Stop! Pay Attention

Whenever I see this image it reminds me to stop and look, to pay attention to the commonplace items and situations that tend not to be seen or are easily passed over. It may be this, more than anything else, that enriches the present moment. Brief acts of perceiving, beyond looking, are the visual equivalent of contemplation. We stop and spend an unusual amount of time pondering, perhaps just soaking in the beauty of the subject’s form and texture, how it is situated and lit.

I used to advise my students that when they are in waiting situations—an airport terminal, doctor’s office, business meeting or just at home with the electronics turned off—to pick a subject, put a frame around it and forget any words or functions associated with it. As a blind person seeing clearly for the first time, enjoy the subject’s attributes. And notice how it is lit. It’s a practice that not only cultivates aesthetic perception, it accomplishes the Buddhist practice of mindfulness—accomplished by being aware in the moment, of the moment. Indeed, paying attention to singular being—like a towel, push pin, wrench or chair—can evoke appreciation for all being.

I thought of titling this post “Perception,” but the point that I most need to remember is to STOP! Just sit or stand still with no distractions and appreciate what’s in front of me, what I normally take for granted. Even the computer display, the keyboard, the picture on the wall and the tissue box. What did it take for these to exist?  It’s part of the Great Mystery—that we and everything else exist and are present as witnesses. One of the teachings in Zen is “unitive perception,” the experience of being able to see the temporal and the eternal simultaneously, the sacred and the profane in the same object. By stopping and paying attention to the little things, that can happen.

A person has not only perceptions but a will to perceive, not only a capacity to observe the world but a capacity to alter his or her observation of it—which, in the end, is the capacity to alter the world itself. Those people who recognize that imagination is reality’s master we call “sages,” and those who act upon it, we call “artists.” 

Tom Robbins

About This Image

Title: Hand Towel

My producer and I spent two days in a fire station waiting for an ambulance run where we would film a traumatic situation for a program on paramedics for a prime time series called A Matter Of Life. For hours and hours, we sat with batteries charged, the camera and it’s attached light ready to go at a moments notice. This towel was hanging on the bathroom wall. Fortunately, I had a still camera with me. Ever since, the photograph reminds me to stop and pay attention whenever a form, texture or ray of light attracts my attention.

To finish the story, on the second day a call came in—a man having a heart attack. Due to the paramedic’s quick and competent action, he survived and we got an hour’s worth of footage showing the process from the sirens screaming out the door to the patient resting comfortably in a hospital bed.

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