Sunday, July 24, 2011

Attention Must Be Paid

"Attention must be paid," Linda Loman tells her sons in Death of a Salesman, a sad line that has always stuck in my memory perhaps because it is indirect and passive, like Linda herself. She is referring, of course, to her husband, Willy, in Arthur Miller's classic play.

The same words can be directed at anything, without the tragic implications of Miller's play. The need to pay attention is the topic of an article I am completing, having written 5-6 drafs and now wondering how it can be expanded after a week of condensing it...Ah revision, which in the age of word processing is actually enjoyable.

The challenge of paying good attention in a world of ever-increasing distractions was brought home to me by what David Ulin says in The Lost Art of Reading. He has in mind the books he wants to read, not the endless e-mails, Twitter messages and other media interruptions--he calls them Weapons of Mass Distraction--that prevent the silence needed for immersion in a book.

I find that the same thing applies to what can generally (and I hope not uselessly) called spirituality. I mean the mindfulness of the present moment in which we are present to ourselves or to others as we listen to them with full attention. Or it might be the pet who demands our attention because he or she needs attention (love) and the challenge we face of giving up part of our lives (our time), ourselves, for the needs of a being other than ourselves.

Since I see writing, like reading, as a spiritual activity, I can easily apply the importance of attention to writing. I tell my students to begin by looking for a long time at something they admire (the advice once given by Colette to a young writer). The "long time" is hard for people in the 21st century.

Observation, leading to description, is usually a sure way to begin any type of writing since we need to find the details that will make our article or story ring true. We need what is often missing in our lives: time for reflection.

Pay attention to the "divine details," said Vladimir Nabokov. Like Colette, he was talking about writing but implying something more: paying loving attention to the people and things around us is a key to love and happiness.

What gets in the way of everyday attention, such as listening, are not just the external distractions but the internal preoccupations of the overly busy mind.

To listen well, I have to set aside all this inner chatter, at least for a few minutes, and look at and listen to another person, surrending my own concerns while taking in the concerns of another. It takes real effort to notice who the other person seeking my attention actually is.

When my cat Lizzie seeks my attention each evening, I don't have to worry about who she really is, but I do have to sacrifice my preoccupations and try to enter into her world, where the time is always now. I can benefit from time spent with Lizzie, enjoying the peace of the present moment, the chance just to be, and experience simple gratitude.

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