“The Practice of Paying Attention,” by Barbara Brown Taylor

“The Practice of Paying Attention,” by Barbara Brown Taylor[1]

According to the classical philosopher Paul Woodruff, reverence is the virtue that keeps people from trying to act like gods. ‘To forget that you are only human,’ he says, ‘to think you can act like a god – this is the opposite of reverence.’ While most of us live in a culture that reveres money, reveres power, reveres education and religion, Woodruff argues that true reverence cannot be for anything that human beings can make or manage by ourselves. By definition, he says, reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self – something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding.

A Native American elder I know says that he begins teaching people reverence by steering them over to the nearest tree. ‘Do you know that you didn’t make this tree?’ he asks them. If they say yes, then he knows that they are on their way. Reverence stands in awe of something – something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits – so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.

Reverence may take all kinds of forms, depending on what it is that awakens awe in you by reminding you of your true size…Nature is full of things bigger and more powerful than human beings…but size is not everything. Properly attended to, even a saltmarsh mosquito is capable of evoking reverence. See those white and black striped stockings on legs thinner than a needle? Where in those legs is there room for knees? And yet see how they bend, as the bug lowers herself to your flesh. Soon you and she will be blood kin. Your itch is the price of her life. Swat her if you must, but not without telling her she is beautiful first.

The easiest practice of reverence I know is simply to sit down somewhere outside, preferably near a body of water, and pay attention for at least twenty minutes. It is not necessary to take on the whole world at first. Just take the three square feet of earth on which you re sitting, paying close attention to everything that lives within that small estate…With any luck, you will soon begin to see the souls in pebbles, ants, small mounds of moss, and the acorn on its way to becoming an oak tree. You may feel some tenderness for the struggling mayfly the ants are carrying away. If you can see the water, you may take time to wonder where it comes from and where it is going. You may even feel the beating of your own heart, that miracle of ingenuity that does its work with no thought or instruction from you. You did not make your heart, any more than you made a tree. You are a guest here. You have been given a free pass to this modest domain and everything in it. If someone walks by or speaks to you, you may find that your power of attentiveness extends to this person as well.

Paying attention requires no equipment, no special clothes, no greens fees or personal trainers. You do not even have to be in particularly good shape. All you need is a body on this earth, willing to notice where it is, trusting that even something as small as a hazelnut can become an altar in this world.

[1] “An Altar in the World,” Barbara Brown Taylor, page 21-23, 34

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