Are You Paying Attention to the Beauty of this World?


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“’I got saved by the beauty of the world,’ she said to me. And the beauty of the world was honored in the devotion of her attention. Nothing less than the beauty of the world has become more present, more redemptive, for more of us in the encounter with her poetry.” ~Krista Tippett, on interviewing poet Mary Oliver

The act of paying attention seems rather simple. Simply being aware of life happening all around us. And yet most of us are what we might call asleep at the wheel. We perform daily tasks and engage ourselves in human interactions without a moment given to the here and now taking place in the present.

Instead of enjoying the scenery while on a drive to finish the day’s errands or the conversation with a person directly in front of us, our bodies perform rote tasks while our minds ruminate over discussions that already took place or those that we feel we must mentally rehearse for future preparation.

I can think of nothing worse than choosing to plan a future conversation that may or may not take place instead of deciding to be present for whatever the moment brings. Yet we are all guilty of this and other forms of past and future thinking, and we do them quite frequently.

I really need to get more bottled water/pasta sauce/rolls of toilet paper from the basement.

I wish she would call me back.

How long before I need to start worrying about this? Can I do something to change it?

What should I make for dinner tonight?

This is just a sampling of the daily thoughts taking up precious space in my head. Our habit is to be lost in a trance. Thinking. Planning. Striving. Worrying. We forget why we’re here, and in the forgetting, there is suffering. Each day requires a gentle nudge back to our true nature. The nature that exists only in the here and now.

“Before going to bed, I glance back over the day and ask myself: Did I stop and allow myself to be surprised? Or did I trudge on in a daze?” ~Br. David Steindl-Rast

Our attention to the present moment is what helps us enjoy a life of meaning and purpose. It can keep us from feeling as if life is devoid of any significance. This is why remembering is so important.

Caught in that state of nonstop thinking, believing we are alone and separate with our egos and internal chatter, we may wonder: Is this all there is? Am I anything more than a hamster running on a wheel of thoughts in some crude experiment?

Because it doesn’t really appear all that special when our life seems to exist as a series of repeating thoughts between the ears (many of which seem punishing and unkind), rather than a kaleidoscope of sensations and experiences—along with moments of pure wonder, heartbreak, beauty, pain, and awe.

So how can we find meaning in our lives when we are repeatedly lost in our own thinking? A beautiful place to start is with intention. Intentions help us to remember our true nature and keep us aligned with our higher selves.

Tara Brach, renowned psychologist and teacher of Buddhist meditation, once gave a beautiful lecture on intention. She says that the more you focus on your intention, the more you pay attention. These two work together, back and forth, in a circular manner.

The caring and compassion that comes from an increased attention to this world deepens your desire of intention, and the two feed each other in a beautiful reciprocation. What results is a habit of being more awake and alive in this world. We begin to think less, and to become more present in the here and now.

Tara reminds us that having an intention alone is not enough. We must pay attention in order to manifest our intentions. We cannot just meander along and fail to pay attention to what is in front of us.

“When you start setting your intention and pay attention, they actually allow your Heart and Spirit to manifest.”  ~Tara Brach

The power of intention has helped me train my brain to be aware of my surroundings in a new and profound way. Since I know that my brain is hardwired for thought, I recognize that I must be intentional about paying attention to the world around me.

And my intention should be to see the whole of my environment and the person or people around me, in all their messy and magnificent layers. Therefore, my intention is this: see people and my surroundings, in all their beautiful joy and struggle, and send my love and compassion to all.

This increased awareness certainly didn’t happen overnight; it takes repeated training and subsequent brain rewiring. I still get lost in thought from time to time, but fortunately now I can catch myself falling into the trance of thought and return my attention to the here and now. This attention allows me to live from my intention, and the two dance together in a beautiful waltz, just as Tara suggested.

When I was first getting started, I learned of a simple idea from Eckhart Tolle that resonated with me immediately. He said that when you get into your car to leave your home, take just thirty seconds to become aware of your immediate surroundings. No thinking, just observing.

What do you see? Items in your garage, or on your driveway? Things inside your car? Or nature just outside your car window?

Unless you are on your way to the hospital with an emergency, Eckhart says that each of us have thirty seconds to stop and take notice. I was glad he mentioned that, because most often we feel like we have no time to spare when all we are talking about is just half a minute of our day. This simple practice serves as a gentle reminder to be more present and aware as you leave your home and embark on your day. It also helps me set my intention. It was a great beginner lesson for me and one I still use today.

Meditation and other mindfulness practices have also helped me increase my attention to this world. Study after study shows how meditation practice can not only increase focus and reduce distractions but allow us to bounce back from those inevitable distractions as well. Since the aim of many meditative practices is to help us sustain attention while letting thoughts pass through awareness, it seems logical that meditators would have an increased level of focus and attention.

Meditation also teaches us to slow down. The tendency in our culture is to do everything at a rapid pace –whether that is driving, grocery shopping, cooking dinner, or any number of activities both inside and outside the home. When we slow down, however, we notice much more of the world that we failed to see while we were in overdrive.

Slowing down our bodies slows down our brains. Once the brain is moving at a gentler, less frenetic pace, it removes the heavy charge of thinking and makes room for the present moment.

“When I move half as fast, I take in twice as much.” ~Tara Brach

Our brains are made for thinking. Lots of it. This fact makes mindfulness practices and setting intentions difficult. However, each of the practices above help us to rewire our neurons by doing a series of actions on purpose.

Every second spent being mindful and living out our intentions helps our brains to internalize these actions by creating pathways in the brain. What begin as thin and barely recognizable trails you may see in an overgrown forest become deeply grooved track beds after repeated and daily rewiring. The key to maintaining mindful attention then, like most things, is practice.

I desire a life of meaning. In order to have that, I know that I need to keep myself awake for all of life’s moments. There are some moments that I may not want to see. However, I must not shy away or tune out from anything I may be averse to. It is in the paying attention that I get to understand all of life in its richness and complexity. Its heartbreak and beauty.

Some of us experience pain in the present moment that is just too great, and because of this we fall below consciousness in an attempt to ignore the deep and profound heartache that exists in the here and now.

Anesthetics used to numb the pain, such as alcohol, drugs, food, or compulsive shopping, alleviate the feelings associated with grief, bullying, physical or emotional abuse, divorce, and many other forms of distress. However, though these feelings may temporarily subside, they return once again when we awaken from our unconscious state. And the negative feeling or emotion is often more intense each time it resurfaces. It’s begging for our undivided attention and care.

Previously, I had no awareness of the fact that falling below consciousness was my go-to move. Perhaps because society has somewhat normalized this tendency, or because I did not want to sit with my act of ignoring what felt too difficult to face.

Years of spiritual and mindfulness teachings slowly worked their way into my psyche, and I learned that beneath the illusions of daily life, both good and bad, there is an unshakeable inner peace that always endures.

I didn’t need to develop this peace by hours of sitting meditation or any number of courses, retreats, or books on spiritualty; I only needed to uncover what had been there all along, waiting patiently to be discovered.

Difficulties, both great and small, continue to present themselves. This, of course, is life. Though I have been tempted at times to return to a comforting salve, my awareness of these feelings and the nature of them (transitory and not part of my true being) allow me to sit and be with the experience, even when that experience is unpleasant.

Author Parker Palmer once said: “My heart is stretched every time I’m able to take in life’s little deaths without an anesthetic.”

Personal growth occurs not when we are warm and cozy and everything seems to be going all right, but when we are able to be present with the painful moments of our lives.

We can take refuge in the fact that, no matter our situation or circumstance, our infinite beings of light cannot be harmed. They can only grow in the comforting surroundings of the great and eternal love that never leaves, lessens, or places conditions upon us. Let the storm rail on as we watch its cloud formations swirl and feel its thundering presence, patiently waiting for it to pass like all the others that came before..

Like Mary Oliver, I want to honor the smiles, the kind gestures, the sweet surprises, the expressions of nature outside my window. I want to equally honor the catastrophes, the grief-stricken tears, and the everyday struggles in our lives—whether that is the loss of a loved one or a broken refrigerator.

It has taken me a while to get there, but I now know there is beauty in the latter too. By remaining attentive to what is happening right in front of me, without needing to change it, I open myself up to a peace that is timeless and enduring.

The year 2021 presented me with the most difficult experiences of my life to date. Personal injury, family hospitalizations, the loss of grandparents, crippling stress, and unimaginable anxiety filled most days of the calendar.In the final weeks of that year, I lost my mother-in-law to COVID, and the very next day I was scheduled to appear at my sibling’s court sentencing.

Nearly two and a half years later, I only need to exercise some mental time travel to recall the still vivid scenes from that brief period—the toughest part of an already difficult year—and the corresponding emotions that came from this double whammy heartbreak.

An anguished cry, muffled under someone’s fist. The cold and blinding snow squalls that froze my feet and stiffened my body in place; finding myself somehow unable to turn around and return inside to wade in further waves of grief. Anger being expressed as misplaced love with nowhere to go. The chains and handcuffs clinking with each step taken in the courtroom. The wad of tissues, wet and crumpled, in my free hand.

And this. A long overdue embrace between estranged brothers. The offering of one’s home as a place of respite after burial. The gesture of love that presented itself in homemade casseroles and desserts. The joining of warm hands on a cold courtroom bench. The final look at my brother through the window of the courtroom door, our eyes meeting one another. The beautiful and bittersweet reminder that my love for both of them was greater than I’d ever imagined.

The beauty of the world, as Mary Oliver describes it, includes everything. There are no exceptions or exclusions. When we remain aware, we are witnessing life as it unfolds and changes from one heartbreaking moment to the next jubilant occasion.

It all belongs. And, though it may seem counterintuitive, it all needs to be celebrated. This is life, and we can experience joy and divine love in each moment of attention. Though some moments may appear too difficult to bear, we must always remember that beneath each tragedy is an inner spaciousness that gently carries the weight of it all.

I don’t want to miss a thing. The beauty or the heartbreak—both of which make me feel alive and actively participating in life’s unfolding. For that reason, I’m striving to be awake for as much of it as I can.

About Karen Weissert

Karen Weissert spent twenty years working in higher education and now devotes her time as a freelance writer and spiritual seeker. She enjoys sharing her words of wisdom on spirituality and meaningful living with her friends and loved ones. Her work also appears online at The Universe Talks, Minimalism Life, and Humanity’s Team. She enjoys daily meditation practice, both city and nature walks, and traveling to new destinations with her spouse. Finally, she is a proud cat mom to a beautiful rescue named Annabelle.

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