Silky Attention

The sand along the shore in Small Point, Maine: The water’s silky attention brought to bear

[Note: I had surgery on my right hand this week so my ability to type has been compromised while it heals. I am reposting from a few years ago since Jane Hirshfield continues to be a guiding force for me. And what a phrase–“honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life.” I am so touched by that.]

I’ve posted a few Jane Hirshfield poems on this blog previously (here and here) and continue to explore her body of work. In the meantime I have been savoring her volume of essays about poetry, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. As is often the case, musings on poetic invention are usually very apropos for visual art making as well.

Hirshfield’s first essay is about concentration, a term she uses to describe a particular state of awareness: “penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open.” She describes concentration that may be “quietly physical—a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, amid thought ‘too deep for tears.'”

Here are a few more insights into this idea:

Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. they are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence…Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears—paradoxically—at the moment willed effort drops away…At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present—a feeling of joy, or even grief—but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself. This may explain why the creative is so often descried as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something “breathed in”.

Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life.

11 Replies to “Silky Attention”

  1. Deborah, I am drowning in that image and its delicate pattern. One could transpose it for orchestra. May your hand heal in a wonderful way.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you so much for your words and well wishes. I have a new and deeply grateful appreciation for handedness, healthy fingers and arms.

  2. Hoping for a speedy and complete recovery, Deborah. Love the image.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Maureen, and I hope to see you in DC soon!

  3. Deborah – like Leelah I find myself immersed in your exquisite image – and am even more delighted as I read Jane Hirschfield’s expression of non dual awareness and the disappearing self…
    Have just ordered ‘Nine Gates’.
    Thank you – and blessings for the perfect healing of your hand!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      My good and wise friend L, thank you!

  4. “Nine Gates” is a wonderful book, one I have quoted from and turned to often. I love Hirschfield’s deep attention. Your photo of the sand offers a magnificent visual for the concept.

    I hope your hand heals quickly!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Ann. So agree about Jane.

  5. Hope your hand is back soon to its clever doings, Deborah.

    Your re-post reminds me of a passage from Simone Weil’s “Waiting For God”:

    If we have no aptitude or natural taste for geometry, this does not mean that our faculty for attention will not be developed by wrestling with a problem or studying a theorem. On the contrary it is almost an advantage.
    It does not even matter much whether we succeed in finding the solution or understanding the proof, although it is important to try really hard to do so. Never in any case is whatever is a genuine effort of the attention wasted. It always has its effect on the spiritual plane and in consequence on the lower one of the intelligence, for all spiritual light lightens the mind.
    If we concentrate our attention on trying to solve a problem of geometry, and if at the end of an hour we are no nearer to doing so than at the beginning, we have nevertheless been making progress each minute of that hour in an other more mysterious dimension. Without our knowing or feeling it, this apparently barren effort has brought more light into the soul. The result will one day be discovered in prayer. Moreover, it may very likely be felt in some department of the intelligence in no way connected with mathematics. Perhaps he who made the unsuccessful effort will one day be able to grasp the beauty of a line of Racine more vividly on account of it. But it is certain that this effort will bear its fruit in prayer. There is no doubt whatever about that….
    Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul. Every effort adds a little gold to a treasure no power on earth can take away. The useless effort made by the Curé d’Ars, for long and painful years, in his attempt to learn Latin bore fruit in the marvelous discernment that enabled him to see the very soul of his penitents behind their words and even their silences….
    Every time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves. If we concentrate with this intention, a quarter of an hour of attention is better than a great many good works.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      What a passage!! Thank you so much for posting it here. That way I can find it easily in the future without having to search my bookshelves for Weil’s book…!

  6. dipittsburgh says:

    Wow, love this passage!

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