Whirrrrrr clunk clunk, gone. The melon sized rock, descending a French Alp at terminal velocity, would have taken my head off, had I not been fully attentive at that moment, and hugged vertical ice encrusted rock with the intensity of a lover.
Climbing vertical rock and ice has a way of acutely focusing attention and releasing an delicious sense of aliveness. A mid-life crisis in my early thirties, sent me off to Europe to spend a summer trying to kill myself doing obscenely difficult Alpine routes, with just a few climbs on a small rock in West Virginia under my belt. I survived somehow, and learned one of my most valuable lessons, the value of attention to this life.
This seemingly basic concept of attention deserves a closer look.
William James, in his textbook Principles of Psychology, remarked:
“ Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.
I wonder if our increasing tendency to multi-task (I am guilty) is robbing us of the ability to, and affinity for, focusing on the precious intense moments of living that are within our grasp daily.
If our brain is trying to accomplish several things at once, something is lost, and that something is the intense pleasure to be had from focusing on one thing; one simple, beautiful piece of, or moment in, the universe.
I don’t want to focus on the negatives of multi-tasking, but on the rewards of attention:
The day I am writing this, my wife Claire and I, rode our bicycles to Ski Valley in the Santa Catalina Mountains behind Tucson.
We began at sunrise in saguaros heavy with white blossoms, and a faint acrid scent of creosote, both signatures of the Sonora Desert, and ended at nearly 9,000 feet in aspens, and the eager gobbling of a turkey in the deep forest. Along the way, the saguaros gave way to bushy oaks and the scent of dry grass, then the gin smell of juniper and vanilla of ponderosa pines, punctuated by the liquid descending call of a canyon wren, and finally the clean sharpness of spruce and thin air. You get the idea, I was paying attention, close attention, to the subtle changes of climate zones that span from Mexico to Canada, all in three hours.
Of course we could have driven it in a motor vehicle much more quickly, and we do sometimes, but we would have missed most of the smells and all of the sounds, and the involvement of our bodies.
Muscles working against gravity have a way of demanding one’s attention, and contrary to popular perception, the sensation is mostly pleasant, if focused on instead of trying to ignore the “pain”. Pain and pleasure can be interchangeable with attention and attitude.
On the way down, the sense of speed was intensified by gusts tugging at the light bicycle and skinny tires; attention is not only rewarding, but required. Forty, or even fifty miles per hour on a bicycle is pure joy, if just on the edge of scary.
At a rest stop for a snack, and to enjoy a view of the city, Claire was using her water bottle to wash a bug from her eye. I got close to see if it was gone. The aliveness and attention of our day together coalesced into a desire to hold her, and I did. I focused my attention where our damp bodies met, the smell of her hair, the sun on my back. And I told her something very personal that I had been wanting to tell her about my desires for the end of my life. I’m not sure any other combination of circumstances would have led me to that revelation.
Life is only fully appreciated through attention, sometimes attention to emotion.
This subject deserves more than I am giving to it now. Perhaps I will come back to it later. For now, those muscles I used so fully, are demanding me to give full attention to a fade into a long deep sleep.