For 15 years now we’ve lived in the same, sweet house, and for 15 years I’ve been walking our dogs along the same street. Yesterday as I leashed my companions I grumbled aloud how tired I was of walking this street every single day, twice a day. As we slowly made our way down the same road, passing the same old houses and same old trees, the words of the poet David Whyte drifted into my head:
“Alertness is the discipline of familiarity.”
He’s right, of course. Most of us have a fairly set routine, lives that cycle through necessary, if tiresome, quotidian requirements: we get up, eat, work, cook, clean, run errands and go to bed every single day. It’s easy to fall into a certain numbness around these activities. It’s easy to take those who live with us for granted; hardly seeing them as we pass through the living room, scarcely listening as they say something we think we already know. Life-as-repetitious-routine can all too easily become wearisome and dull, and herein lies the grave danger of somnambulating through our lives.
The antidote to our numbness — what keeps us from falling asleep at the wheel, as it were — is alert attention: radical, conscious, purposeful attention. It requires conscious effort to stay alert, to “be here now,” as Ram Das said. The discipline of attention means remaining alert in the midst of sometimes tedious familiarity and not allowing the mind to drift into the lazy habit of I know this path all-too-well. I’ve seen it all, heard it already, done it a thousand times. It takes work to shake off the ennui and really look and listen as though you are experiencing it for the first time.
In her book, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, Amy Krouse Rosenthal mused about this art of attention and awareness in the midst of our ordinary lives.
“When I am feeling dreary, annoyed, and generally unimpressed by life, I imagine what it would be like to come back to this world for just a day after having been dead. I imagine how sentimental I would feel about the very things I once found stupid, hateful, or mundane. Oh, there’s a light switch! I haven’t seen a light switch in so long! I didn’t realize how much I missed light switches! Oh! Oh! And look — the stairs up to our front porch are still completely cracked! Hello cracks! Let me get a good look at you. And there’s my neighbor, standing there, fantastically alive, just the same, still punctuating her sentences with you know what I’m saying? Why did that bother me? It’s so… endearing.”
Since most of us are blessed beyond measure to have lives of extraordinary abundance and relative ease, it requires alertness to tune back into the life that is humming all around us, all the time. It requires us to become more like little children. Small children are naturally attuned to the wonder of Life: they squat to watch the ants parade in a line across the sidewalk. They watch the clouds take magical shapes. They poke and touch and stare with rapt attention because everything is new. They know intuitively and instinctively what Henry Miller wrote: “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”
Back on my walk, feeling ashamed and sheepish at my complaining, I stopped walking and began to pay attention. I breathed in the wind-washed air, grateful for lungs that works so effortlessly. I listened to the wind in the pines and the birdsongs that unfolded one after the next, and looked anew at my old friend walking amiably along, his back legs wobbling, sniffing happily at spikes of spring-green grass. As I gazed into the forest, a deer, not five yards away, gazed back at me. I’d almost missed seeing that gentle creature, lost as I was in my shrunken, self-centered routine.
Alert attention is presence. It is receptivity. It is openness. It is love. And the reward for exercising the discipline of attention is the immeasurable gift of a so-called ordinary day: beauty, wonder, connection and the vibrant joy of Life itself. Shake off the ennui and look again, look deeply, pay attention: an “indescribably magnificent world” awaits.