Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.
Susan Sontag’s words are inspriring for anyone, not just artists. In Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, Rick Hanson makes the claim that attention actually shapes the brain. What we pay attention to is what gets built into our brain tissue, and our neurons are wired in respond to what we focus on.
But what is this paying attention that Sontag talks of? I don’t usually equate paying attention with vitality, with connecting me with others, with making me feel eager. I work alone in a studio and much of my time is spent just looking at work in progress. At the end of the day, exhausted, I often think of that great line captured in an interview with a nearly 90 year old Agnes Martin as she was exiting her studio: “Painting is hard work.” Don’t I know.
But according to Alison Bonds Shapiro in her article, “Paying Attention,” there is something more than just focusing the mind:
We may think we understand the art of paying attention but many times, unfortunately, we mistake attention for judgment. We think about attention as a “critical” function. Attention is not critical. Judgment is. Attention is neutral. We begin to pay attention to something and then we start to judge it, evaluate it, categorize it and, yes, generally “criticize” it. But judging, while certainly useful, is not attention. Judging involves an underlying assumption that our purpose is ultimately to categorize and take action. We judge something to be done with it. The rush to being done with something does not increase our capacity to pay attention to it.
When we judge something we generally assess whether or not we need to “fix” it, reject it or enhance it, and move on. In other words, we are motivated to change it in some way. Whatever it is right now is generally not OK or not enough and has to be altered. If our intention is to fix or change or reject something our capacity to pay attention to it is actually minimized. We will see only as much as we think we need to see to take action. What if there is more to learn?
Attention is noticing and being with something without trying to change it. Attention takes the time to fully explore, to discover whatever there is to know about something, to watch as things change by themselves without our trying to ‘fix” anything. Attention is patient and attention is kind. No rush. No burden. No criticism.
This approach to being with whatever shows up (Shapiro references her teacher Frank Ostaseski‘s admonition to “welcome everything; push away nothing”) asks for a kind of detachment that is often counter to the intimacy that develops between artist and artifact. We are, in that role as maker, both judge and jury, creator and destroyer. But there are moments when accessing that detached acceptance of everything would feel like a useful tool to have in my quiver.