Paying Attention


Ice patterns in winter: enchantment for free

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

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.

14 Replies to “Paying Attention”

  1. Sometimes I feel like I’m balancing in between detachment and intimacy; other times I feel suffocatingly close to my own work and I want only to get away from it.

  2. Pay Attention is my life motto, so thank you for the additional Sontag quote.
    From William James: “To be rapt with satisfied attention, like Whitman, to the spectacle of the world’s presence, is one way, and the most fundamental way, of confessing one’s sense of its unfathomable significance and importance”.
    and from Henry Miller: “The moment one gives ones close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Both keepers. Thanks so much for sharing these here Altoon.

  3. Tamar Zinn says:

    Wonderful post, Deborah. I struggle with being fully present day in, day out. And I waver between Sontag’s, very edge of the seat notion of paying attention and connecting, and Shapiro’s more quiet, slow openness of waiting.
    Altoon–thanks for the wonderful quote from Henry Miller. It fits so beautifully with my recent experience looking at Catherine Murphy’s work.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Tamar. It is a line that gets walked all day isn’t it? Renavigated on an ongoing basis.

  4. Deborah, those quotes are are perfect. Thanks for sharing.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks dear Cindy.

  5. Thank you for yet another thought-provoking and enchanting post, Deborah.

    It seems to me there’s a need to be very clear about how our oft-ambiguous English words are used. On my own path I needed to learn the subtle distinction between attention and awareness, because these words seemed to be used used very loosely and confused me.

    I can thank Krishnamurti for pointing out that ‘attention’ implies a gap between a someone ‘paying attention’ and the object of their attention. If a someone – an observer entity – is present, it follows that there will be evaluation and commentary. In other words, a gap appears between the observer and the observed. Impartial, pure Awareness, on the other hand, closes that gap entirely. It’s not a position one takes, but the fundamental clear Awareness one actually is – a limitless field of unfettered, unknown possibilities – creativity’s cradle. It is vital (Life itself!) and eager. Curiosity is its midwife. Conclusions act to obscure it.

    The last paragraph of Shapiro’s quote is beautiful – yet based on what I’ve suggested above, I would replace the word ‘attention’ with ‘awareness’ in that context. Same goes for the Sontag quote. Just my take. 🙂

    . . .

    Be absolutely alert and make no effort. ~J Krishnamurti

    The purpose of art is … to close the gap between you and everything that is not you. ~Robert Hughes

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      MLS, such a rich and much needed addendum to my post. Thank you for this, offered up with the gentle hand of wisdom that is your way of sharing. I embrace the way you have parsed both of these terms. Makes so much sense. Thank you so much my friend.

  6. I also like the word “presence.” Being present has the connotation that I am all here. Attention is a mental word. Awareness is a feeling word. Presence adds intuition. Again, your post is such a great reminder to not miss out on life. Thanks.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Cindy, what a great declension you have offered up. So so helpful. Thank you!

  7. what a great post, Deb! Your family of readers are so wise and generous. Every contribution unwinds the ball of string further. What a blessing!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Di, I do have a great family of readers. Including you. Thanks so much for your comment.

  8. Thank you for the excellent post and the wise quotes. This kind of attention is a quality I strive for – and, like Alice Miller says, it’s hard work, too, until it becomes ingrained.

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