In her new book “An Altar in the World,” bestselling author Barbara Brown Taylor writes about “the practice of paying attention.” She explains:
The practice of paying attention is as simple as looking twice at people and things you might just as easily ignore. To see takes time, like having a friend takes time. It is as simple as turning off the television to learn the song of a single bird. Why should anyone do such things? I cannot imagine–unless one is weary of crossing days off the calendar with no sense of what makes the last day different from the next. Unless one is weary of acting in what feels more like a television commercial than a life. The practice of paying attention offers no quick fix for such weariness, with guaranteed results printed on the side. Instead, it is one way into a different way of life, full of treasure for those who are willing to pay attention to exactly where they are.
My life was beginning to feel like a commercial. Or like the movie “Groundhog Day,” when Bill Murray wakes up each morning to find out that it’s Groundhog Day yet again. As I mentioned in my Ash Wednesday video, this Lent I have made it my mission or resolution to hop off the treadmill of life: a packed schedule of too many activities, unrealistic self- expectations, static noise everywhere, and information overload wherever I turn. The boundaries that I so diligently erected this summer have crumbled in the last few months when the abysmal housing market caught up with Eric’s architectural firm and practically every architect in the business, prompting me on a manic pursuit of income.
Since Christmas I’ve been running on fumes, that precious adrenaline that helps us survive and flee from our enemies–both real and figurative. The constant chatter and background noise of my work–and in particular all of my correspondence and exchanges online–provided a convenient distraction from addressing my need to be quiet, to pay attention, to simply BE instead of do.
However, I don’t like just being. I’m not very good at it. And it doesn’t feel good.
Just like the first months of sobriety, I was intensely uncomfortable in the first few hours of my hiatus from the computer. Listening is such a difficult task for me, and especially listening to my heart. I don’t want to know what it needs: how it craves stillness as much as Katherine craves ice-cream sundaes. Granting my heart’s wishes could very well get in the way of my scheduled activities, and my big plans.
By day three of no cyberspace, I was looking to my other addictions to make a little noise inside so that I didn’t have to address the profound loneliness and sadness that a bit of silence had uncovered. I downed cans of Diet Dr. Pepper (I gave up diet soda last year this time … but a recovering drunk needs something to drink besides sparkling water with lime) and consumed squares and squares of dark chocolate. But their buzz only lasted for an hour or so, and my tight jeans were starting to depress me.
Before long, it was back to me, my heart, and my loud thoughts. Nothing to distract them. I tried to practice mindfulness– to concentrate on the thing that was in front of me: the road when I was running, or the animals at the zoo when Eric and I took the kids there.
“Pay attention,” I told myself. “It’s as simple as that. Think about nothing else but the spider monkeys swinging from tree to tree.”
I succeeded for about two seconds before I started obsessing about some problem or situation in my life.
I attempted it over and over again. Sometimes I got to three seconds. But never more than that.
On two separate occasions, I invoked God’s help.
“Look God,” I said. “I really suck at this mindful stuff, so can you help me a tad with my thoughts … you know, keeping them on what I’m actually doing?”
He followed through immediately.
At one point, at some safari tourist attraction in the Everglades of southern Florida, our happy little family walked a path where there were alligators every few feet. I took Katherine’s hand and ran like hell out of there. (The boys told me they were immune to alligator teeth.) Another morning, when I was running–my thoughts going round and round like a Ferris Wheel engineered by a guy who just drank three triple espressos–I screamed at God once again to help me concentrate on the present moment. A second after my request a biker in front of me wiped out, on a six-lane road at rush hour, with cars about to hit him. Nervously I stood in the middle of the road directing traffic, until the biker could stand up and move out of the street.
But aside from the life-threatening situations, it was only me and my high-maintenance brain, nothing to camouflage its dysfunction, like the spider monkey’s black and white fur way up high in the palm tree. On Day 8, I was washing the dinner dishes when all of a sudden I felt a surge of loneliness and sadness. I put away the sponge and let myself cry. About what, I don’t know. I just cried.
I called to mind the words of Henri Nouwen:
It is not easy to stay with your loneliness. …. But when you can acknowledge your loneliness in a safe, contained place, you make your pain available for God’s healing. God does not want your loneliness; God wants to touch you in a way that permanently fulfills your deepest need. It is important that you dare to stay with your pain and allow it to be there. You have to own your loneliness and trust that it will not always be there. The pain you suffer now is meant to put you in touch with the place where you most need healing, your very heart….Dare to stay with your pain, and trust in God’s promise to you.
I guess, in the end, my 10 days without a computer was an exercise not only in paying attention but also in “practicing Sabbath,” as Barbara Brown Taylor describes:
In the eyes of the world, there is no payoff for sitting on the porch. A field full of weeds will not earn anyone’s respect. If you want to succeed in this life (whatever your “field” of endeavor), you must spray, you must plow, you must fertilize, your must plant [and I’d add, you must Twitter]. You must never turn your back. Each year’s harvest must be bigger than the last. That is what the earth and her people are for, right? WRONG GOD.
In the eyes of the true God, the porch is imperative — not every now and then but on a regular basis. When the fields are at rest — when shy deer step from the woods to graze the purple clover grown up between last year’s tomato plants, and Carolina chickadees hang upside down to pry seeds from the sunflowers that have take over the vineyard — when the people who belong to this land walk through it with straw hats in their hands instead of hoes to discover that wild blackberries water their mouths as surely as the imported grapes they worked so hard to protect from last year’s frost — this is not called “letting things go”; this is called “practicing Sabbath.” You have to wonder what makes human beings so resistant to it.
Lord knows I am.