The cultural ecologist David Abram tells of meeting a man in the Pacific Northwest who could recognise the sounds of different trees. If you drove him, blindfolded, to any patch of coastal forest and sat him beneath any tree on a windy day – after a few moments he would tell you, by listening, whether the tree above him was a Douglas fir, a Sitka spruce or a western red cedar, or some different species. What attention …
The remarkable deaf professional percussionist Evelyn Glennie developed the ability to distinguish the smallest pitch difference in the sound of a drum through the vibration she felt coming up through the drumsticks into her hands and arms. Imagine that degree of sensitivity…
You’ll have your own examples of people using their senses exceptionally. To my mind they have something in common – they all share the ability to pay close attention without premature judgement – that is, they remain open to the experience for long enough to let insight steal up on them.
I’ve had a feast of the senses this month having seen the Matisse Cut Outs Exhibition at the Tate Modern twice. (If you haven’t seen it, go – it’s great!) Matisse started to work with paper shapes at the age of eighty when suffering from cancer and without the strength to use a paint brush. These late works are startling, original, energetic, and full of joy.
Matisse too remained open to his senses, and he had quite a bit to say on the subject of paying attention. Don’t think you know what a rose is, he says, just because you have seen roses before:
There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted.
Look afresh and anew, he says.
I would like to recapture that freshness of vision which is characteristic of extreme youth when all the world is new to it.
And, he says, don’t imagine that being attentive is easy:
To look at something as though we had never seen it before requires great courage.
“To look at something …” to really look … At one period of my life, I often accompanied tourists who were on the London leg of a European tour around the British Museum and National Gallery. I noticed how some tourists looked down at their guidebooks, and would tick off a famous painting by reading its label and then move on without more than a quick glance at the actual picture: “Van Gogh’s Sunflowers – tick, Rembrandt self portrait – tick, Constable’s Hay Wain – tick. That’s London ticked off; Paris tomorrow!”
I had a certain pleasure in my tour-guiding period in ridiculing the tourists’ behaviour, but I’ve realised since that most of us do something similar all the time, measuring what we experience with our senses against an internal tick-list of stored information, values and beliefs. For example, if you hold a belief that city kids mean trouble, you only have to witness a teenager laughing loudly on a train to tick that mental belief box, “Trouble!” If you believe your partner is irresponsible, you only have to see an unopened letter from the bank addressed to them to instantly suspect the worst and tick your belief box with the thought, “Irresponsible!”
There’s a world of difference between clocking something in this way and absorbing something through the senses. I can recognise the sound of a bird and clock “thrush” – that’s an act of recognition. If I hear the bird’s song and am truly open to it with all my senses involved – ah, that’s something else entirely, and allows something new to enter my consciousness.
The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds. R. D. Laing
Paying real attention as we listen to someone requires us to absorb everything, take no short cuts, and refrain from certainty – even though our thinking brain is always looking for closure. This is partly for ourselves, so that we don’t jump to judgement, and it’s partly for the other person, as the quality and ease of our open listening helps them to think and communicate better.
It takes the whole of us to do that, not with any sense of effort, but in a gently absorbing way. Listening in this context consists of:
- Hearing the nuances of voice tone beyond the actual sense of the words
- Absorbing the nuances of facial expression, body language and breathing
- Feeling the other person’s being empathetically – being touched by the other person
- Allowing – letting things be as they are without seeking to interpret or change them.
I’ll tell you where I find this hardest – with people I know really well. Do you too? And that’s the very place, I realise, where seeing with fresh eyes is particularly productive. It’s one thing to notice something new in a child as he grows and develops. But adults don’t remain the same either – every single cell in our bodies is replaced every 7 years. A friend has just sent me a photo of me 40 years ago – I can follow the thread from that time to this, but I’m not the same person, and wouldn’t want to be treated as such.
So adults deserve our fresh attention too. I do think Matisse is right: to look at something as though we have never seen it before does indeed require courage. But the very act of doing so with people, allows the other person to change shape in our presence, to become more of who they can be. That’s the miracle of it.
The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself. Henry Miller
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Voice of Influence Workshop
This two-day course will give you the skills and confidence to speak with ease and connect with your audience – even if you are seriously daunted now. And it’s an enjoyable experience too – people often comment with surprise on the fun they have in the workshop. Two days from your life – think how many scenarios will be different in future when you feel at ease …
To those who sign up this month for the workshop I’m offering a free copy of my new book:-
– It’s just out. It’s to be promoted from 15 May to 4 June at Smiths in airports and train stations – let me know if you spot it – I’d like a photo! The book takes you from first principles of starting a conversation cold to the subtle art of creating deep connection – it’s been recommended for people on the autistic spectrum as much as for those who want to connect with others on an intimate – even spiritual – level. Writing the book has been fascinating – we engage with each other all the time, and these connections matter to us – but how we do that is under-examined.
If you enjoy the book, I (and especially my publishers!) would greatly appreciate a short recommendation on Amazon. The same goes for my other books if you’d like to recommend them – just a sentence or two to guide other potential readers would be great.
Find all my books here.
Speaking tips and inspiration
Useful daily speaking tips and inspiration on my Facebook page here.
One-to-one coaching offers you the opportunity to make significant changes in important parts of your life. It’s a practical and effective way to grow into the kind of person and the sort of roles you can maybe only imagine now. The one-to-one approach enables you to develop exactly the areas that will be most meaningful and impactful to you. It’s open to anyone – you don’t have to be already sorted to seek help from a coach!
I run my coaching business here in Dorking. I can also visit your business. Contact me for more information.
That’s it! Have a good month.