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.