My friend Anne, who lives in South Carolina, recently undertook a major simplification project. She and her husband downsized from a vast antebellum home in which they’d raised their family to a sleek and simple house on the beach, complete with meditation room and art studio.
Her aim was radical attention.
It took her two years. But in many ways, I think of it as a project of a lifetime.
To simplify is to move towards an experience of ourselves alive in the present moment without the usual scrim of tics and bad habits blocking the view.
Anne got it right when she understood that to become attentive one must let go: furniture, boxes of unused yarn, books, family china she would never use. But this was just the beginning.
She intensified her commitment to meditation. And she began to dump the mental overload of trying to solve/control/fix the lives of others. Of worry. Of always being right.
This was the hard part. As in every life, there was a LOT she could have waded into but didn’t.
How did she do it? She began to make art. She started a practice of making one painting every day, and she stuck to it, no matter what was happening around her.
Painting demanded complete attention – the kind you give someone you love. Going into the space of contemplation, of breath and color and form, strengthened her in the detachment and the depth she needed to allow life to happen around her without constantly rushing in to suggest, advise, repair.
Anne was always a good listener, but she has become a master.
This week, my walking partner is away on a trip, and I have been reminded of how rare and precious a gift attention truly is. The people who show up in our lives, genuinely available to attend to us, are far and few between.
We lose one another so easily. Inattention is as much a habit as is attention. We all know people whose distractions, petty and not so petty, are a way of disconnecting and buffering themselves. Vanity, vanity, we want to whisper. But they are too distracted to hear.
When work emails are more urgent than a partner’s hoped-for conversation, when the television is more compelling than genuine connection, relationships tumble into unreality. Life goes on; it is just emptier and at the same time more crowded with talk and activities that can’t possibly satisfy.
This is when it becomes time to let go, and pick up a paintbrush, or walk the beach.
I am lucky to know teachers of the heart’s way. Such lives have become their own works of art, what T.S. Eliot once said was the mandate of each one of us.
I want to cultivate such radical attention. Life is short. We lose what we don’t attend to. Our children grow up and take flight. Nothing stays the same, not even our favorite nail polish.
(Anne’s website: http://annedarbyparker.blogspot.com)