A is for Attention

[Part of the Pagan Blog Project]

I used to do a lot of horseback riding when I was a teenager, and a number of things from that time have stuck with me.

One of those was the way we pay attention. There’s a concept called “hard eye versus soft eye”. Hard eye is the directed focused attention, when you are honed in on a particular goal – pointing a horse at a fence, navigating an obstacle in a trail class, doing THAT thing right now.

Soft eye is letting things open up, to the edges of your peripheral vision. Being aware of that thing that’s coming up beside you – whether that’s another horse and rider, a branch, a random thing that will terrify the poor pitiful thousand pound prey animal you’d like to stay on top of. (With my beloved pony, that was sheep. She was terrified of them. Also deer.)

You need both kinds of vision – both kinds of attention – in your life sometimes, but in general, the more of your time you can spend in soft eye, the better it is for you. You take in more, for one thing. But you also are easier on your body. Things are flexible, gentle, open, able to respond to new input quickly. It’s harder to sneak up on you.

So, why am I talking about this in a post about Pagans and research and life? Because the same thing is true with research.


One way of doing research, of learning things, is that highly honed attention. Fixing on that one goal, that one moment, that one answer. And there are times that that is absolutely the right call: if we want to go to the movies tonight, finding out what’s playing when is going to take some attention, and it’s going to have a limited number of answers, and we need the right data.

A lot of formal academic school work is like that, for quite a long time, too. We’re doing things that require a particular focus, a particular format, a particular set of things we have to meet (so many pages, so many citations, demonstration that we can do X and Y and Z, whether X is “work with primary source documents” or “do a lab experiment and write it up.”)

Here’s the thing though: most of life isn’t like that.


In most places, what we want is soft-eye-research. The pieces that we take in slowly and gently over time, that come together to form a larger picture of the world, that give us context. So that when we do have a specific question, we have somewhere to start.

The thing is, we can build lives that make that easier. We can make space in our lives to read things or watch things or listen to things or talk with people or make things with our hands that give us more pieces of the larger world. I’m not just talking about the classics here, either – I’ve found that exposing myself, over and over, gently, to things that are well done, but that stretch my understanding, make my life richer, and give me more choices later.

I care that things are thoughtful about the context they’re in. But I learn from non-fiction books and fiction ones. From science fiction and fantasy and mysteries. From documentary movies and from TV shows. From webcomics and fanfiction. And from conversations with friends that start out about a mutual adoration of books, sidetrack through the power of simple food, and end up in a conversation about ethics, the power of speech and silence, and whether knowing the details of difficult things is necessary.

My tip for the week: pay attention to what’s drawing your attention.

I have a tendency to find myself drawn to a specific topic (it’s been everything from the history of museums to food and culture to bits of arcane music theory to astronomy). As I read more – often very broadly and deliberately including fiction and media sources as well as non-fiction and academic ones – I find myself sorting through something on a much larger scale than it first appeared.

How we tell stories about what matters to us. How food brings us together as a culture, and how we navigate different practical and cultural aspects of that. Why what we hear resonates with us and what that means about casual sound in our environment. And how the universe is an interlocking series of infinitely complicated parts that have an absurd number of moving layers.

I’m a better priestess, a better witch, a better Pagan because of those things in my brain. (And I’m also a better librarian, a better friend, and a better person. And I can cook awesome food now!)

But it’s not about the specific topics – that’s not what improved me. It was paying attention in the first place. And making space in my life to continue to do so.

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