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