Patience, young grasshopper: a beginner’s insights into attention

Master Po: Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Young Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds.
Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
Caine: No.
Po: Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?
Caine: Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?
“Kung Fu” (TV series), pilot episode, 1972

A grasshopper doesn’t move when I pass her on the concrete walk through the front garden to my door. This seems unusual, and I crouch down for a closer look. I think the bright red hind legs might make it red-legged grasshopper, Melanoplus femurrubrum, but it’s probably something in that genus, at any rate. I notice the end of the abdomen is swelling and contracting, and keeps pressing against the concrete like a finger probing for a weak spot. She takes a few steps forward, presses the concrete some more, then steps off the walk into the garden and immediately finds a patch of bare dirt that behaves as expected, yielding to pressure. The swelling and contracting of the abdomen, combined with steady pressure from the big hind legs, slowly forces it into the soil to the depth of about a centimeter. The grasshopper now remains immobile for the next several minutes except for a slight throbbing of the abdomen, which I presume denotes the deposition of eggs.

The more this grasshopper absorbs my attention, the more I notice of her surroundings, too: the small black ant walking in tight circles beside her, a larger red ant that crosses the walk in a more purposeful manner, the black field cricket — half the length of the grasshopper but just as fat, and twice as charismatic — who comes down the walk toward me and crosses into the moss garden. I hear a hummingbird buzzing into the spicebush above my head, then dropping down almost to my ear and hovering for a second before rising into the lilac and briefly perching. Even as I watch, others are watching me.

When the grasshopper pulls out, she climbs back up onto the sidewalk, which has evidently lost none of its attractiveness. She crosses it slowly, again “fingering” it with the end of her abdomen every inch of the way. How can any creature be so unaware as to mistake hard concrete for soil, just because it’s a similar color? Finally she stumbles off the other side of the walk and onto another suitable patch of dirt where the moss hasn’t grown in yet. Since our last rain was just two days ago, again she has no trouble penetrating the soil surface with her throbbing organ. I stand up slowly from my crouch, but clearly she is too intent on egg-laying to notice me and the threat to her existence I represent.

A nascent online community devoted to “practicing the art of attention,” This Life Lived, challenges members this week to consider the nature of attention itself:

What does “attention” mean to you? How do you define attention for yourself? What do you look like when you are paying attention, and what are you doing? What do you feel when you are at full attention: Do you feel calm and still, or do you feel wired and energized?

Try to construct a clear and personal definition of attention this week. If you struggle to get started, you could say to yourself or write in your journal, “To me, attention means that I am ______________ .” Then describe that definition in detail. Take time with your personal definition. Notice yourself throughout the coming week, and try to catch yourself in the act of paying attention. Notice what that act or moment does for you, and how it affects your day.

To me, attention means that I am going out of myself, not unlike the egg-laying grasshopper — and in the process, making myself vulnerable. Somehow, I think, the vulnerability is key to the whole experience. Although I am fortunate to live on a mountain with (at present) no man-eating carnivores or poisonous snakes, crouching down in the woods or fields at various times of the year can definitely be hazardous, exposing one to Lyme disease-carrying deer ticks. I don’t spend a whole lot of time obsessing about that, but the point is that the vulnerability of a rapt observer is real and not theoretical. Women and girls of course experience another whole dimension of vulnerability in many seemingly remote areas. In any case, my point is that we are the products of millions of years of evolution in which we were usually prey animals as well as hunters and foragers, and I think the kinds of attention we experience today have been shaped by all three of those roles (among others). I’d go so far as to suggest that the way the attention rather quickly widens out when we focus on one thing is an adaptive behavior. We may be focusing on what’s right in front of us — some hard-to-spot wild root crop, say — but if a twig snaps the wrong way, we’ll hear it.

When I sit out on the porch drinking my coffee in the morning, much of the time I am not paying attention. But at a certain point I’ll remember that I need some interesting observation to write about for The Morning Porch, and at that point I turn into a kind of hunter-gatherer. I don’t have a clear search-image in mind, but I’m alert for anything that will make good writing fodder. Often I begin by listening, mentally naming everything I hear, which at this time of year may not be much: goldfinch chittering, the steady trill of tree crickets, the whine of an annual cicada, a passing jet, the faint sounds of traffic from the gap. Just listening like this makes me more aware of what I’m seeing, too, and it’s a good way to begin because listening is inherently more absorptive than looking, which preserves a distance between observer and observed. Sometimes then I’ll stand up and start taking a mental inventory of the plants in my front yard.

It’s funny: as I’ve probably mentioned here before, when I was a kid I was very resistant to the idea of learning names for wild things, because it seemed to me that once we associate something with a fixed name, we make it much more difficult to see that thing in a different light. Now that I’m a writer, though, I’ve bowed to necessity and put a high priority on learning the common names. It’s true, you can have some sort of relationship with something for years without knowing what it’s called. Perhaps someone more enlightened than me can experience something akin to the Zen ideal of direct seeing — good luck with that. In my experience, knowing a name is the first step toward making something’s acquaintance in a real way.

As many thousands of times as I walked up the road as a kid, coming home from school, I never knew the names of the plants whose hard, comma-shaped seeds could so easily be stripped from the stalk, or the ones with fleshy, translucent stems that snapped so easily. They were my companions in dawdling; I de-seeded and uprooted them unmercifully as an occupation for my distracted fingers. Was I really paying attention to those unnamed plants? Not really. It was only about ten years ago, on a hike sponsored by our local Audubon chapter, that I finally learned what people call them: jumpseed (Polygonum virginianum) and clearweed (Pilea pumila), a stingless nettle. These names were so right, and so delightful, I was immediately ashamed of my long-standing callousness, and I haven’t been able to see either plant since without an inward smile of recognition.

If you’re a poet, you’re probably familiar with some version of that relaxed-yet-focused, semi-trance state in which the best lines and ideas come to the surface. I’m sure other artists get into that zone as well. For me, its strongest analogy is to hypnagogia (thanks for the word, Natalie!): it is a mild kind of threshold consciousness characterized by increased receptivity and suggestibility. As with actual hypnagogia, it’s a state that often yields real insights. But it’s not so different, either, from that state of attention I found myself in this morning, watching the grasshopper probe the ground with her ovipositor, or earlier, on the porch, listening to goldfinches and watching them glean seeds from the wild thistle. I was open, I was vulnerable, I was letting things in.

13 Comments


  1. “the vulnerability of a rapt observer is real and not theoretical”

    I hadn’t thought of that, but it is true in both the literal and figurative sense.
    I also appreciate the point about your need to write for Morning Porch forcing you to pay attention. As I get back into writing and branch out into other mediums I feel less one-dimensional in my perception of the world around me. It’s far more fun but also a bit overwhelming.

    Reply

    1. It can be overwhelming, sure. Fortunately, we’re never more than a few clicks away from some suitably mindless entertainment to unwind with. I don’t believe full attention is a desirable state to inhabit in all our waking hours.

      Reply

  2. As a teen-ager I felt the first stirrings of an interest in plants. Nobody in my life knew plant names beyond the obvious dandelions and violets.

    I remember thinking, “Surely this plant has a name… but how do you find it?”

    I also remember the revelation when I first realized that “it’s the flowers, stupid!”. The Peterson wildflower field guide led me to that realization.

    In later years I was “keying out” plants; nothing will force you to pay close attention to a plant like using a binomial taxonomy-based key. It’s not the only mode of paying attention, and probably not the best, but it’s a start.

    I remember and enjoy the Latin names of plants. Some are a kind of poetry, as are some common names.

    Reply

    1. I envy you your memory, Larry. And thanks for sharing that story. I think many of us have had a similar experience. Just learning how damn many creatures we share the planet with would probably blow a lot of people’s minds. But you can follow the news forever and never learn such a basic, essential fact.

      Reply

  3. I still resist, sometimes, learning the names for things. But it’s an immensely complicated thing. We (rightly, I think) apologize to someone for forgetting their proper name, even when we remember *them* perfectly well — we’ve forgotten not them, but an observance due to them. On the other hand, a professor of linguistics pointed out to me one time, as a basic rule of linguistic change, that people almost always create pet names for the people and things that are dearest and closest to them.

    I love what you say about vulnerability and attention.

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    1. Dale, the subject of naming is definitely way more ambiguous than I credit here. For example, there’s a strong sense in which naming something gives one power over it — hence of course the many cultures where people have secret or ritual names which are considered their real names, apart from the ones in everyday use. For species, I try to remember that our own names, even the Latin binomials, are provisional — arbitrary handles.

      Reply

  4. Nice! I saw the tiniest of tiny grasshoppers the other day, no bigger than a small ant, but still a grasshopper in every way! I could only imagine what a small, high, almost inaudible chirp he added to every night’s chorus!

    Really enjoyed your post.

    Reply

    1. Interesting. A juvenile, I wonder, or just a really tiny species?

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Reply

  5. We think the world is so large. But it’s small, too. I love the image of you watching small creatures so closely. The scene you recounted reminds me of Willard Wigan, whose art began with depicting the ants around him, whom he would watch for hours.

    I used to have a world that included ants, insects, little leaves, clumps of dirt. Then it got big, my world, and I missed those small things.

    The other day, Jon watched ants entering and leaving a crevice in the sidewalk. He called Hayden and me over to watch, too. We all stood there, looking. I was so pleased that, for my husband, the world still contains ants. Actually, it didn’t for a long time. His world got too big.

    Now the ants are back, for both of us.

    Reply

    1. That’s good to hear. Of course, in a cosmic sense, we and the ants are very much on the same approximate scale, kind of mid-way between sub-atomic particle and galaxy. The ants are our brothers! Or sisters, as the case may be. :)

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  6. In Empirical Psych 101 as well as Rational Psych 101, our “poetic” states were labelled “hypnoidal states” by our professors in the university. Apparently, it is a state of hightened attention and suggestibility which I still experience when I write my poems. This appears to be the condition of creative consciousness and receptivity, as opposed to the onset of sleep. Since I aspire to create a gestalt of all the relevant images, I tend to telescope (as in ”compress”) on my primary image and accept other concretizing/objectifying/subjectifying images, figures of language and thought, etc. resulting, preferably, in a balance of thought and emotion in the work or art (poem, in this case)— (hence, my attention and suggestibility state: hypnoidal). Big words I have since tried to avoid since I wrote my “Aesthetics of Literature” (see my blog post on the literary theory informing my writing) for my Literary Theory classes.)
    Now I write poems that (hopefully) could be appreciated. Beware, however, of analysis that may result in “missing the many splendoured thing.” Pardon the gobbledegook.

    Reply

    1. I don’t know how accurate the Wikipedia article on hypnagogia is, but here’s what it had to say about inspiration:

      The hypnagogic state can provide insight into a problem, the best known example being August Kekulé’s realization that the structure of benzene was a closed ring after dozing in front of a fire and seeing molecules forming into snakes, one of which grabbed its tail in its mouth.[41] Many other artists, writers, scientists and inventors—including Beethoven, Richard Wagner, Walter Scott, Salvador Dalí, Thomas Edison and Isaac Newton—have credited hypnagogia and related states with enhancing their creativity.[42] A 2001 study by Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett found that, while problems can also be solved in full-blown dreams from later stages of sleep, hypnagogia was especially likely to solve problems which benefit from hallucinatory images being critically examined while still before the eyes.[43]

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  7. “…To me, attention means that I am going out of myself, not unlike the egg-laying grasshopper — and in the process, making myself vulnerable…”

    Yes, that’s what attention means to me too. A going-out from self. The most intense and life-transforming experience of this was one I described in a qarrtsiluni piece some time ago (I’ve forgotten the title now) about sitting in a room in Paris and starting to really listen and to count the sounds. I don’t have that particular kind of almost out-of-body experience now but can get so lost in observing people on the bus, for instance, that I can miss my stop! And in painting something from life, when it’s going well, that’s when the full laser-beam of attentiveness gets switched on for me.
    Wonderful post, Dave; lucky grasshopper to have caught your attention!

    Reply

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