“The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less.” ~Annie Dillard
I discovered a deeper life of the spirit during COVID, working from home. Perhaps you did also. I breathed easier, my heart rate was slower, my neck and shoulder and jaw muscles unclenched. I ran long distances almost daily. I managed to go outside for walks or other adventures with my kids almost every day. I kayaked for the first time. I started bike riding again, and the way it connected me to my relatively carefree childhood felt like medicine. I had a balanced life. I had a simple life. As for all of us, my options were greatly diminished. There was less and less I could do. And I reveled in it. I accepted and thrived on less and less. It caused me to realize how much I had been running around needlessly before: trips here and there, so many experiences, so much socializing. All of it good on the surface, but truly, it did too often feel like a giant, swirling chasing after sensation. I see so many of us doing it again. Our schedules are wildly over-crowded. Instead of using whatever slim shards of downtime we have to simply be or to do something peaceful and to connect with our spirit, we push on to the next commitment or stimulating experience. We continue with the dictates of “more and more.”
During my remote working days, I uncovered what I suspected for a long time: that I would be happier and more at peace living a simpler, slower life. I never saw my too packed calendar before as being a kind of greed, but I love how Dillard wakes me up to that truth. It can be a kind of greed, another brand of consumerism. Sometimes, rather than loading up on things, we try to load up on experiences and sensations. The reality is that we can have beautiful, joyful, and spiritual experiences without stepping foot out of our homes or out of our yards or whatever patch of earth we have access to. There is ample meaning to be found right where we live. Many of us awakened to this truth during our compulsory COVID retreat.
These simple experiences that require little to no money, that often are green, producing little waste, and not fueled by consumerism, are more likely to be transcendent. They thrive on attention. There’s a resonant passage in The Artist’s Way in which Julia Cameron recalls the letters she received from her grandmother whose life was hard but whose capacity for paying attention was a constant:
"‘Flora and fauna reports,’ I used to call the long, winding letters from my grandmother. ‘The forsythia is starting and this morning I saw my first robin...The roses are holding even in this heat….The sumac has turned and that little maple down by the mailbox...My Christmas cactus is getting ready…’
I followed my grandmother’s life like a long home movie: a splice of this and a shot of that, spliced together with no pattern that I could ever see….Life through grandma’s eyes was a series of small miracles: the wild tiger lilies under the cottonwood in June; the quick lizard scooting under the gray river rock she admired for its satiny finish. Her letters clocked the seasons of the year and her life….My grandmother was gone before I learned the lesson her letters were teaching: survival lies in sanity, and sanity lies in paying attention. Yes, her letters said, Dad’s cough is getting worse, we have lost the house, there is no money and no work, but the tiger lilies are blooming, the lizard has found that spot of sun, the roses are holding despite the heat.
My grandmother knew what a painful life had taught her: success or failure, the truth of a life really has little to do with its quality. The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention (53).”
No matter how little we have or how few are our options, the glory of this life on earth is that we always can pay attention. In truth, the less we have and the more limited our options, the easier it is to find awe and wonder. A life of too much makes it significantly more difficult to hone in on something simple and to find cause there for reverence.
In her grounding, contemplative book An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor devotes a chapter to “the practice of paying attention.” Brown Taylor closely equates the act of paying attention with reverence, writing:
“Reverence may take all kinds of forms, depending on what it is that awakens awe in you by reminding you of your true size [...] Nature is a good place to start. Nature is full of things bigger and more powerful than human beings, including but not limited to night skies, oceans, thunderstorms, deserts, grizzly bears, earthquakes, and rain-swollen rivers. But size is not everything. Properly attended to, even a salt marsh mosquito is capable of evoking reverence. See those white and black striped stockings on legs thinner than a needle? Where in those legs is room for knees? And yet see how they bend (22).”
I had an opportunity for reverence the other day, when, on my way into the library where I work, I noticed a diminutive sparrow on the ground right in front of the entrance door. I easily could have missed her and opened the door into her, but happily I spotted her in time. She was young, and one of her eyes didn’t look quite right. I was shocked at how close she let me get to look at her. Another teacher came along and stopped alongside me to admire the sparrow and to join me in marveling at how near she was letting us get when normally a bird would have taken flight long before. Just as we were wondering whether we might need to reach out to a local wildlife center because she might be injured, she flew off in a cheerful flutter. We could have easily ignored that little sparrow. On a different morning, lost in thought, I might have accidentally knocked her with the door. But on this particular morning, I was observant, and I’m thankful I didn’t miss a few attentive moments with the dainty sparrow.
This art of paying attention should not be reserved only for nature. It can be practiced around other humans. With this intentional act of stilling ourselves and paying attention, we can grow in our skills at truly seeing people. Brown Taylor comments, “The practice of paying attention is as simple as looking twice at people and things you might just as easily ignore (33).”
This fall, I have been making a more intentional practice of noticing students who are on the sidelines at recess. Sometimes it is the same students day after day, and other days, I’ll find students who more often are part of the pack are off on the periphery looking a little lost or unsure. I actively seek them out to draw them into a bit of conversation, and I look for students who might make good friends for them and who might be willing to reach out to them. It was easy sometimes in past years on recess duty to be so engrossed in the kids playing together, making sure no one got hurt and that all were getting along, to not expend much energy on the kids along the borders of the activity. It was easy to get lost in my own thoughts while I was out there: running over my work tasks for the day, strategizing how to fit everything in. I have had some really lovely moments connecting with the kids on the outskirts this year. While I know they would rather it be a peer approaching them than a teacher, there are times when I see a look of gratitude on their faces as I walk over and engage them. It’s so important to practice this art of looking twice at people and helping them feel seen.
Any one of us can practice paying attention free of charge at any given moment. Brown Taylor underscores how little is required for practicing.
“[...] Paying attention requires no equipment, no special clothes, no greens fees or personal trainers. You do not even have to be in particularly good physical shape. All you need is a body on this earth, willing to notice where it is, trusting that even something as small as a hazelnut can become an altar in this world (34).”
Less and less is required to live spiritually and to be filled with contentment. More and more stuff, more and more frenetic activity, more and more chasing after sensation and pats on the back, and status, leaves us with attention so fragmented, we struggle to even attend to those we love most. We certainly find it hard to have a good hold on our own internal landscape and our spiritual state of being. When we strive less and less, when we consciously uncrowd our minds and our lives with less and less, we are better able to perceive the beyondness of things. We can discern how the most everyday object, creature, plant can be a portal to a new spiritual revelation and sometimes, even euphoria. We uncover the inherent value, meaning, and beauty in the simplest of beings and natural objects around us.
My soul aches for less complexity and more attentiveness. Maybe yours does too. Make a decision today to quiet yourself for even just a minute, more if you’re able, and to pick one natural object or animal or human being to study silently. Take some deep breaths, and reflect upon this little miracle before you. How did it come to be here? What kinds of storms has it weathered (whether figurative or literal)? Is there something singular about it? How long is it likely to be on this earth? Where will it travel, if it’s able? What will be it’s story? Can you clear a few things out of your schedule over the days, weeks, and months ahead to allow more time for connection with spirit and attentiveness?