A Commitment to Learn, to Pay Attention

I love to learn. Curiosity has made learning a constant state in my life, looking for opportunities to expand the shoreline of my knowledge.

However, seeing so many possibilities of learning new things and deepening my knowledge threatens to overwhelm me, to swamp me. In this new season of life, I am attempting to exercise some discernment in what and how I spend my time and energy. In the past, the limitation of time seemed to provide a natural boundary to my pursuits but as my schedule is now more a matter of choice, I am wanting to be more mindful in the  use of my time.

I feel driven by an inner spirit to be continuous in my learning. I think I got that natively  from my mother who never seemed to stop learning. I loved that about her. I marveled at her passion to keep learning, even as she logged miles and years.  She finally put her artistic talent to use late in life, exploring her natural gift of drawing two dimensional representations of biological cell life into three dimensional painting. My dad, a model of partnership, built her a studio that became her haven, where she produced some fine pieces but more importantly, she discovered new means of expression. I hope to follow her path of discovery. She decided to commit more time to that pursuit once she was freed from all the distractions that crowded her life, namely, us. She finally paid attention to some of the deep desires within her soul.

Mary Oliver talks of paying attention as the first step of devotion. I have found that many people suffer from continuous distraction, and find if difficult to pay attention. Moving from one center of attention to another in rapid succession seems to be the fate of the modern day person, surrounded by electronic devices and messages that are never-ending. With all these distractions, how in the world can one pay attention and even approach the realm of devotion?

Focus is the word that I have found helpful in terms of honing in my attention on a specific topic. In my spiritual life, I have been given the word “center” as an effective tool to center my spirit in abiding in the present moment. Some people focus on an object, or in the movement of the breath, breathing in, breathing out. Often when I am leading groups, I now begin with a centering exercise of asking people to become “really present” by focusing on their breathing for just a few minutes. That simple act seems to bring a peace, a focus, that was not there when we first gathered.

This centering invites people to pay attention, to an object, an idea, a presence. And that can lead into deeper waters. This centering or mindfulness allows us to focus on where we want to make a deep dive, no longer content to play in the shallow end of the pool.

This mindset has been called continuous learning and I’ve been been committed to it all my life. I have committed to learning new things as well as deepening my learning in specific areas. Questions and curiosity seem to call me.

I have mentioned in a previous blog entry about my love of questions. Now, this makes life in fundamentalist religious system of thinking problematic. The “question” is where I find the juice of life, seeking to find a depth of understanding on the far side of complexity. Not all folks are comfortable in that process or pursuit. But, I do know that about myself. It’s one of the reasons I found the Episcopal Church inviting as I found it a place where I did not have to check my questions at the door. My questions were welcomed. I found a place to be, a home for my soul.

My curiosity is one of the favorite things I enjoy about myself. I have always been curious about why things happen the way they do. That is why I have loved science and the study of how things work. particularly the biological systems that we take for granted. My mother’s love of biology was passed on to me. I have found my curiosity invoked by the new science of the brain and how that mysterious part of our body functions as it makes connections, as well as it can get in the way, blocking a way forward.

My big question has always been around the psychology of faith. Why do some people believe and others do not? How does faith function in the lives of people? How does intuition work and what causes dreams and hunches to happen? These days, I am once again listening to the stories of others and the way they are making sense of their lives. Coaching others, looking in from the sidelines, observing and encouraging, is the gift of my work these days.

I have always been captured by people growing into fullness. I once spent a lot of time, years, listening to people’s stories, as they sought to make sense out of things that happened to them, as well as make decisions as to how to spend their life energy. What I have discovered, again and again, is that we form narratives that string together the events of our lives into a necklace of stories that we wear as our identity. Like the curious grad student who transformed assigned research into a chance to listen to the mystery and messiness of human beings, I have recovered my passion for listening intently to these stories.

If listening to stories is my passion, my particular way of attending deeply is through the written word. I am fascinated by writing, how people put together stories and plots into a meaningful narrative. I am lured by a story that weaves characters together in an interchange of relationships. Seduced by the blood, sweat, and tears that formed the soil of my South, I have explored my faves, Flannery, Eudora, and Pat, but now try to dip my toe into a wider landscape that calls to my curiosity.

Finding my own voice in writing down the bones of a story somehow mimics the path of my mother. Taking what could be seen as simple two dimensional reporting, the art of writing a story uses alchemical magic to transform the structure of words into a living, breathing, dying body of narrative. I have a lot of work to do in honing this craft, but writing this simple blog has given me a pool to play within without drowning. I appreciate your willingness to read, to come alongside the storyteller I am hoping to become.

So like Mary Oliver offers, I am trying to pay attention. I am paying attention  to my own story, as circuitous as it may be. I am paying attention to the story of others, as I enter into that sacred space in which people trust me to hear of their meandering, their dreams, and fears. And I am paying attention to the larger narrative  that we all find ourselves within, a cosmic drama that recounts journey as rich as an exodus, a death as real as a bloody end, a pause that is a pregnant moment of waiting, and a new life that emerges resplendent, even with a limp.

Paying attention is the beginning.

3 thoughts on “A Commitment to Learn, to Pay Attention

  1. Excellent post David.

    I, too, love questions and my curiosity is so strong that the lives of many cats weigh heavily on my conscience.

    When people ask about my 25-year record of picking CEOs without a miss, I tell them there are three secrets to this success: my borderline out-of-control curiosity, my love of creating challenging questions for candidates about leadership, their style and demeanor, and my ability to listen. I am a recovering talker so people frequently argue that a “talker” cannot be a good listener. My response is that it depends on what you talk about. This method worked when I was a news reporter and it continue to work: I share and candidates end up sharing more.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you David for placing my email address into your mail basket. I have encountered the lack of focus you describe by the delays I have found to begin reading the accumulating blog entries you have sent regularly. Today I took the deep breath to put interests and activities aside to read of your thoughts and meandering moments. I failed to fully realize how much business I create during each day. Thank you for the respite of activity.


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