Paying Attention


Mark Osborne’s wonderfully directed film The Little Prince, based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, captures the real spirit and beauty of the wonders of childhood and the joys of living 100% in the moment.

“You´re not perceiving what’s out there. You’re perceiving whatever your brain tells you.” ― David Eagleman

Dr. David Eagleman, the notable Neuroscientist and author of the book Incognito: The Secrets Lives of the Brain, showed that time is always relative to our experience. Einstein hinted as much in his own scientific experiments. We also know, at least subconsciously,  that time expands and contracts based on our levels and quality of perception. For instance, whenever we face life threatening situations or novel encounters, time seems to take longer and the memory of it lingers for a more notable overall experience. Car accidents and scary spiders come to mind. So do first dates and big pay raises. More importantly for us artists is that our perception and ability to express our experience of what we see is crucial to our work.


Infinity by M.C. Escher. Escher’s work is both intriguing, creative and mind-boggling. What is real, what is logical and what is not? Perception is relative and thus experience.

Time, and our level of attention in a sense, are intricately related. Things are hardly objective. We’re more often wrong than right in our estimations of the longevity of events or the size and color of things. Contrast is what helps us identify things and helps us make sense of it. Relativity matters. The quality of our interpretation matters. And when it comes to living, we know that time poorly spent is time that’s forgettable. What doesn’t really grab our attention vanishes into the ether.

“When you kill time, remember that it has no resurrection.” ― A.W. Tozer

Paying attention to things changes everything. Our ability to focus and our sincerity of attention to something changes our relationship with it. Look at our efforts long enough and you can either begin to see what’s not working  or we begin to see in it what we want to see. There’s no laws or rules of logic here. It’s up to us how we respond to the things around us and how we make our art.

Yoda gives Luke SkyWalker a lesson in focus and faith in George Lucas’ landmark 1977 film, Star Wars.

Slowing down to see things clearly and really giving something the due time and thought opens up our ability to perceive but also to receive. Perception is heavily dependent on our reception to the data in front of us and vice versa. It’s why a teacher or a master can see things the student or novice can’t — experienced eyes see farther and deeper. Great artists respond to their art as much as they envision or create it.


The longingly romantic film In The Mood For Love, starring Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, is a beautiful and moving viewing experience. Auteur Hong Kong film-maker Wong Kar-Wei is notorious for not following a strict outline when filming his scenes yet his movies seem to glide effortlessly and elegantly all the while delivering powerful statements about the human condition.

That said, really paying attention is tough and it’s why attention is something that needs to be practiced — an ability that needs to be developed. It’s why ancient civilizations, from the Native American Indians to the Taoist Chinese, adapted to ways of living that paid great respect to their surroundings — by listening and abiding by the laws of nature. They developed techniques — like meditation, prayer or spiritual dance — so they could attune to its forces and be aligned with the universe, to gain clairvoyance and live conscientiously. It’s not surprising that even today, those who devote regular episodes to such practices achieve greater levels of happiness and fulfillment at greater rates of frequency.


A visually memorable and profound scene from Kim Ki-Duk’s serene and critically acclaimed 2003 film, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Spring.

As artists, we need our attention to be razor sharp. The conscious practice of mindful attentiveness helps. In many ways we’re not too different from athletes or musicians or stage actors; we need to perform when it counts and that performance hinges heavily, not only on preparedness and planning, but an acute ability to see and react with clarity and precision. Without such focus, it’s not possible to have any sort of boldness of action in living and being true to ourselves. Too many artists (in both the commercial and fine art camps) scramble mindlessly, hoping only that the mess in front of them becomes something usable. Haphazard approaches often lead to haphazard results.


Excavation by Willem De Kooning. People get the wrong idea that abstract artists just messed around hoping for something to come to form. There is much deliberation and internalization prior to what seems to look like mere “action” painting. De Kooning, like Franz Kline, Vasily Kandinsky and many others were thinkers who felt very strongly about their ideas and their technique.

Many artists, both young and old, rush through their choices, actions and responses. The young do it out of immaturity, impatience or lack of knowledge, while the old do it out of habit, laziness and loss of inspirational spirit. When this happens, we can’t make the best choices, and hardly ever does it make for something unique or original. Remember that it’s new experiences that jostle our minds and bodies.

In Dr. Eagleman’s discovery of the cognitive phenomenon called repetition suppression, it seems that “once the brain has been exposed repeatedly to the same stimuli, it doesn’t have to expend as much time and energy recognizing it.”  In other words, with new experience the brain makes quite the effort to absorb, interpret and store the information but once it’s recognized, any subsequent repetition of the same stimuli loses its shock power and we begin to formulate shortcuts to save both time and energy. This principle is what makes habits both effective and dangerous. The efficiency created by this biological ingenuity is also what sacrifices the novelty of experience. This is harmful to the artist who is trying to do something new.


Guernica by Pablo Picasso was his statement about how he felt about the war in his native Spain and is one the most powerful pieces of political art ever created. Much of what makes Picasso so fascinating has a lot to do with his constant reach for new ways of seeing and new ways of interpreting the world around us. Few artists stretched themselves in so many different aspects of visual art.

How do we keep things fresh then? Especially when so much of life seems so regimented and repetitious? How do we fight off our tendencies to just react as usual, short-cutting our experiences?

Dr. Eagleman’s own suggestion to this dilemma is both simple and incredibly profound: engage in life-long learning.  Being a dedicated artist demands everything we’ve got as human beings. You’ve got to engage in it, love it and nurture it. We create our art and it in turn creates us. And this thing —  this way of living, this challenging road towards mastery — will take up an entire lifetime. Learning is hard, but it’s truly the most interesting and fulfilling way to live each and every day. We must allow more moments that force us to think, see and behave differently — and always with a greater mind and more open heart.

“The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.” — Molière

Our biology and our ability to survive owes a lot to habits and building efficiency but it also depends on our ability to innovate and see things anew. We grow by breaking new ground. Creativity is one of the biggest things that separate man from beast. And when the opportunity arises, we must give it our all; we must make it personal. To derive what we can from our direct experience is to accept the challenge that’s directly presented to us.


Sunbather. British artist David Hockney’s art is intensely personal. He moved to sunny California and painted his experiences there. His paintings consists of people and places he knew intimately and to this day they remain as fresh and innovative as they did when he made them.

Learning encourages physical and direct interaction, both with nature and our fellow human beings. It’s why feedback is important and how we respond to criticism. We also learn when we alter our schedules or our environments. I personally re-arrange my home and studio set up every six to eight months, and each time I do so, it seems that not only do I feel re-invigorated creatively but I’ve actually gained more physical space and openness! (Another skill developed!)

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” — Heraclitus

But as amazing as a change in scenery can do for our minds, the most important thing is how we choose to interpret our circumstances. Learning to live a creative life is in many ways about interpretation — finding ways of seeing it all fresh, with a new mind as much as a new set of eyes. Learning is growth. This is what raises our odds of getting the most out of life. If we do that, anything anywhere at anytime can be exciting and inspiring. Being an artist is both fun and a privilege. So be grateful about choosing a life dedicated to learning, creation and contribution. We just have to remember to pay attention.


Stanley Kubrick on the set of The Shining. Kubrick was always tackling something new. Visually and thematically he dared and devoted himself to explore as many genres of cinema and human history as he could. His films couldn’t be more diverse, ranging from dark comedy (Dr. Strangelove) and drama (Eyes Wide Shut) to ancient history (Spartacus) and far into the future (2001: A Space Odyssey).