The Selfless, Spiritual Nature of Paying Attention

A recent New York Times newsletter chastised “You’re Not Paying Attention, but You Really Should Be.” The subtitle, “How to actually notice the world around you,” promised more than was delivered.

As a sociologist minded academic, I like to think I’m more observant than average. At the same time, close friends and I sometimes poke fun of the Good Wife for often driving right by us oblivious to our pointless honking and waving. She claims it’s because she’s focused straight ahead, but her awful vision probably contributes to the sometimes funny phenomenon as well.

But don’t sell her short. She picks up on things others, like me, often do not. Por exemplar, a few days ago she left this for me on my corner of the kitchen island.

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My dad died 24 years ago. If someone asked me what his favorite bird was, I would reply, “No idea.” But the Gal Pal, who interacted with him 1% of the time I did, knew.

The New York Times newsletter writer unsatisfactorily scrapes the surface when trying to teach others to pay attention.

Paying attention is one of the most concrete ways one person shows another they care for them. My wife knows my dad’s favorite bird because he was important to her. Her default is to care for everyone, but she cared even more than normal for him because he was important to me. She paid extra attention to him, and to my mom, knowing how important they were to me.

She cared for and loved me by paying extra close attention to them. There’s a spiritual component to truly paying attention that the New York Times writer misses. Paying especially close attention to the details of others’ lives is a selfless habit of mind most evident in spiritual people.

Another example. An Olympia friend of mine is visiting his wife’s family in the Midwest. He shared several pictures of her hometown online with explanatory captions. At the end, he wrote, “I was glad I stopped and took the time to find out out more about the town which played a big part in the lives of Mary, her parents, and her sisters and brothers.”

“I stopped and took the time” is the exact advice given by The New York Times writer. To pay closer attention he writes, unplug, slow down, look around. But the second half of my friend’s summary sentence, “. . . which played a big part in the lives of Mary, her parents, and her sisters and brothers,” speaks to the selfless, spiritual nature of truly paying attention.

My wife and friend are two peas in the same paying attention pod. They demonstrate genuine, heartfelt care for their closest family and friends by observing, hearing, and remembering what matters most to them.

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Left to right, less attentive, more attentive.