Attention Intro, Exercises and Questions
What Does It Mean To Be
A People of Attention?
Alice Walker famously wrote, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
Walker’s words are a great reminder that attention and gratitude go hand in hand. Indeed they are a perfect embodiment of the dominant message about attention: that it’s here to wake us up to life’s many gifts.
But it’s also important to remember that attention has a few ulterior motives up its sleeve. So some fair warning is required this month. Because attention won’t just make you grateful, it will make you fall in love. And it won’t just allow you to notice life’s gifts, it also makes it impossible to ignore life’s pain.
First, the love part.
Mary Oliver writes, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” It’s a beautiful way of saying you cannot love something that you do not really see. Love simply isn’t possible without deep noticing. And noticing deeply seems to inevitably lead to love. Glances and self-interested attention never get to the real person. They stay on the surface and treat the other as a mirror. What you fall in love with is how they make you feel and how they enhance your statue with others. Which means that all you’ve really done is fall in love with yourself. Loving them, truly them, requires noticing your needs and then putting them down. It asks you to look without expectation of who you want or hope they will be, and instead try to focus simply on who they are right now. It’s a type of looking that keeps on looking until you discover something entirely new, entirely other, entirely and uniquely them. And once you notice something that uniquely new, you’re in trouble, because you will most definitely be devoted. You will no longer think about what you’re getting. You will only want to give.
And now the pain part, which is not all that different from the love piece.
This time it’s a UU minister, Rev. Sean Dennison, that captures it best. Sean writes “The ability to see beauty is the beginning of our moral sensibility. What we believe is beautiful we will not wantonly destroy.” In other words, once we notice the beauty at the heart of others and the world, it pains us to see it destroyed. So seeing the beauty of something comes with a commitment. You don’t just think to yourself “Oh, that’s pretty,” you think “My God, I must protect it.” Its survival becomes your survival. Its pain becomes your pain.
All this is to say that we should expect to feel grateful this month. But, also, don’t be surprised if you end up feeling devoted as well. Again, attention doesn’t simply help you notice all you’ve been given; it also makes you fall in love and demands that you give of yourself. So consider yourselves warned, friends: True attention always comes at a cost, because real looking always results in you not being able to look away. Often for the better.
This month may that be true for you!
Our Spiritual Exercises
Option A :
Notice With Mary Oliver
In her poem Gratitude, Mary Oliver asks herself and then answers eight questions of attention:
What did you notice?
What did you hear?
When did you admire?
What astonished you?
What would you like to see again?
What was most tender?
What was most wonderful?
What did you think was happening?
It’s a poem that treats the details of our days as a blessing and calls us to do the same. So for this month’s exercise, let’s accept her invitation:
First, take a few days and just spend some time with the poem.
Here it is for you to read: https://thevalueofsparrows.com/2013/11/27/poetry-gratitude-by-mary-oliver/
Here’s an arresting video of it being read aloud: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=65&v=1XKg514_K3s
Then use Oliver’s questions to write a version of your own by giving your own answers to her eight questions. Here’s an elegant example of someone making it their own: http://walkingintheholypresence.blogspot.com/2017/04/poem-gratitude-by-mary-oliver.html
But here’s the catch: You’ve got to decide how to gather the details for your poem. When reading Oliver’s poem, you get the feeling she wrote it at the end of a long day outdoors. But it could just as easily have been written at the end of a week, a year, or even a life. So you pick what calls to you. Maybe you take a 2-hour hike and then sit down and write it. Or maybe sit down and write it at the end of an ordinary day of work and family? You might even want to answer the questions as if they are asking about the past year of your life? Or the past few decades.
Think about sharing the poem with a close friend or your life partner before you come to your group.
The point is to let Oliver’s eight questions help you remember that our attention is a way, maybe the best way, we say thanks for these precious days we’ve been given.
Join the Slow Art Movement
You’ve probably heard of the slow food movement. But how about the “slow art movement”? It arose from museums realizing that people were “seeing” their art but not really “looking” at it. For instance the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York discovered that people spent an average of only 17 seconds looking at their masterpiece artworks. 17 seconds! So now museums around the country organize special days where guests are asked to sit and view the art for 10, 20 even 30 minutes at a time, and then discuss what happened for them in that time of intensive and intentional looking.
This month you are invited to do the same. What a great excuse to invite a friend to your local museum! And if you don’t have a museum near you here’s a video with a bunch of options: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DAESq9BGMc . Or maybe you want to do it with a piece of art in your house that you say you love but now rarely give your attention to.
Here are a handful of articles and videos to get you centered and inspired for this exercise.
Come to your group ready to share how more than 17 seconds change what you saw.
- The Slow Art Movement: It’s More than Meets the Eye
- The Art of Slowing Down in a Museum
- Arden Reed: Slow Art in the Age of Instant Everything
- Slow Art Fast City
Watch it Grow… and Find the Sublime
“One does not need to fast for days and meditate for hours at a time to experience the sense of sublime mystery which constantly envelops us. All one needs to do is notice intelligently, if even for a brief moment, a blossoming tree, a forest flooded with autumn colors, an infant smiling.”
– Simon Greenberg,
This exercise is about moving Greenberg’s words from a written experience to a real one. As he says, it’s a powerful thing to witness the natural world in transition, glimpsing and grasping it as a growing, developing thing. So this month you are invited to observe and soak in that process by planting a fast-growing indoor plant in your house!
Grow a plant?! How’s that spiritual? Well, of course it depends on the attention you give to it. The exercise is really about noticing a growing plant. And if you do that, as Greenberg and the great mystics agree, you will find the sublime.
Here are a bunch of plants that will grow substantially in a month’s time.
Use these links (or a green thumb friend) to identify the plant you want to grow and observe. Place it in an area of your house that will make it not simply visible but easy for you to sit down with it, like near the chair you sit in for your morning cup of coffee. Spend each day of the month finding your own way to pay attention to its emergence. For instance, it might be just observing it while you have that first coffee of the day. Or maybe you will take one picture a day to document the progression. Some of us might pick up a pencil or paints and make a new portrait of it every week. Whatever you choose, the goal is to let the miracle and mystery of emergence sink in, really sink in.
Here’s a link to a few videos that will give you some inspiration: https://mashable.com/article/watch-plants-grow-subreddit/
Make Attention Count
Most of the time, it’s a bird or a cricket that causes it. Their sharp chirp jolts us into the awareness that we are surrounded by sound – sounds that fade into the background most of the time but can easily come to the forefront with a bit of attention.
So for this exercise, take a morning or evening, go sit on the porch or stand in the middle of your favorite field or woods, and then try to notice the many sounds that surround you. And here’s the catch:
Actually, count them!
That’s right. Take a pen and paper while you’re standing or sitting there and list all the sounds you can detect.
There’s power in doing this alone, but it’s also wonderful to do with your partner or child.
After your list is as full as you can make it,
take another 10 minutes and think about the message of it all. What are those
sounds trying to tell you? “You’re not alone.”? “There’s more to life.”? “This
world is wilder than let yourself imagine.”? “Listen up.”?
Let’s be honest, we sometimes ignore their need to be noticed. We’re talking, of course, about our loved ones. It’s never their big needs that we ignore. But on a daily basis, it’s all too easy to get…well…busy. Preoccupied. Wrapped up in work. Or worry.
We also know how big of a difference a little attention makes. You see it in your partner’s eyes when you take an extra 3 minutes and bring them coffee in bed before you rush out the door with your own mug. Your kid comes home all excited to tell you a story and you have the good sense to put the phone down and look right in their eyes as they spin their yarn. They light up right in front of you.
Yes, we’re tired. Yes, life is stressful. Yes, half-hearted attention is not sin. But this month take a week and fight it. Spend a week intentionally finding all the ways you can to give your full attention and full heart to someone near you.
Oh, and be sure to pay attention to the difference it makes for and to them, and the difference it makes to what goes on between you and them…
Find the Attention Calling to You
in Our Recommended Resources
Our recommended resources are full of wisdom about what it means to be a people of and a person of attention. Engaging these resources and finding the one that especially speaks to you is a spiritual practice in and of itself.
So, if none of the above exercises call to you, engage the recommended resources section of this packet as your spiritual exercise for the month.
Set aside some regular time throughout a week
to go through them and meditate on them until you find the one that most
expands or deepens your understanding of attention. After you’ve found it,
consider printing it out and carrying it with you or pinning it up so you can
continue to reflect on it throughout the weeks leading up to your group
meeting. Come to your group ready to share where the journey led you.
As always, don’t treat these questions like “homework” or try to answer every single one. Instead, make time to meditate on the list and then pick the one question that speaks to you most. The goal is to figure out which question is “yours.” Which question captures the call of your inner voice? Which one contains “your work”? And what is that question trying to get you to notice or acknowledge? Often it helps to read the list to a friend or loved one and ask them which one they think is the question you need to wrestle with!
- Who was the first person in your life to offer you their attention, without adding their advice?
- Who in your life needs you to offer them the gift of attention without advice?
- Would you be pleased if your gravestone read: “She attended well to a few worthy things”?
- When you were young, did your family teach you to look away from uncomfortable truths or to call attention to them?
- Is it time to look upon yourself with a bit more tenderness?
- Where in your life would it help to say, ‘Look what’s happening!’ rather than ‘Look what’s happening to me!’?
- Have you ever given your attention so deeply to something that you suddenly felt one with it?
- Has looking ever made the world suddenly seem magical to you? Do you miss that magic?
- Have you become too good at staying focused on the wrongs done to you?
- Gurus and psychologists alike tell us that we become what we give our attention to. What has more of your attention – and more of yourself – than you want?
- When was the last time you let your attention linger on beauty? Did you keep your gaze there long enough to feel changed? Or to hear it speak to you?
- Something has been pulling at your attention lately. Do you know why?
- Is it time to pay a bit less attention to what you hope your life will be?
- When growing up, what one thing above all others did your family tell you was worthy of attention? Beauty? Duty? Kindness? Honesty? Education? Loyalty? Success? God?
- What in your life is hungry to be noticed?
- What’s your question? Your question may not be listed above. As always, if the above questions don’t include what life is asking from you, spend the month listening to your days to hear it. Or maybe the question or call you need to hear is waiting in one of the quotes listed below. Consider looking there!