The Art of Paying Attention
To take a good picture in the past, you needed to own an expensive camera. And know how to focus it properly. And process your photos at a lab to get them into shareable form. Photography was a tricky (and expensive) business.
The smartphone changed that.
Now, everyone can take shots of just about anything—resulting in a casual and constant mode of photography in which whatever catches your glance can be quickly documented and shared, with little effort or thought. But while we can now take more photos faster, we aren’t necessarily taking better ones.
Good photos require a slower, more contemplative approach. To take a good picture is to focus intently on what’s in front of you, to give it your full attention. You need to think about the light that surrounds the object or person, how you will compose the picture, what angle of approach should be used, and how the colors interact with the background. This means you must look closely. And to look that closely means paying close attention.
In today’s fast-paced, over-stimulated, distracted digital age, our ability to pay attention—a vital discipline for our spiritual health—has been severely impaired. But the arts can help us recover this crucial skill.
Attention Is the Beginning of Devotion
Dirk Devries, who calls himself a “contemplative photographer,” writes about it this way:
"Photography . . . offers a means of meditation and reflection, a method of prayer, a key to open the imagination, a doorway into stillness, depth, and meaning. For those who pursue it, contemplative photography invites us to slow down and notice, to heighten awareness, to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Photography can be a form of contemplation, a spiritual discipline, motivated, not by the desire to produce something, but the desire to be in process, open and present, ready to be refreshed, to receive insight."
It would be a good spiritual exercise to take your own digital camera with you on a walk around your neighborhood and pause often to examine and photograph the intriguing textures, splendid colors, and curious forms that you encounter. Stop and spend enough time to investigate the beauty you discover, allowing it to deliver a message about the God who created it. What does the intricacy of a fallen leaf or the patterns on tree bark or the colorful explosion of a wildflower tell you about him? If you ever think to yourself that there is “nothing here to photograph,” it only means you aren’t really looking closely enough.
Of course, you can pursue this kind of contemplative vision even without a camera. Your eyes can serve the same purpose. The principles you’d use in setting up a shot are principles that can help you slow down and really look at things with your naked eye. Having a photograph to show off when you are done isn’t the point of the exercise but training yourself to look as closely as a photographer would. To pay attention to what is right in front of you, right now. To be truly present. As Mary Oliver, whose poetry often has the precision of a photograph, reminds us, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
It isn’t just photography that can be our teacher; all the arts can instruct us on how to be truly aware and truly present.
Art Helps Us Be Present
We expend much of our energy mulling over the past and worrying about the future. In the process, we often lose touch with now, with the present moment. Art can help us learn to be immersively present in the moment. Not just kind of there, but totally there.
For the spiritual writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade, this sense of living in the present is also a sense of living in the Presence. He calls this attitude of awareness “the sacrament of the present moment.” He believed that God is at work in each of our personal histories, and that God is speaking to us at all times through the things we see and hear, as well as through our experiences. The present moment is one in which we can experience the Presence of God if we are paying attention, and all the smallest things of our lives are potential mouthpieces for him to communicate with us.
I think of Brother Lawrence, the monk who wrote about practicing the presence of God. His goal was to attain an awareness of God at work in his life every moment, never losing sight of his presence. Although he had the humble job of working in the monastery kitchen, there amid the clamor and clatter of the pots and pans and the dishes, he learned to hear God. (Maybe he could help me change the way I think about doing the dishes . . .)
Both of these great writers remind us that we don’t have to look for overpowering spiritual experiences. We can find God in the mundane and the ordinary, and we can discern his direction for our lives by attending to what he is revealing to us in the present moment, in accordance with his Word.
How To Remain Awake
But we must be paying attention. As C. S. Lewis memorably wrote:
"We can ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake."
The great artists and the great spiritual writers have the same goal: to teach us to remain awake.
We can slow down. We can quiet the inner chaos inside us. We can focus. We can fully attend. We might need to put aside our tendency to analyze and evaluate everything, and just be fully present. Just let things be. And let them speak to us. Whether it be a pair of worn boots, a simple white bowl, rain-speckled leaves, a sunrise, or the song of a bird.
The arts can help us learn how to pay attention. I’ve discovered that looking at art, listening to music or a poem, reading a descriptive passage in a novel, or viewing a film can force me to slow down, quiet my restless thoughts, and open myself to a new glimpse of God’s goodness. A moment when I can see the wonder in the ordinary.
Because, in a very real sense, nothing is ordinary.