Confessions of an attention whore 

I first attempted to sit in silence and observe my breath when I was in my early twenties. At the time, I experienced turning my focus inward as excruciating. Feeling my heartbeat and noticing my backbone when I sat still made my skin crawl. Literally and metaphorically uncomfortable in my own skin, I found it impossible to pay attention.

Nowadays, my capacity to pay attention is a pleasure and something I don’t take for granted. It is a hard-won capacity. When I emerged from the physical discomfort, the odours and filth and emotional chaos of my childhood, I wanted to escape my surroundings, not notice them. Bliss, when I managed to find it, was a state of not -feeling. Gabor Mate, an expert on addiction, theorises that addicts use in order to self-soothe and provide emotional regulation they didn’t receive in childhood. Before therapy, I regularly read till I was numb, drunk till I was senseless, drove myself into 12-hour workday stupors and generally didn’t focus too much on anything. The years before I turned 30 are hazy. The one sensible thing I did was turn up at least some of the time to my thrice weekly therapy sessions. I was often drunk, usually late, and I have no idea how many times I called at the last minute frantically cancelling a session because I’d gotten lost en route or stayed too late at work because I ‘need to finish something’, ‘Ah, circumstances conspired against you,’ my wise, hilarious therapist remarked again and again till I understood I had some control, some agency in whether or not I turned up. I was a fragmented woman and I could easily have veered through decades that way, not managing to turn up to my own life.

There is this commencement speech by the author David Foster Wallace called ‘This is water.’ I listen to it sometimes when I’m washing dishes, in fact, I’ve pretty much memorised it. It is like my own personal Apostles Creed. I love it when he gets to the end of the speech with this gut- busting truth: ‘the only really important kind of freedom involves attention… the alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost something infinite.’

I know this truth in my bones. The capacity to pay attention sets you free.

I know that the skilful, compassionate attention my therapist paid me knitted me back together. One of those ordinary violences we do to children is dismiss their need for attention. ‘She just wants attention,’ we say, as if that were not a legitimate need we all have, as if it were not vital to creating personhood. I know firsthand the deprivations that emotional neglect causes, and I know how empowering it is to be heard, to be seen for who we actually are. I understand how it grounds us, how it makes the creation of meaning possible. Wallowing in the compassionate attention of another- be it friend, therapist, partner or parent- makes it possible to step into our own skin, to turn up to our own life, to be present to ourselves. Attention is a pleasure to lavish on others and a pleasure to luxuriate in ourselves.

It is a cheap thrill. So ordinary. So doable. Yet also difficult and skilful. And it is a precious, rare thing. This kind of being-with is golden in our increasingly frenetic, surface, glittering, outcome driven, status- update- and –newsfeed- information saturated technocracy. One of the main things I value having is increasingly difficult to get these days. I really cherish the relationships where attention is free- flowing and given in abundance.

And here is another truth: this capacity to pay affectionate, over-the-top attention to the ordinary, the difficult, the banal, even, maybe the way I ball socks or my own feelings of frustration, or R.’s raging sobs into my shoulder, increases as I claim it. And as it increases, as I take in the beauty, the sounds, the smells, the banal, the difficult: all the ephemera of my my life the way I take in breath, the less I want to numb or escape. I almost never crave television or booze to numb me anymore. I want to feel it all. I want to be here, in this body, in this life.

I choose to lavish my son with attention. I listen carefully to his pigeon-English and bathe him in curiosity while he plays: I try to stay open and attentive while he zooms his plastic bin lorry under the washing and tells me it is a car wash.

I sit still now, sit with my morning coffee on the floor in square or lotus and observe my breath and tune into my thoughts, and I enjoy it.

And this is what I want my son to know: that ordinary life is something that does not need to be escaped from, but that it is a seat to lower ourselves into.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

David Foster Wallace, ‘This is Water’ https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=8CrOL-ydFMI

Gabor Mate, ‘what is addiction?’ (3:45) https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=T5sOh4gKPIg

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