Sh*t To Help You Show Up June 2, 2021
Soft Fascination & Discernment
When was the last time you spent more than a minute staring at clouds? Watching light filter through the leaves of a tree?
A few weeks back I wrote about the mechanics of discernment. Discernment is deep, moral, personal reflection, which is a necessary precursor to taking action that has integrity. But in the rush of daily life, the sense of obligation to engage in discernment can feel burdensome. Who has the energy for it?
I think it’s worth considering what has to happen before we can even get to discernment. How do we make space in our already overstuffed brains for that kind of deep reflection?
We have to rest our minds and rejuvenate our capacity for attention.
On Monday I had reached the limits of my capacity for focused attention. My brain felt stuffed and stagnant, like an old, dusty attic. So, I did one of the only constructive things I know to do in that situation. I headed out for a walk in the woods.
It turns out there is actually a formal term for the restorative frame of mind that I invite in when I head out into nature to “clear my head”— soft fascination. Soft fascination is the sort of effortless attention we experience in environments where there is just enough focus required to keep the mind engaged by default, but not so much that we have to engage in directed attention, which depletes our energy even if we’re focusing on stuff we want to focus on. Research suggests that soft fascination restores our mental energy, clears the way for deep reflection, and is most readily found in natural environments.
Though I am an unrepentant treehugger and have chosen, in part, to live in a smaller, greener community than the big city environments I grew up in exactly because more nature = better mental health for me, it is not necessary to have the time, inclination, or capacity to ramble around out of sight of much evidence of humans in order to experience soft fascination. Studies have shown that hospital patients who can see nature out of their window rather than walls “got out of the hospital faster, had fewer complications and required less pain medication”. Even patients in ICU, given the opportunity to look at pictures of natural environments, reduced their anxiety and need for pain medication.
If integrity and discernment feel burdensome to contemplate, if they feel like one more chore in the endless list of what must be done, step away, my friend. I am not here to lay another burden in your lap. Instead, take five minutes a day to reduce the unnecessary noise in your immediate environment as much as possible and look at the clouds, gaze at a tree outside your window, watch light rippling across the surface of a puddle, or contemplate the rain. If you can be outside engaging your body in a low-stimulation way, all the better, but it isn’t required. The noise reduction isn’t even required, though it will help rest your brain if you can manage it. If you can’t, though, don’t add to your stress by worrying about it.
The important thing is that anyone can do this, wherever they are. You don’t need to be surrounded by nature on all sides. You don’t have to engage in any kind of formal meditation. You don’t have to have “extra” time. Riding the bus to work? Put down your phone and gaze out the window. Maybe turn off the radio or your playlist while you’re driving, particularly on the highway. Take a lap around the block to get a break from your work screen, instead of scrolling on your phone. Step out on the porch (or the front steps, or the fire escape) after the kids are in bed.
I don’t know about you, but I am very aware that my capacity for focused attention has drastically reduced in the last dozen years or so. Even an hour of uninterrupted attention can be a struggle some days. And it’s no surprise. Even living in my relatively small city, my daily environment is increasingly overstimulating due to the ubiquity of social media and the constant pull of my cell phone.
That inability to sustain focused attention, however, reduces my capacity for integrity, so I have to first restore my mental energy. Soft fascination helps me. It will help you, too.
Thanks for reading, my loves! If you’re already a subscriber, my gratitude currently lays at your feet. If you’re not, I’ve always got more thanks to spread around. You can subscribe below.
Please share this edition of the newsletter with someone you think would benefit, or browse the archive and find another that moves you. This is a grassroots, crowd-disbursed art and love effort over here and I am grateful for your help getting the word out. XO, Asha