New Year's Resolution: Pay Attention

For some twenty years now I have begun each day with a period of quiet. During this time I experience a state of mind in which I am to a degree detached from my daily life. I like this feeling, and it occurs to me that I have even begun to prefer it. If a dollar is offered to a person clutching a penny, the penny can be dropped without privation. Turn, Anne Truitt

I’ve been reading the journals of the artist Anne Truitt, recommended to me by a friend, the painter Matt Brackett, with great pleasure, struck by the clarity of her insight into her own life as an artist and mother, in its struggle and richness. This passage sparked recognition of a similar experience, one that used to be fundamental to my life and that in fact I had already begun to reconsider more urgently in recent months.

My parents have been religiously meditating since the early seventies – a mantra-based meditation, like TM – and for me the daily practice of meditation at dawn and dusk, and the interval of deep quiet that steals through the house is as normal and natural as the sound of the television probably is to the rest of America. I learned to meditate in my teens but never took it up seriously until I was in my twenties, when for a few years I rather fervently committed to a practice of twice-daily meditation in the morning and evening. The evening session tended to get lost in the end of the day pile-up, but I took real pleasure in my morning ritual. Rise, make very sweet tea, read a little, and sit for 20 minutes or half an hour sometimes. Connecting with that deep stillness, still quite close to the surface shortly after waking, had the power to set my course for the day, to put me in real, observed contact with the surfaces of my lived life, to notice things, fully, as they fleeted past; the texture, color and weight of the threads that wove my daily fabric.

As time passed, though, I gradually got into the habit of reading the New York Times online while I drank my tea, and then various other sites, and stopped going directly to meditation. I spent longer and longer at my computer, drawn out into the virtual world, before I would sit down to meditate. And when I finally withdrew my attention from the screen in front of me, it had not the same integral quality that it had before I spilled it out on the Internet. Some of it had been lost, frittered away, clinging to the sticky strands of the Web. An apt name, I find. It lures me in, and by the time I extricate myself, it has taken more from me than I have extracted from it. Through the computer, I reach too easily for anodyne distractions – blogs, news, celebrity gossip – which lull me, and dull my desire for stillness with the distraction of current events. At any rate, after a couple of years, and certainly for more complicated reasons than a mere burgeoning internet addiction, I drifted away from my meditation practice and have not recovered it to this day, although I make periodic attempts at it.

But however it has happened, the fact is that for the past several years I have been indulging in dreaminess, wallowing in a twilight state of attention deferred. Confronted with a decision, unwilling or unable to make the effort to pay full attention, I'll think hazily, “Oh, I can figure that out later.” It’s laziness. And yet I feel half-paralyzed in my trance, despite the fact that in the moments when I wake up momentarily, I feel a thrill in the vividness of the world and the sharpness of my own perception.

And what I’ve come to feel is that the loss of my meditative practice and the enhanced consciousness it helped bring to my daily life is a real loss – not a mere spiritual exercise, undertaken for well-intentioned, high-minded notions about being virtuous, something that is a nice idea but sort of adjunct to life as it is actually being lived. I’ve begun to realize that meditation gave something concrete and valuable to my real life, my artistic life. The power to actually pay attention to things, both so subtle and internal and so large and encompassing as to be unseeable in the usual course of events. Being awake enough to observe things more accurately and make decisions more confidently, instead of as dimply perceived stabs in the dark, buoyed by vague hope that it will all work out somehow.

I've been feeling as though separated from things by a kind of transparent scrim, a thin but tough membrane, keeping me from actually experiencing the world, and from clearly confronting my own work in the studio. I want to break through it and yet cannot. It cannot be rent by a violent act of will, but only dissolved through the slow, steady, patient application of attention. By recommitting and refocusing the power of my own consciousness to my daily life. And the daily practice of being quiet, of emptying out the mind is the best – indeed the only - way I know how to do that. I am grateful to my parents for giving me a taste for stillness from a very young age, and for teaching me that I could study the nature of my own consciousness, like a scientist making observations of something constant under ever-changing conditions.

When I used to attend a weekly meditation group, we would talk about the difficulties of practicing, day in and day out, without letting the flotsam of daily life get in the way. I remember an analogy of filling a jar with stones: to ensure that you can fit them all in, you put the biggest, most important ones in first, and then all the other, lesser rocks come second, and must fit themselves in around the primary ones. Meditation is fundamental to each day, the stone you put in the jar first. (Before the internet.) Otherwise, you go to put it into the jar only to find it already filled with small, rubbishy pebbles, and there is no room left. I suppose it's a simple question of prioritizing.

stone-jar1

I am afraid:  afraid of remaining half-asleep and missing the very middle of my life, just when so much is beginning to come more richly into focus. To wake up, I know I simply have to start paying better attention to things, and in this, meditation is a real aid. I have fallen out of practice, but know I can begin again, and that indeed, deciding to pay attention is not a decision you make once and have done with, but one you must make over and over again, in each moment of every day, week after week, year after year.

Stay tuned . . . and that is as much an exhortation for myself as for anyone who may happen to be reading this.