As a poet, as an artist, one of the core skills we need to develop and cultivate is a radical attentiveness to the world around us, an awakeness to our senses and the sense impressions all around us. We need to sharpen our senses to a keenness that hears, feels, smells, sees, tastes vividly, that notices what is happening around us and in our bodies in response to the physical world we encounter. We need to become sensually alive.
To do this, we intentionally practice opening our senses, paying attention. We take on a practice of deep seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, feeling, smelling. “Attention is the natural prayer of the soul,” the French priest and philosopher Nicolas Malebranche wrote. Or as the poet David Whyte so brilliantly puts it, in his poem “Everything is Waiting for You”:
You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
We have to counteract the numbing out, the dullness of routine, the sleepiness that is so habitual and instead invite ourselves again and again into an awakeness, awareness, attentiveness, aliveness that senses and notices deeply.
We can do this by creating small windows of attention, spending five minutes with our eyes closed listening to all the sounds we can hear, loud and soft, distant and near, staccato and sustained, noticing the varied textures, letting go of naming or identifying the sounds to simply listen and hear the symphony around us and within us.
We can spend ten minutes looking out the window or sitting on the front porch, tuning up our seeing, noticing colors, light and shadow, patterns, textures, shapes, movement, juxtaposition, composition. Or we can spend ten minutes looking at one thing only—this leaf, this rock, this chair, this shoe—seeing all that becomes available to us in this act of deep looking, of presence—and noticing too how it changes us within.
We can eat a banana as a meditation, feeling its heft and form in our hand, peeling it slowly, smelling it, inhaling deeply, slicing it into pieces, feeling the slipperyness, tasting it, paying attention to all the gradations of taste, texture and sensation as we consume it.
We can take ourselves on a poem walk and open up all the sense to observe the world vividly, noticing details, smelling and touching things, listening.
Or we can walk around our living room and notice everything we normally do not see, look for what we overlook, the tiny details, the ceiling, the floor, the walls and all the objects in the room, the light and shade, the colors and textures. We can feel the textures and shapes of things, picking up objects, listening to the sounds they make if we strike them or shake them gently, smelling them.
Deliberately practicing opening the five senses brings delight, peacefulness, pleasure and gives us a rich storehouse of imagery and sensation to draw from when it is time for us to write a poem, make a dance piece, or paint a picture.
This rich, physical detail is an essential component of great poetry and great art. We experience life through our bodies, and it is our ability, as artists, to bring that life vividly to the page that makes our poems speak and sing to the reader, that causes our poems to move the reader and not simply be a series of abstractions, interesting thoughts or sentiments with no impact, no zing. When the reader can feel—see, hear, smell, taste—along with us, we draw them into the experience of the poem. And this is true with abstract art as well, because our own deeply felt experiences, when communicated in some powerful way, are far more likely to communicate powerfully than that which we have not felt deeply in our bones and blood.
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader,” Robert Frost has said. The artist has to feel it first through and through, and then feel it again as you create your art, then and only then will the reader feel it. “Understand that you can have in your writing no qualities which you do not honestly entertain in yourself,” Walt Whitman wrote. In other words, you can’t fake this. You have to live it, and it is your own profoundly lived experience that you transmit through your art as a gift to your audience, as an offering and invitation for them to wake up to the world too, to experience the fullness of this life completely. This is one of the core functions of art, providing a doorway to deeper being, greater aliveness—and it is the artist who must first walk through that door and then beckon the audience to follow.
So, practice waking up to the world. Fall in love with the sidewalk and the grime. Fall in love with the laundry on the line, moving in the wind. Fall in love with the roar of traffic and the whisper of your slippers on the floor. Fall in love with pots banging in the kitchen and distant laughter of children in a neighbor’s yard. Fall in love with cinnamon and moss, curry and rain. Notice the bit of white plastic among the brown leaves in the gutter as if it were a painting or sculpture, a deliberate arrangement. Notice the musical composition made by the ticking clock, overlaying the hint of distant churchbells and a car loudly rushing by, and underneath all that the sound of your own breathing. Notice how the air feels on your skin, how your own clothes feel, the tension and relaxation in your body, how your organs feel.
I will talk next time about coming alive to your inner world, another core skill of the artist.
Until then, enjoy coming alive to your world,
P.S. Join me for a 5-week teleclass called Writing Your Way Home, starting May 14. You’ll access voices of wisdom, inspiration, humor, playfulness and love within that will astonish you: https://brilliantplayground.com/writing-your-way-home/