction.
  • Take off your shoes and pay attention to the grass or dirt beneath your feet.
  • Turn off the radio for a few minutes and pay attention to the sounds of your car and the feeling of the engine in your body.
  • Take a second right now to feel your seat in your chair, your feet on the ground. Touch a few different surfaces and experience them with your fingers.
  • Listen to what the people around you are saying. Ask questions, ask them to expand.

It might sound hokey, but this kind of curiosity and presence can transform the way you interact with the world. Before you know it, you'll be mesmerized, like a child again, amazed at everything you see.

Have you noticed how paying attention affects your creative practice? Have you learned any tricks for keeping yourself more present? Leave a comment below!