In the 2019 dystopian film Vivarium, a young couple find themselves trapped in what appears to be a perfect housing estate in a strange world devoid of nature. At one point they yearn to see proper clouds passing across the sky and to feel the wind on their faces. For much of our lives, it’s very easy to take the world around us for granted. We get caught up in activity, including our thoughts, and often fail to notice and appreciate how rich and wonderful the world around us really is.
Have you ever lost your keys in the house? You know you used them to open the front door; your phone was ringing, and you remember sitting down and having a conversation. But now you need to go out again and the keys have disappeared. You must have put them down somewhere… The chances are that you’ve done something like this or know someone who does. When an important object like a set of keys, phone, or purse mysteriously vanishes, it was generally placed somewhere by someone who failed to notice what they were doing in the moment. We’d like to think that we’re perceptive individuals and notice most things. The truth is that there are many subtle barriers to really noticing in the moment.
Noticing means observing, taking note of, perceiving. Noticing is where we choose to place our attention and connects our attention to our awareness. Noticing connects us with reality, which can lead to insights and understanding. When we really notice we become the active, rather than passive, witness of our experience.
So, what are the barriers to noticing? The first is that we’re creatures of habit, some that serve us and some that don’t. Habits are embedded routines that operate outside our awareness. The human brain uses up to 20% of the body’s total energy, more than any other organ, so it makes sense to take short cuts. For instance, not fully processing the familiar, filtering out what’s not important and using assumptions. A good example is that our visual field is only really focussed around the centre of our eye, while everything else is relatively blurred in the periphery.
Another barrier is that our attention is easily distracted by the busy and noisy world around us, as well as our own mind-wandering thoughts. And thirdly, due to work overload, stress, lack of sleep or anxiety we sometimes don’t have the energy or capacity to really notice.
So how can we improve noticing as a skill? One answer is to bring curiosity and beginner’s mind to our experience. Physicists say, “Reality is not what you think it is”; it’s much richer and more complex, so there’s always something to be curious about. Beginner’s mind means seeing things as if for the first time, rather than through the labels and assumptions that normally filter and limit our how we perceive reality. With greater openness, we are more open to possibilities. We can also make sure we have the energy and capacity to notice, by getting a good night’s sleep, exercise and nutrition.
The things we notice do not need to be big and significant; sometimes they could be really simple or mundane, like noticing a flowering weed growing out of the pavement.
Ten suggestions for using awareness, beginner’s mind and curiosity are noticing:
- Where your attention is
- Where your attention goes when your mind wanders
- Other people as they are in that moment, with openness and kindness
- Your sense of connection with others
- The natural world around you
- The soundscape you are in
- Physical sensations in your body
- Feelings and emotions as they arise
- The impulse to react, so you can respond skilfully instead
- Where you place important objects like keys, phone, purse or wallet
We are only really alive to our experience in the present moment. If our attention is somewhere else, we can easily miss the rich vibrancy of life in that moment. By noticing more, we can also bring a bit of ease into our lives. For instance, by noticing where we put down our car keys, as an act of caring and kindness for our future self.
Suggested weekly practice
- When you walk use curiosity to really notice what’s going on around you. For example, the wildflower growing at the side of the pavement, the blackbird calls in the trees, or the coolness of the air on your face.
- Try playing a game of labelling your experience; thinking, breathing, seeing, walking, as your attention shifts around and see how long you can keep it up.
- Use the times you put down daily objects like keys, phone, purse or wallet as a prompt to bring yourself into the aware and alert present. This may also help with noticing when you are lacing these objects.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore noticing.
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