Pay attention, be astonished.

Getty Images

Getty Images

Pay attention, be astonished.
— Mary Oliver

You may recall the 2007 story of internationally renowned American classical musician Joshua Bell performing as a busker in Washington D.C.’s Union Station. It was a social experiment orchestrated by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten to see if people would pay attention to a world-class musician playing in an unexpected location. For 45 rush-hour minutes, Bell gave an all-out musical performance. He played some of the world’s most intricate pieces on his 3.5-million-dollar violin and later noted that it had been some of his best work. Only six people stopped to listen to Bell that day and the musician (who is used to filling concert halls) made a total of $32.00. In his article, Pearls before breakfast, Weingarten noted, [w]atching the video weeks later, Bell finds himself mystified by one thing only. He understands why he’s not drawing a crowd, in the rush of a morning workday. But: “I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all as if I’m invisible.”

The truth is, that as we make our way through our daily lives, much of the world is invisible to us. Daniel Siegel, a clinical professor at the UCLA School of Medicine and Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute attributes our tendency to overlook much of our daily experiences to the top-down sensory processing that happens in our brains. In his book, The Mindful Brain, Siegel explains that our brain is quick to fill in what we are experiencing in the moment with our stockpile of previous experiences. Our cerebral cortex, after all, is a pattern detector and an anticipation machine. It helps us to efficiently move through our day. When we see a flower, for example, our brain uses its memory bank to tell us it is a flower, but we don’t see what is unique or novel about the flower in our field of view. In truth, we aren’t truly seeing that flower, or that busker, or what is unique and beautiful about our partner or child today. Instead, we are seeing the accumulation of our past and the result is a duller and more predictable view of the world.

According to Siegel, our real challenge as adults is to not let the evolutionary adaptation of our cerebral cortex to remove us from life as we are experiencing it. Rather, by taking the opportunity to be in the present moment, by accessing bottom-up sensory processing, we awaken ourselves to the miracle of being alive. We awaken to what is unpredictable and beautiful in every moment as we live it.



If you have a moment or two, you can experiment with bottom-up sensory processing:

  • First, find something in your life that you see every day. It could be a flower in your garden, a piece of furniture, a piece of art that hangs on your wall, your spouse, your dog or even your own body part.

  • Take a full minute to really notice what is unique about what you are looking at. See with new eyes, like you have never seen it before; notice its shape, colour(s) and texture.

When we take the time to really see what is novel about something we begin to tap into our bottom-up sensory processing. We are seeing that flower, our spouse or our dog, not for what we remember them to be, but for what they are right now.



A few years ago, on a 10-day silent meditation retreat, I was overcome by how beautiful the ordinary can be. I was at lunch, later on in the retreat, when I became completely mesmerized by a muffin I was eating. Now, rest assured, it was a completely normal and average muffin. There was nothing extraordinary about it and had I not been on this retreat it is very likely that I would have gobbled it up without incident. On this day, however, after days of training my mind to be present, I sat in complete awe of the flavours, textures and colours in this one simple muffin. It seems a bit strange to share this now, but my experience with that completely average muffin literally reduced me to tears.

In that moment I realized, with a visceral kind of certainty, how much beauty I miss on a regular basis.

What is overlooked when our minds are lost in thought – thinking about the past or the future? What do we miss when we allow our minds to fill in sensory information with our past knowledge versus our present experience?

It is American poet Mary Oliver who reminds us to, “pay attention, be astonished”. When we anchor ourselves in the present moment, we connect to a world where every busker is a world-class performer and the joy in life is found - not in making plans or being prompt and on schedule - but in seeing and appreciating what is unique and special about the moment we are in.