“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,” Simone Weil observed as she considered the relationship between attention and grace at the peak of her short life. “Attention without feeling,” Mary Oliver wrote a generation later in her beautiful elegy for her soul mate, “is only a report.”
Before Oliver, before Weil, D.H. Lawrence (September 11, 1885–March 2, 1930) took up the subject of attention as our portal to the sacred in one of the pieces in Sketches of Etruscan Places and Other Italian Essays (public library) — the rich posthumous collection of travel writings that gave us his reflections on the strength of sensitivity.
Lawrence finds himself contemplating the birds on the walls of the Tarquinia tombs, painted by artists before whose eyes they “flew through the living universe as feelings and premonitions fly through the breast of man, or as thoughts fly through the mind.” For those artists, the birds became a lens on “the complex destiny of all things” — the elemental hunger for truth and meaning we live with, which requires what might best be termed divination.
But at the center of such divination, whether we perform it through art or through science, lies the hallmark of our consciousness — the capacity for unalloyed and prayerful attention, which can turn any object into a miniature of all things and all meaning. (The poet J.D. McCatchy captured this essential fact beautifully in his observation that “love is the quality of attention we pay to things.”)
If you live by the cosmos, you look in the cosmos for your clue. If you live by a personal god, you pray to him. If you are rational, you think things over. But it all amounts to the same thing in the end. Prayer, or thought or studying the stars, or watching the flight of birds, or studying the entrails of the sacrifice, it is all the same process, ultimately: of divination. All it depends on is the amount of true, sincere, religious concentration you can bring to bear on your object. An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer. And you choose that object to concentrate upon which will best focus your consciousness. Every real discovery made, every serious and significant decision ever reached, was reached and made by divination. The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.
It is the same with the study of the stars, or the sky of stars. Whatever object will bring the consciousness into a state of pure attention, in a time of perplexity, will also give back an answer to the perplexity.
Couple with Lawrence, lensed through Anaïs Nin, on how to be un-dead and live most fully, then revisit William James’s pioneering investigation of attention and its blind spots and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on how to walk through the everyday world more attentively.