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On Paying Attention

I’m making paying attention my own personal art form. I think if I can get really good at anything in life, I’d like it to be this.

And of all the things to teach me how, I’m finding not being well, and, more specifically, pain is the thing helping me to learn what mindfulness really means, that word I’ve come across in books sometimes but never really understood.

When the now hurts, or we don’t like it, it’s the easiest thing to try and escape from it. You sink yourself in the past, or in longings for things to be different, you make excuses, or you fantasise yourself into something else. Anything to make now Go Away. Or at other times the temptation is to do the opposite. You put your pain on like a cloak, wrapped around your head until you can’t see anything else, hiding everything else under it, becoming it.

None of these have ever really worked for me, never made anything better, although I’ve tried them all, over and over. All help you to endure in one way or another, but they don’t really give you strength, not really, and it’s all a strength game, this, that’s the thing we’re after in times of hurting, isn’t it? It is for me, what I really want through all this, strength to overcome, endure with some grace, I don’t know, but yes, strength please. And I’m learning what seems like an escape is often the thing that robs you of strength, not gives it, self-deceptions and avoidance and self-pity becoming fingernails under scabs that you didn’t even notice scratching.

When something hurts I’m learning the thing to do isn’t to pull away from now, but to rub your face in it. You don’t switch yourself off, you turn yourself UP. And you focus on everything in your now except for your pain.

On the really bad days, and today was one of them, I’m learning to make it my art form, a kind of slow dance of attention, moment to moment. It doesn’t make pain go away, but it helps it pass. It’s not easy, christ, I don’t want to pretend that it is. Sometimes I have to fight and fight to focus on anything other than the fact I’m hurting, and today I lost it for great long stretches, but it can be done, one tiny moment at a time. I’m getting better at it every day, I think. I hope.

And somewhere in all the little moments of paid attention, there is a really true release, a stillness of mind, and yes, strength. From seemingly nowhere it’s there. It’s like alchemy – I love it, the way I can somehow turn the tiny moments of everyday into that longed-for elixir. You find yourself drip-fed strength. Not loads, but enough. And the best thing is that once you’ve learned how, it makes the happy times better, too. You learn to give them they attention they deserve. Sometimes you start noticing tiny bits of happy you were always too distracted to notice before, but that were probably there all along. That’s the other thing I’m learning to syphon out of life, joy. Strength and joy. I reckon I could probably do anything with enough of them.

Today I didn’t manage much of anything impressive, but I did dance my slow dance of attention.

I let hot water run over my hands and for a few precious seconds I was nowhere but there. I noticed the pattern of birds in the sky, and the colour of peeling paint, and the shapes of leaves on the pavement, and the taste of my tea. I made myself spend a few minutes focusing on thick yarn under my fingers rather than on my sore fingers itself. And I laughed, lots. Because if you’re paying attention, when something is funny it’s REALLY funny. I’ve never laughed so much as I have lately.

Kai is my favourite. A moving, sensory picture book to pour over. I watch the way his face changes as he talks. I try to isolate every nerve on my knee that’s tingling with the weight of his head on my lap. I watch tiny bubbles pop on his back in the bath, and feel the shape of his limbs under the warm towel.

I didn’t do much today but I was very much here and here, it turns out, was full of good things.

Here’s to now. x


10 Comments

  1. How did you learn mindfulness? From a book, or a course? I’d be interested to know.

    • Hi Iota :) Very late reply from me, I’m sat in bed having a catch-up. I haven’t learnt about it officially from anywhere to be honest, I think it’s more an idea I worked out resonated with me and then afterwards realised it’s a wider thought-about principle, and that helped give me the term ‘mindfulness’. It’s been touched on in a number of books I’ve read though, The Power of Now, being the one that comes to mind most easily. It’s often taught as part of Yoga practise and I know some of my Buddhist friends study mindfulness as proper discipline – most mindfulness writing comes from Buddhist writers and thinkers I believe. Hope you’re well, lovely! Thanks for reading xx

  2. Somedays, it feels like in order to be present, I need to be still. Which is so difficult when there is such a long to do list. You describe how pain can can help you to be mindful, when I think back to painful experience, I wonder if it helps that is requires one to slow down and take the time to look at the finer details, like those tiny bubbles popping. Either way, excellent post, and a great lesson to share, thank you.

    • Thank you so much for reading! Apologies for the late comment reply. I think stillness does sometimes need to be enforced, doesn’t it. And it’s a shame really. I find, ironically, that when I am more well and the pace of life picks up again, that I get caught up in the whirlwind and lose sight of the little things,and with it actually lose sight of what makes me happy. I wish it didn’t take illness and pain to help me remember what’s important. Maybe that’s my challenge for the future, I am hopeful that my health will improve again and I hope that I can carry through the things I am learning.

  3. I love this Josie. Tiny bits of joy are all around us. A very beautiful post and helpful to all of us that struggle with pain – be it mental or physical. I know just what you mean. All our experiences are different of course, but focusing on just being alive right now is an important lesson not to forget. x Gabs

    • (Late reply!) Thank you Gabs, and yes, absolutely :) Pain is so universal, isn’t it, of one sort or another. But then so are a million tiny things to help us take our mind off what we’re struggling with and to help us find peace. I like how this gives us something of a universal antidote too, and how it means that whatever we’re going through, celebrating the now gives us all a way to connect too. X

  4. Pain is definitely not great. Personal experience with a progressive, chronic pain disorder has taught me many valuable lessons. Your post lays them out much better than I’ve been able to put it into words. I can write about anything, but trying to write about how I feel, things that are personal, sometimes escape me altogether and leave me fumbling for words. Thank you, great post. I’m sorry you live with pain too.

    • Hello Karen, sorry for the late reply. Writing about pain, whatever kind, is so hard sometimes, isn’t it. It’s such a personal experience and hard to share with other people. I worry sometimes if I write to much about how I’m feeling, people will think I’m being a drama queen, or I’ll end up pouring out a great string of negative complaints. I’ve found focussing on what I’ve LEARNT, rather than writing about the pain and the experience of it itself, helps to give me a positive way of still talking about what I’m going through. Strength to you, comrade xx

  5. You, m’lady, are an inspiration. I suck at mindfulness and it’s supposed to be really helpful for mental illness but I will try harder. I will keep trying until I can do it as well as you can.

    • Hello darling. I do really think it’s a wonderful thing to learn. If I come across any books or resources I think might help you, I’ll pass them on. Much love to you brave girl. Hope today is a good day x

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