Saturday, December 11, 2010

Restoration: Attention

I picked up the telephone: “Hello?”

“I’m dying.” Those were the first words out of her mouth.

My head scrambled for a thought - fast! Mostly thinking, ‘how do I respond to that?!’

I paused, took a breath and just went for it: “No, you’re not,” I answered without skipping a beat. “You’re talking to me on the phone right now.”

She stopped for a moment. I don’t think she had quite expected that response. The quiet hung in the air, finally interrupted by her reasonably dejected voice: “Well, they gave me a death sentence. They said there’s nothing more they can do for me and I’m gonna die.” It was her turn to let the air hang heavy as she waited for an answer to that.

I decided to go out recklessly on a limb: “Well, we all are aren’t we?” She was listening closely now, so I took the advantage and continued: “Some sooner than others - and nobody really knows when somebody else is going to die, do they? They don’t know that. They’re just saying they’re out of tricks in their bag for you - but you’re not dying - not this second. You’re talking to me on the phone right now.”


“Where are you right now in your home?” I asked.

“Sitting in a chair.”

“Where? What do you see in front of you?”

“The window.”

“What do you see outside the window?”

“The big pine tree.”

“Anything else?”

“There’s a cardinal in the tree.”

“Good. Watch it!”

Silence. This time the silence didn’t hang heavily, but was a deep, profound kind of silence one is rarely privileged to hear: the deep silence shared with another.

After a solid moment of silence I pushed on, “You’re not dying. You’re alive - you’re talking to me on the phone, and you’re looking out the window and looking at the pine tree with the cardinal in it. How big is that tree? Tell me about it.”

And she did, describing its height and breadth - how it filled the front yard; its deep green needles and the bright red bird - all cast against the steel-grey, winter sky of northern Michigan.

Over time we had many more conversations where she sat in front of that window and described all of the life she saw before her. She described it in detail throughout the seasons: the birds at the feeder - the cardinals and chickadees of winter, the bluebirds in the summer - the oasis that it became to both herself and the birds - her ‘sitting spot’; her zen cushion of meditation. She never spoke to me again that she was dying - not that she didn't think about it, I'm sure. But she chose to bring all her worries, fears and burdens to that tree - and they were heavy and many. That tiny spot of nature helped her to carry them and it also carried her - not dying, but living clear through to her final day.


Nature heals. Whether looking out at the vista from the mountaintop, the horizon from the shore, or the view of the bird feeder outside the kitchen window, our senses take in the sights, smells and sounds of nature, helping our minds balance out in the most basic and primal of ways. We might find it in sailing the sea, but we might as easily find it staring into the aquarium in a doctor’s office. Nature heals, calms, centers and restores.


It’s in the basic wiring.

We’re only beginning to tap into the mysteries of our brains, how they function and why sometimes they don’t. Research by University of Michigan psychologist Stephen Kaplan, has led to what he calls the “Attention Restoration Theory.” This study examines how time spent in nature in relaxed attention has a restorative quality for our minds. A simple enough idea - common sense, really. Easy and within reach.

The theory is based upon the observation that the human brain has evolved through thousands of generations spontaneous response to the natural environment. According to Kaplan’s research, our species has developed the mental wiring to have a natural attraction to green, to trees, flowers and plants, water and wildlife. When we pay attention to nature we use a different, more relaxed, involuntary kind of attention. It requires no effort - which for some can bring its own kind of challenge. But for a moment, if we can allow it, our mind can relax, offering us the overall benefits of rested attention, mental clarity and focus.

Kaplan, in his ‘Attention Restoration Theory’, lists four components in enlisting nature’s help to restore inattentive and poor quality concentration:

1) Being away from your everyday environment -“Away” could be as simple as the backyard garden or the park at the corner. The idea being that interacting with nature in any form helps one to move away from ‘tired brain’. Tired brain zaps us, robbing us of our ability to attend.

2) Fascination - What engages us requires no mental effort. When we are fascinated, watching the colors of the sunset, the flock of geese heading south, or listening to the pounding of the waves, we engage with an easy, involuntary attention. It takes little effort to ‘look’. We’re drawn in by the details. Remember, it's been said: ‘God is in the details.’

3) Extent or Scope - So you’re ‘away’ from the everyday, and fascinated by what you behold, touch, hear, smell or taste, but can your remain there? Will your attention remain without becoming bored or restless? If you're satisfied and able to ‘let down’, i.e. safe and comfortable, involuntary attention comes to the fore; directed attention becomes unnecessary. Now there’s sufficient ‘scope or extent’; attention span increases.

4) Compatibility - “Different strokes for different folks.” Interact with the natural environment in a way that is compatible for the individual. Fish, hike, garden, smell the flowers, play with the dog, sit by the river, pet the cat, birdwatch, collect rocks, watch the clouds, walk in the open air, feel the wind as you ride a bike --- Find your way. YOUR way.

When life throws us the unexpected curve ball - the job loss; health crisis; the loss of a loved one through divorce, death or an empty nest - the ordinary bumps and bruises of life - they take their toll, leaving us stressed and potentially eroded. We become more forgetful and challenged in clear thinking. Our emotions get the better of us and we feel like an exposed, raw nerve ending dangling out there being stepped upon, irritated by everything. Our mental quadrant governs it all -- not only our clear cognitive functioning, but also our emotional and coping capabilities.

The details of the unexpected curve ball don’t matter much; our responses do, however, - how we find our way back to repair and restoration - how we reboot ourselves. We all need to reboot from time to time; a good place to begin is by ‘Restoring Attention’ through nature.


“Don’t think: Look!” - Ludwig Wittgenstein



For further reading, ask your local public library for: "Your Brain After Chemo: A Practical Guide to Lifting the Fog and Getting Back Your Focus" by Dan Silverman & Idelle Davidson


Sylvan Woman said...

Your writing touches my heart and expands my mind. The video is perfect, a meditation.

el poquito said...

thanks for dropping by SW. Making this li'l vid, besides challenging my cognitive wares, was a bit of meditation in itself - slowing me down, making me pay attention. My hope is that viewing it is a minute 49 seconds of alpha brain wave stimulation [the relaxed yet alert kind].

Come sit in my garden anytime. Despite the temp outside today, you don't have to bundle up. An oasis from those howling cold winds.

Mary said...

EP - I'm back! Well, you already knew that as I've told you so..... I finally found time to catch everyone up....

Your last two posts as usual, hit me right smack in the head.... I'm learning. I have discovered much..... You put all of that into beautiful words that help.

Not only am looking I am doing....There is much more to come and the looking and doing is so much easier when you know others are looking and doing with you........

thanks for being there and leading

May K. Cobb said...

Dear El Po,

I'm arriving a little late to the party, but I wanted to be in a nice, quiet space when I read this. As usual with your writing, I read straight through and am left wanting more. There is so much wisdom here. And I love the video.

Happy 2011,
:) may

el poquito said...

Yep, Mary, you're a looker and a do-er-- and you have those grand, majestic Rockies right outside your door! Doesn't get much better!

May, nice to see you and thanks for the good word and the reminder -- Watching that video again puts me into a better spot a couple of minutes later. Hope it works that way for others.

Sylvan Woman said...

It works for me. Happy New Year, e.p.

el poquito said...

Hey kiddo, come hang out in my garden anytime - bring amish bakery goods and rose sorbet - that'll make a happier new year! haha! See? Happier already.

rocketj said...

It sounds like the last few weeks (months?) have changed your health-scape, and I wanted to touch base and say hello, and that I've thought of you often, and kept you in my thoughts.

And here you have given me a gift. Such a beautiful video. Your flowers, too?
I am going to pass the source you recommend here on to my son, Chris.

Paying attention is a big deal to me. I wrote a long essay about it a while back. An essay that told me -- in the writing -- that I needed to write essays.
XO, Roxanne

el poquito said...

Hey Rox, Glad you stopped by. Give a 'hey' to your son. Guess you saw some blips on the health-scape radar? There's always a blip or two, no? But it's all good, I'm securely on the rails at this time. Well, as secure as any of us hurtling through space at 1,291,040 m.p.h.! [I've done the math]

Earth, it ain't for sissies!

Would love to see what you wrote re: attention - a favorite subject of mine - obviously.

Flowers - all pics I've taken on my 'Discovery Walks'. Music courtesy of Mr Bach.

Hope your son finds the book helpful - could be helpful for anyone, regardless if they have post-treatment issues or not.

All the best to you and yours, Roxanne ~~