On Pain and Paying Attention, by guest blogger Carolyn M. Evertson

Julia Cameron, the noted writer, talks about synchronicity …two or more things that are apparently unrelated or unlikely to occur by chance, yet are experienced as occurring together. In her book, The Artist’s Way, just as I was struggling with psychic pain so intense that I was lost as to what to do, I read Julia’s book it and came to a part that was so stunningly relevant to pain’s place in my life that I had to write it down.

In dealing with the breakup of her marriage, she experienced intense pain for extended periods, but she goes on to say that ‘paying close attention’ is how she got through these times.  In her walks, she noticed the flowers in peoples’ gardens; she made friends with a cat she met each day; she watched trees bloom; she noticed fine details of the landscape.  From this and other experiences, she says, “The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight.  The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.”  I had not been paying attention; I was numb and inwardly focused on my own concerns and fears.

In A Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton records coming home after a painful, break-up week-end with her lover to her empty house.  Upon entering, she was stopped by the threshold by a ray of light on a Korean chrysanthemum, lighting it up like a spotlight, deep red petals and Chinese yellow center…Seeing it was like getting a transfusion of autumn….The loss of her lover was the wound; the response to the chrysanthemum, in the act of paying attention, was Sarton’s healing.

In pairing pain and paying attention, Julia says: “The reward for attention is always healing.  It may begin as the healing of a particular pain—lost lover, sick child, shattered dream.  But what is healed finally is the pain that underlies all pain: the pain that we all are, as Rilke phrases it, “unutterably alone.” (1)  But more than anything else, attention is the act of connection. For me, I desperately needed connection

I started to become aware, noticing where I had failed to pay attention.  For Mother’s Day, my son brought me peonies from his garden.  They were huge and lush.  Ants were crawling on them and when I started to brush one off, he said: “Oh, no.  The ants are what make the flowers open.  The leaves need the stimulation of the ants and the ants have their job.”  I stopped and paid attention as the leaves slowly, slowly unfolded over the next few days and moved to open to a beautiful yellow center.  In paying attention, I came in touch with a world I never knew and with this delight, there was no pain…only joy.

Carolyn M. Evertson (2013)


(1) Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet